know that you belong to a particular group. When you’re cover-ing,
people know that you belong to that particular group either
because you’re unable or unwilling to hide it but you nonetheless
experience pressure to downplay it.
For example, there’s very little a woman could do to pass as a
man in the workplace, but she will experience enormous amounts
of pressure to downplay the fact that she’s a woman to low-er
the salience of that in her actions with others. She might, for
example, downplay her childcare responsibilities or her family
In your book, you note that most people engage in cover-ing
to some extent. If everyone is doing it, is it a prob-lematic
KY: It’s not problematic in every instance. There are many forms
of covering that people would assume are completely appropri-ate.
In this conversation, for example, for me to speak English or
use basic manners would be forms of assimilation to mainstream
norms. So I’m not saying that those are problematic.
When it does become problematic is when it flouts or violates
an organizational value. I’m often asked, given that we accept
that some forms of covering are appropriate, how to distinguish
between the good and the bad forms. My one-word answer to that
In a survey I did with Deloitte in 2013, if many people said
they have to cover their political affiliation, for example – whether
they’re a Republican, a Democrat, or conservative or liberal – our
attitude was no harm, no foul, because none of the organizations
in the survey said this is one of our core values of inclusion. It’s
when the form of covering actually touches on something the or-ganization
says is a core value of inclusion – for example, every
organization in our survey believed that inclusion on the basis of
gender was fundamental to their mission. To have every organiza-tion
have respondents who said, “I have to downplay the fact that I
have childcare responsibilities, as a woman,” is very troubling.
So regarding the question that if everyone does it, why is cov-ering
such a problematic practice, I would say it’s not always a
problematic practice. But when you have a covering demand
that is inconsistent with the organization’s values, then you have
It’s a problem if an organization says they want to be inclusive
on the basis of race or sexual orientation but then you have minor-ities
who say they feel uncomfortable. It’s a problem if they feel like
there would be some kind of penalty if they joined an employee re-source
group, or if a gay person who is comfortable saying they’re
gay but would never bring a same-sex partner to a work function
because they would feel uncomfortable and make their sexual ori-entation
too salient in the organization. Those are the kinds of
“trip wires” that push me to believe that those particular forms of
covering demands are problematic.
In what ways do you think organizations – whether they
intend to or not – create this environment where em-ployees
feel the need to cover?
KY: I think it’s largely inadvertent and I think it has to do with the
fact that organizations are structured, historically, in a way to ex-clude
many groups that now populate their ranks.
Back in the day, there were no women, no racial minorities, no
LGBT individuals or people with disabilities allowed, whether
that was by law or simply by practice. The workplace tended to be
dominated by straight, white, able-bodied men. So it’s no surprise
that as workplaces become more diverse, they still remain not as
inclusive as they could be because culture is very sticky. Even after
you’ve formally included other groups, the norms have been hand-ed
down from generation to generation to embody a certain set of
values, and those values have not been created with the participa-tion
of newcomers to the workplace in mind.
It’s no surprise, for example, that women would be asked to
downplay their childcare responsibilities if the traditional model
of the ideal worker in the workplace was a man with a stay-at-home
wife who was doing all the childcare work for him.
How does this harm the organization as a whole?
KY: That’s a great question because we really wanted to make sure
we were talking about something that was harmful to an organi-zation.
If people who were covering felt that, yes, this is a form
of assimilation to the workplace that’s required and it’s not that
harmful, then there’s not really a problem.
In 2013, Kenji Yoshino and Deloitte partnered to conduct
a survey to measure the prevalence of covering in the
workplace along the four axes: appearance, affiliation,
advocacy and association. (The results of that survey are
published in the 2013 Deloitte white paper Uncovering
Talent: A New Model of Inclusion.)
The survey was distributed to employees in organizations
spanning ten different industries. The 3,129 respondents
included a mix of ages, genders, races/ethnicities and
orientations. The respondents also came from different
levels of seniority within their organizations.
Sixty-one per cent of respondents reported covering along
at least one axis at work:
■■ 83% of LGBT individuals cover
■■ 79% of black people cover
■■ 67% of women of colour cover
■■ 66% of women cover
■■ 63% of Hispanics cover
■■ 45% of straight white men cover
Covering occurred with greater frequency within groups
that have been historically underrepresented. At the same
time, 45 per cent of straight white men – who have not been
the focus of most inclusion efforts – reported covering.
28 ❚ JANUARY 2018 ❚ HR PROFESSIONAL