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Downplaying identity to blend into a workplace hurts both the individual and the organization. Author and NYU law professor Kenji YoshinO discusses the phenomenon and offers advice on how HR CAN handle it.

By Melissa Campeau

Kenji Yoshino is Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law and the director of the Centre for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging with NYU School of Law in New York. He’s also the author of Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights (published in 2006).

HR Professional spoke to Yoshino about covering, its impact on the individual and workplace and what HR can do to ensure a more authentically inclusive workplace.

What is covering?

Kenji Yoshino: Covering is downplaying a known stigmatized identity to blend into the mainstream. It differs from the more familiar term “passing” in that when you’re passing, people do not know that you belong to a particular group. When you’re covering, 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 lower the salience of that in her actions with others. She might, for example, downplay her childcare responsibilities or her family responsibilities.

Who Covers?

9bIn 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.

In your book, you note that most people engage in covering to some extent. If everyone is doing it, is it a problematic practice?

KY: It’s not problematic in every instance. There are many forms of covering that people would assume are completely appropriate. 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 is values.

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 organization 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 organization have respondents who said, “I have to downplay the fact that I have childcare responsibilities, as a woman,” is very troubling.

“Even after you’ve formally included other groups, the norms have been handed down from generation to generation to embody a certain set of values, and those values have not been created with the participation of newcomers to the workplace in mind.”

So regarding the question that if everyone does it, why is covering 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 a problem.

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 minorities 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 resource 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 orientation 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 employees 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 exclude 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 handed down from generation to generation to embody a certain set of values, and those values have not been created with the participation 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 organization. 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.

So we asked in our survey what are the harms to the individual and what are the harms to the organization.

With regard to harm to individuals, we adopted a relatively parsimonious definition of harm. Even with this definition, we still found that of respondents who said they had to cover in the workplace, 60 to 73 per cent, depending on the axis [see sidebar], said that it was somewhat to extremely detrimental to their sense of self.

Then with regard to the organizations, we asked, “If your leaders expect you to cover, then how does that affect your commitment to the organization?” More than half, 53 per cent of people, said their leaders did expect them to cover and of that 53 per cent, 50 per cent said that it somewhat to extremely diminished their commitment to the organization. For us, that tells its own story if organizations are looking for the leak in the pipeline – where they are losing people even with very diverse workforces. In addition to simply having people walk out the door, organizations are also worried about people burning out or browning out when they’re sitting at their desks. We felt we had gotten a key piece of data when we saw that result.

One of the things that’s exciting at this moment in time is that there’s a lot of research been done on psychological safety and authenticity. Psychological safety, a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, refers to a climate of interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which one is confident being one’s self. There’s a direct link between psychological safety which leads to authenticity which leads to higher performance. Google, for example, did a great study of their 80 top performing teams and they found the highest correlate for high performance was the existence of psychological safety.

What changes can organizations make to improve in this area?

KY: We talked about the question, “If everyone has to cover then why is this a big deal? Isn’t this just a pact everyone makes when they go into the workplace?”

I want to turn that universality on its head and say that any paradigm of diversity and inclusion that doesn’t include straight white men is a failed paradigm. So when we see that 45 per cent of straight white men report covering [see sidebar], we have to become curious about how they cover. The answers include things like socioeconomic status, background, mental disability or illness, age, religion, veteran status; there are myriad ways that straight white men cover.

I think once you see that, then it becomes a universal project of making the workplace consistent with the organization’s values. Allow for more authenticity, which we know from the Google study and other studies is highly correlated with retention and performance. It’s not diverse individuals versus non-diverse individuals. Everyone has some axis of difference from the mainstream so this really has to be a universal project of authenticity rather than a specific project about particular groups. That said – and I know this is going to sound potentially contradictory, but I think we have to live in this tension – on the one hand, it’s a universal project; on the other hand, we have to contrast the 45 per cent of straight white men who reported covering with the 83 per cent of LGBT individuals who reported covering. Once we understand that no cohort is immune from the past, then we can become more attentive to the fact that people pay this tax at different rates and that organizations need to really educate themselves about the specific ways in which individuals cover.

The first prescription that we have is diagnosis. We can’t do anything until we diagnose the covering demands that particular groups are subjected to. I mentioned before that there are four axes of covering: One is appearance, one is affiliation including cultural affiliation, one is advocacy (not sticking up for people in your own group or feeling pressure to not stick up for people in your own group) and the last one is association or not being with people of your own group. Until we can diagnose those four axes of covering, we won’t be able to retire them.

The Axes of Covering

In 1963, sociologist Erving Goffman coined the term “covering.” In 2006, Kenji Yoshino further developed the concept, outlining the four axes along which individuals can cover: appearance, affiliation, advocacy and association.
Appearance-based covering concerns how individuals alter their self-presentation – including grooming, attire and mannerisms – to blend into the mainstream. For instance, a black woman might straighten her hair to de-emphasize her race.

Affiliation-based covering concerns how individuals avoid behaviours widely associated with their identity, often to negate stereotypes about that identity. A woman might avoid talking about being a mother because she does not want her colleagues to think she is less committed to her work.

Advocacy-based covering concerns how much individuals “stick up for” their group. A veteran might refrain from challenging a joke about the military, lest she be seen as overly strident.
Association-based covering concerns how individuals avoid contact with other group members. A gay person might refrain from bringing his same-sex partner to a work function so as not to be seen as “too gay.”

The second is what we call an active ally strategy. The idea is that covering demands are so infinitesimal; they’re so numerous and so tiny in the sense that we’re talking about micro interactions between individuals such that an organization or a chief diversity officer or a single HR person isn’t going to be able to do anything about it. You really have to train teams and managers and everyone in the organization to interrupt these covering demands as such and be active allies in that productive interruption.

And the final one is to share your story or role model what forms of authenticity are consistent with organizational values. One of the things we learned from our survey is that people really wanted their leaders to go first, or they weren’t going to go at all. Leaders have the power to set the culture for the workplace. One of the things we’ve found to be extraordinarily powerful, and Deloitte has adopted a version of this itself, is the practice of leaders at the top sharing their stories so you get a kind of bank of stories within the organization that act as a model. That will differ from organization to organization but when a leader gets up and does something that’s not “too much information” but does colour outside of the bounds of a traditional resume, that is extremely powerful and people respond very well to that.

For starters, I would say to do those three things. Diagnose the covering demands that are going on in your organization, train your people to be active allies to each other in the project of uncovering talent, consistent with values of organization, then have leaders share their stories to model what it would look like to share a story that was consistent with the values of the organization.

Do you have any suggestions for strategic steps an organization can take to ensure a more authentically inclusive environment?

KY: This is going to be a leap of imagination in some ways, but bear with me. It’s one of the things we’re exploring with the [Centre for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at NYU School of Law] and it’s been really wonderful. I gave a bunch of talks at a management consultancy and the leader there said, “Look, you have the best concept but you don’t have the best delivery.” Frankly, I was a little offended and sad because I’d won all these teaching awards and I think of myself as a very good lecturer. Then my colleague said it had nothing to do with me; it’s not that I’m a lecturer, it’s the fact that I’m lecturing. So I said, tell me more, I’m interested. She told me so much of the learning in her organization now uses theatre to disseminate ideas. That sounded a bit hokey and too avant-garde for us, but she encouraged me to come and see. I did and I thought it was transformative and brilliant.

So, what we’ve now done at the Centre is we have a Broadway director and a whole cast of actors. These actors take the data we’ve collected and then play out the uncovering talent scenes. We then get the audience to spot diversity and inclusion issues that are present in the scenes, and the scenes aren’t parodic, they’re quite nuanced and ambiguous. We want people to wrestle with ambiguities in the scene and see different things, as much as drive a particular message home. We found this to be extraordinarily effective as a mode of learning. So it’s not just that we have a new idea, it’s that we have a new delivery method for the idea, too. 

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