Have you ever felt forced to suppress your true self in an effort to survive in the workplace? If so, you’re not the only one.
According to Uncovering Talent: A New Model of Inclusion—a study by Kenji Yoshino and Christie Smith for Deloitte University—many in the workplace do this. It’s called “covering” and is defined as “downplaying a known stigmatized identity.”
Yoshino and Smith identified 4 main categories in which people feel the need to downplay their identities:
- Appearance: individuals change grooming, attire, and mannerisms (e.g., tattoos, dreadlocks).
- Affiliation: individuals do not talk about meaningful relationships (e.g., motherhood).
- Advocacy: individuals avoid specific topics related to identity (e.g., veteran status).
- Association: individuals avoid being around specific people (e.g., lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people).
This is a very personal topic for me because I too felt the disconcerting need to cover at work. During my years in corporate jobs, I was afraid I would be judged and marginalized or stigmatized because of various aspects of my identity.
In retrospect, I see that I was carrying an assumption that my colleagues wouldn’t be able to “handle it.” So, instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt, I withheld parts of myself that might make them feel uncomfortable. I did the covering for them. I worried that people would like me less if they knew who I really was, or that they might even view me negatively. I avoided sharing personal stories, and never talked about what I did on the weekend.
Eventually, I got sick of it and walked into my boss’s office with a picture of my partner, Michelle. “I want you to know about this person who is so important to me,” I told her.
She looked surprised for a moment. And why wouldn’t she be? We all make assumptions, in spite of our best intentions. Maybe I don’t fit a stereotype of what someone in the LGBT community looks like. But she smiled and asked me about Michelle. I was so relieved to come out of that dark, dark closet.
For diverse talent, the burden of representing an entire community—and continuing to be true to oneself when feeling utterly isolated—can be exhausting. And successfully recruiting someone doesn’t mean much if you can’t retain them due to workplace culture issues where they spend valuable energy managing their safety concerns.
So, the question is: How to stop the pricey, morale-busting revolving door that long-term covering can cause?
INQUIRY AND ACTIONS TO REDUCE COVERING
The best first step toward designing a successful inclusion strategy for a diverse workplace is to listen to what your employees are saying. It seems obvious, but true listening is in short supply in our frenetic, hierarchical world.
However afraid you are to understand the issues in your organization and bring them to light (and however much your legal team advises against it), knowledge is power—but it has to be done in a respectful and culturally competent way.
At my consulting firm, we recommend and facilitate like-affinity focus groups as a powerful tool to figure out where the pain points are within organizations and certain diverse communities, while also identifying what works and what employees love about coming to work.
We usually share the following tactical recommendations to get started:
- Don’t be afraid to recommend focus groups by affinity.
The safety of an exclusive conversation of employees with a shared identity is a powerful experience for participants and will yield the richest and most accurate insights. People will appreciate being asked to participate and actually get excited that they are being invited to a forum to discuss their experiences.
- Think beyond race and gender for your affinity groupings.
Include groups for individuals who identify as LGBTQ, allies, disabilities if possible, millennials and other generations, as well as white men. Ask the same, general, open-ended questions across the board, and you will be intrigued by the similarities, as well as stark differences, that will show up and which are critical to be aware of.
- Organizations have to create a safe place for employees to be vulnerable and honest.
No direct-reporting relationships should be present in the room when preparing focus groups or asking for employee feedback.
- It’s also useful to engage an outside contractor to conduct focus groups for you, rather than tasking your HR team.
When employees feel they are being watched, especially by someone with any sort of relationship to performance reviews, they will be reluctant to speak candidly, and you won’t get the critical information you need to move forward strategically and holistically.
Perhaps not surprisingly, focus groups can cause anxiety among employees and employers alike. They often serve as the vents where many of the suppressed emotions and pain points around diversity surface, particularly in an otherwise silent or constrained workplace. As a result, some may express concerns about the intent of the exercise or oppose it altogether.
Once people hear the feedback, however, they realize that we’ve created an environment where it’s safe for all participants to reveal more of who they are, be honest about their experiences, connect into a community, and get excited that the company is finally looking at their challenges with a closer eye.
This is one of the easiest ways I know to boost morale, not destroy it.
In fact, it’s one of the most effective change tools we use. The very act of conducting focus groups can cause a seismic shift in the conversation.
Gathering feedback is instructive as well as inspirational for many. Participants consider offering their name and resources, leading the charge for new initiatives and bolstering the effort—all because they’ve been asked and included.
This is just the start of what’s possible when an employee feels welcomed, valued, respected, and heard.
Author: Jennifer Brown is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker and diversity and inclusion expert. Informed by more than a decade consulting to Fortune 500 companies, her new book entitled Inclusion: Diversity, the New Workplace & the Will to Change (Advantage Media Group, November 2016) creates a compelling case for leadership to embrace the opportunity that diversity represents, for their own growth and for the success of their organizations, while simultaneously empowering advocates at all levels to find their voice and be a driving force in creating more enlightened organizations that resonate in a fast-changing world.
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