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Covering: A Serious Obstacle To Inclusion

Covering: A Serious Obstacle to Inclusion

This blog has often explained how diversity helps organizations succeed.  But diversity alone is not enough.  To unlock the benefits of diversity, employees with diverse lived experiences must feel included.  When these employees feel comfortable, they bring their full talents to bear for the employer.  But when employees from diverse backgrounds feel insecure, they downplay their differences.  When these employees diminish their identities, businesses lose the benefit of their unique perspectives.  This practice, known as known as covering, must be confronted for organizations to achieve inclusion.

But when employees from diverse backgrounds feel insecure, they downplay their differences. When these employees diminish their identities, businesses lose the benefit of their unique perspectives. Click To Tweet

Covering: What Is It?

Every person belongs to one or more cultures.  In the U.S., the macro- or dominant culture is defined by those who are white, straight, and male.  Members of the non-dominant culture often downplay the ways that they differ from the dominant culture.  Psychologists call this behavior “covering.”

According to researchers Kenji Yoshino and Christie Smith, covering takes four different forms.  Some workers cover their appearance.  For example, some African American women straighten their hair.  In the 1980s, women wore suits with masculine features such as shoulder pads.  These actions help nondominant employees fit into the dominant culture.

The second form of covering is affiliation.  In affiliation, an Asian American person might avoid math or other pursuits wrongly linked to Asian culture.  A woman might resist the urge to discuss childcare or eldercare obligations for fear of being seen as a caregiver.  Employees hope to downplay any negative stereotypes associated with their culture.

Advocacy is the third form of covering.  Employees engaged in this type of covering refuse to advocate for their group.  For example, if an employer makes a racist reference or joke, employees of color might resist the natural impulse to respond for fear of being seen as too militant.

Finally, in association-based covering, employees avoid interacting too often or too deeply with other members of their group.  So, a woman might decline a request to mentor women newer to the organization for fear that she will be seen as “the female mentor” rather than “the mentor.”  A lesbian might avoid bringing her spouse to work functions to avoid being perceived as “too gay.”  By limiting their in-group interactions, employees seek to minimize their membership in nondominant groups.

While covering takes many forms, in each form, diverse employees feel the need to change themselves to fit into the dominant culture.

Why Covering Matters

Covering may not seem like a major issue.  After all, can an employee’s choice of clothing or refusal to mentor someone matter that much?  The answer is yes.

Covering is widespread.  Yoshino and Smith found that 61 percent of employees engaged in some form of covering.  However, the rate varied among groups.  The study found that 83 percent of LBGT employees covered, as well as 79 percent of African American workers, 66 percent of female employees, and 63 percent of Latinx employees.  Employees also attempted to cover their physical disabilities, mental health issues, and prior military service.  Clearly, covering is a common practice.

Covering harms employees in a variety of ways.  Covering often diverts the employees’ energy and attention.  According to FastCompany, “Employees might spend so much psychic energy trying to hide their family responsibilities, health problems, or sexual orientation from colleagues, that they are distracted from their professional objectives.”  Of course, time spent covering is time not spent being a productive worker.

Covering also hurts employees’ chances for advancement.  In most organizations, promotions are based on a mix of work performance and office relationships.  But according to FastCompany, “Employees who feel the need to hide parts of their private lives at work also struggle to build close bonds with their colleagues, which makes it hard for them to establish strong networks of support.”

Covering also hurts companies by limiting their ability to attract and promote diverse talent.  Yoshino and Smith found that 50 percent of employees who covered wanted to leave their companies for one where they could feel free to be themselves.  One employee remarked that if given the option, “I’d switch in a heartbeat.”   Given the high cost of replacing employees, organizations would do well to make their current employees feel respected and valued.

How Organizations Can Combat Covering

Covering causes major problems for organizations.  Luckily, there are things leaders can do to keep their employees less focused on hiding their identity and more focused on being productive.  To combat covering, organizations should create inclusive environments that make all employees feel genuinely welcomed.

Leaders can adopt a number of changes to make a workplace more inclusive.  A Harvard Business Review article by Christie Smith lists a few steps organizations can take to deter covering.  Smith notes that because covering is so widespread, engaging employees in conversations about covering can help employees – including straight white males – better understand diversity.  Smith also recommends using data to track hiring and promotion practices rather than trusting leaders to be unbiased.  Finally, she suggests that managers speak up about the aspects of their organization’s culture that might inspire covering.  While organizations can certainly use other methods to create inclusion, every organization should adopt inclusion practices to get the most out of their workforce.

Employees cover because they fear that if they do not, they will be punished for their differences.  Fearful employees spend time and energy worrying or looking for new positions. By contrast, when employees feel safe, they work hard and remain loyal to the organization and the values it advances.  To learn more about covering, culture, and other ways to make your workplace more welcoming, enroll in the Equity Toolkit e-courses.  The Equity Toolkit is an interactive, four-course online series containing essential, research-based concepts on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.

DeEtta Jones

DeEtta Jones is an invited speaker, equity, diversity and inclusion strategy consultant and author with more than twenty years of experience working with people from around the world to on personal effectiveness and building workforce capacity.

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