We all want to feel like we can be ourselves, don’t we? But did you know that as many as 61% of us are hiding or downplaying parts of our identity at work? We call this ‘covering’.
Often, we change the way we look, speak or act to get away from stereotypes linked with our identity, or to avoid being singled out, isolated or treated unfairly.
Covering can take many forms and affect people from all minority groups – and it’s what happens when people don’t feel comfortable to be themselves. Social scientists have actually researched this area and found there are 4 main ways we tend to cover or mask parts of our identity at work.
Types of Covering
Appearance-based covering means we change the way we look to fit in with the mainstream. This might mean not wearing anything that associates you with your religion or faith, like a cross, star of David or a hair covering for example. Maybe you hide your tattoos to appear more professional or avoid wearing natural hairstyles like braids or dreadlocks to fit in a majority Caucasian workplace.
Affiliation-based covering means we try not to act in ways that fit with stereotypes linked to our identity. Parents might choose not to talk about their family commitments to avoid being seen as less committed to work, for example, or a Black woman might go out of her way to be friendly and non-confrontational to avoid being labelled as ‘angry’.
Advocacy-based covering means we avoid speaking up for a group we identify with when we hear negative comments about them. For example a Gen Z employee staying quiet when they hear others commenting on the fact young people aren’t hard workers, or the only woman in the room not intervening when male colleagues dismiss a female client as overly emotional.
And association-based covering means we avoid contact with other members of our group to avoid being lumped together. This might look like never taking your partner to work social events so that colleagues don’t find out you’re gay, for example. Or avoiding joining the disabled employee network so as not to draw attention to your own health condition.
Why Covering is a problem (and what we can do about it)
So why is covering a problem? Well, for one thing, it can lead to homogenous workplaces where everyone feels pressure to be the same. Multiple studies have shown that diversity is good for business – it’s our differences that help us tackle problems from many angles, come up with new and varied ideas, and provide great service to a range of customers.
So it’s in everyone’s best interests that we bring every part of ourselves to work.
And we can do this by consciously and deliberately changing our workplaces and working cultures so that people no longer feel the need to ‘cover’.
Ask yourself: are there aspects of your identity that you cover at work? Were you even aware you were doing it? Question the stereotypes you hold and whether they’re causing colleagues to hold back parts of themselves.
Welcome and celebrate difference on your team, and if you share your full self, this might encourage your colleagues to do so too.