Diversity and Inclusion

Are You “Covering” at Work? You’re Not Alone

Earlier in my career, a company where I worked gave out Christmas tree ornaments as a holiday gift. I often wear a Star of David necklace, but I didn’t wear it to that job, because I wasn’t sure how my coworkers would react.

As companies strive to build diverse teams where everyone feels included, the reality is more complicated. Even in the most diverse work environments, people often feel pressure to downplay certain aspects of their identity on a daily basis. This phenomenon is known as “covering.”

I wish nobody felt the need to cover, but I’m glad the term exists. There is power in putting a name to what you are feeling and/or experiencing, and it’s important for people who are covering to understand that they aren’t alone. In this spirit, I’m writing this post to share what I’ve learned about covering.

The term was coined in 1963 by sociologist Erving Goffman, and legal scholar Kenji Yoshino explored the topic in depth in his 2006 book Covering: The Hidden Assault On Our Civil Rights.

People “cover” aspects of their identity for different reasons, many of which are associated with their chances of professional advancement. Some cover for internal reasons, either because they want to break the stereotypes associated with a particular group or because they want to better fit the mold of what a leader looks like in their organization. Others cover to meet their colleagues’ spoken (or unspoken) expectations. Yoshino breaks covering into four areas:

  • Appearance: Changing what you look like to blend in with others. Example: A Black woman who straightens her hair only because all of her Black coworkers straighten theirs.
  • Affiliation: Avoiding behaviors that are associated with a particular identity. Example: A mother who doesn’t put photos of her children on her desk, because she thinks she’ll be taken less seriously.
  • Advocacy: Playing down your connections to a particular group. Example: A woman who volunteers with her church every weekend avoids mentioning her religious activities while chatting with her colleagues.
  • Association: Avoiding contact with other members of a particular group. Example: Even though she is out at work, a lesbian woman doesn’t feel comfortable bringing her partner to a work-hosted social event.

You may not relate to the four examples above, but chances are, you’ve engaged in covering at work. In 2019, Yoshino partnered with Deloitte on the study Uncovering Talent, which surveyed more than 3000 people in ten industries. They found that 66% of women and 67% of women of color reported covering.

Because we’re all individuals, covering looks different from person to person.

A woman might be urged to be more aggressive and “act like a man.” People of color may feel pressure to “act white.” Someone with a disability might keep their assistive device out of sight. Maybe you have an unusual first name and find it easier to go by a nickname than to correct others’ pronunciation. Maybe you use vacation days to treat a health condition you’ve never mentioned to your coworkers. Maybe you make sure that all of your work outfits hide your tattoo. All of these behaviors are stressful in different ways, and hiding your authentic self is exhausting.

To succeed at work, you need to be able to focus your attention on your job, not on managing aspects of your identity. 

If you notice yourself covering, pay attention to that feeling and think about why you’re doing it. To succeed at work, you need to be able to focus your attention on your job, not on managing aspects of your identity.  You deserve a workplace where the real you feels welcome.

Is there a safe way to share your story at work? If you have a work friend you trust, consider opening up to them. Disclosing something personal might feel scary, but when you show your true self — even just to one person — your willingness to be vulnerable opens a door for them to do the same. Employee Resource Groups are often a safe place to connect with others who are in a similar situation. Joining an ERG is a great way to build a supportive community, have honest conversations, and develop a sense of belonging. You’ll feel less pressure to cover when you know you’re not alone.

Even if you aren’t covering at work, be aware that some of your colleagues may feel pressure to do so.  Look for ways to be an ally to others and promote a safe and supportive environment where your underrepresented colleagues feel welcome and included.

Covering is a complex topic and this article is only meant as an introduction into a concept that you, or others around you, might be experiencing.   Individuals alone should not have to work on ways to feel more comfortable at work – the onus is on organizations and those in positions of power.  Sometimes, however, just being able to identify or name what you are feeling can empower you to make the decision to expose, or not, as much of yourself as you feel comfortable.

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