The undercover employee

Pressure to ‘cover’ can have negative impacts
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/20/2014

Julie Chen was just beginning her TV journalism career when her boss told her she’d never have an on-air anchor job because she looked "too Chinese."

So Chen underwent cosmetic surgery to change the appearance of her eyelids. She is now a well-known news anchor on CBS.

Chen’s experience is just one example of the pressure to "cover" or downplay certain aspects of an identity in the workplace, according to Kenji Yoshino, a law professor at New York University in New York City.

"Covering is downplaying a known identity, usually because the identity is an outsider identity or a stigmatized identity," said Yoshino, who released a survey and white paper on the subject in partnership with Deloitte.

"The identity — in (Chen’s) case, being an Asian — is known but the idea is you can’t look ‘too Asian’ and be able to play in the biggest sandbox."

There’s no shortage of high-profile examples — Barack Obama, for instance, was told he couldn’t have two "weird names" and win the presidency, said Yoshino.

And it’s certainly not a new phenomenon — even Franklin Delano Roosevelt used covering to downplay his disability.

"(He) used to always make sure he was seated behind a table before his cabinet entered… His cabinet knew he had a motor function disability. But he was covering in that he wanted to project his more conventional presidential qualities: ‘I’m male, I’m white’ were in the foreground, and his disability was in the background."

The Roosevelt example illustrates another facet of Yoshino’s research: Almost every demographic — even straight, white males — engages in covering.

"Many people across cultural differences cover in one way or another because they feel pressure to fit in," said Ritu Bhasin, diversity specialist and founder of Bhasin Consulting in Toronto. "People from these underrepresented groups will often disassociate or detach from the layers of cultural identity that they feel are stigmatized in order to conform."

The concept of covering is advancing the conversation around workplace diversity in a new way, said Alex Johnston, executive director of Catalyst Canada in Toronto.

"It isn’t simply about your numbers," she said. "You can bring in lots of different (diverse) people but to actually grow and develop them effectively in the organization requires much more than just getting them in the door."

The pressure to cover can come from both implicit and explicit sources, said Yoshino — it can come directly from leaders in the organization or it can simply be a part of the culture, found the Deloitte survey of 3,129 respondents. But Yoshino was surprised at how often respondents said a leader expected them to cover.

"Fifty-three per cent said their leaders asked them to cover and 48 per cent said that it was organizational culture," he said.

People cover along four
different axes, found Yoshino: appearance, affiliation, advocacy and association.

Appearance-based covering can include African-American employees feeling pressure to straighten their hair, he said.

"That form of covering was deemed to be extremely time-consuming and at times painful, but still something like that was demanded of them, even in a 2014 educated workplace," he said.

Another common example was age-based covering, he said. Young men, for example, reported wearing prescription-less glasses to look older, while older men reported dying their hair or even taking testosterone shots.

Affiliation-based covering was commonly seen among mothers trying to downplay that role.

"Oftentimes, one of the ways in which women cover is by not having photographs of their children, not talking about their children in their office, not talking about their children even if other people are, (if) they have to go take care of their children... making sure that they say, ‘I’m going to meet a client’ or ‘I’m going to my own doctor’s appointment,’" he said.

Advocacy-based covering is about how much you stick up for your group — or deliberately avoid doing so, to keep from becoming "hyper-visible" as a member of a minority group, said Yoshino.

"That also had to do with things that come really close to the talent function, because women would often say things like ‘When I’m in these meetings... I don’t speak up for other women because if I do it too many times, my own credibility (may be) discounted.’"

The fourth axis, association-based covering, has to do with how much time you spend with people in your own group.

"So that (could be) a gay person saying, ‘I feel uncomfortable bringing my partner to work functions because even though I’m completely comfortable being gay in this organization, I can’t be seen as ‘too gay’ and that would make me hyper-visible.’"

Other identities people cover include mental illness, disability, veteran status, religion, socioeconomic background, political affiliation and cancer, said Yoshino. And the adverse impact is significant, he said — 60 to 73 per cent of respondents said covering "somewhat" to "extremely" negatively impacted their sense of self.

It can be quite taxing, both on individuals and organizations, said Johnston.

"It’s quite tiring to feel like you can’t be yourself… (it impacts) your productivity level, your ability to truly be as high-functioning as you want to be, creativity, innovation, your ability to contribute fully to that workplace."

People need to be able to "be themselves" culturally to be productive and actualized at work, said Bhasin.

"When we have cultures where covering is highly prevalent, what’s happening is that people are leaving who they culturally are at home... and then that would translate into how they’re contributing in the work environment."

Pressure to cover can really diminish employees’ commitment to the organization, found the survey — particularly when covering demands come from a leader.

"People take it much more personally when an individual asks them to cover than when it’s something that’s broad-based," said Yoshino.

Perhaps the most important way to combat covering is by creating a culture of authenticity.

"One big thing is having leaders uncover. So respondents said, time after time, ‘Until leaders uncover, we’re not going to because unless you model that this is safe for us to do, we’re not going to do it,’" he said.

Senior leaders shape culture from the top down, said Bhasin.

"When we behave authentically in the workplace... we give permission to others to do the same."