We recently came across a report published by Deloitte on the concept of “covering” at work. If you’ve never heard of covering, it is “individuals with known stigmatized identities [making] great effort to keep the stigma from looming large.” The report is designed to educate on the topic and make recommendations as part of the effort to boost inclusion in companies. The authors explain that there are four types of covering at work: appearance-based, affiliation-based, advocacy-based, and association-based.
The report gives examples of what covering might look like for different stigmatized or minority groups. An “LGB” person might not put pictures of their significant other on their desk, a black woman may feel she can’t wear her natural hair to “fit in” at the office, or a veteran may not feel comfortable disclosing or displaying their military affiliations.
Overall, 61% of people report at least one type of covering. There is obvious emotional pain that would come from covering up part of your identity, and physical pain if you are working to hide a physical disability, but Deloitte’s survey took it a step further.
They asked employees how covering “affected their sense of opportunity within the organization and the commitment to their organization.” Unsurprisingly, a combined half said it “somewhat” or “extremely” affected their senses of opportunity and their commitment to the organization.

The biggest takeaway from the report though, is that people cover because of either spoken or unspoken expectations from leadership teams. It has never been clearer that company culture starts at the top, and it has also never been more important that leaders understand that what they say, do, joke about, wear and pay attention to will affect the culture and subsequent behavior at their company.

Authenticity at work is a topic we hear about a lot in HR circles, and it might be safe to say it has continued to grow in popularity as a reaction to the fact that a high percentage of people feel like they can’t be their full selves at work. Covering and authenticity are at competing ends of the work spectrum. These two competing forces can cause difficult decisions for employees, especially when company culture may not be clear about what’s the right thing to do to fit in at the company.
The push toward a more overtly inclusive workplace (i.e., a place where people can be authentic/themselves) is a good one, but there is also a chance that it sometimes leaves us boundary-less. It’s better to be yourself than someone else, but it’s also okay to not want to disclose everything about yourself. Some people are not covering, but rather are simply more private. Some people may be comfortable laying it all out on the conference room table while others may prefer the privacy that “professionalism” allows.
Both types of people (and everyone in between) can exist in one workplace, but clear parameters make that easier. The importance of this point is really that the decision to disclose or not to disclose parts of your personal life should come from the individual employee and not at all from pressure from leadership.
This is why setting the tone of the workplace is so important, and leaders are the ones to shoulder that responsibility. For example, if your boss made an inappropriate joke with gay undertones, that may be their sense of humor, but it sets the tone in an office where someone might feel uncomfortable coming out or bringing their significant other to an event. Being careful about those kinds of “jokes” may not be the most authentic thing for some people, but it allows more space for everyone else to be themselves.
I think authenticity is important, and if you feel like you have to cover at work, then something is probably wrong, but there is a comfortable middle ground between the two. Perhaps to find this middle ground, more leaders should focus on explicit and transparent efforts to manage the desire to allow people to be themselves, but also not intrude on those who prefer more privacy. This starts with managers practicing what they preach.
These are hard things to legislate, but a clear set of expectations from leadership provide valuable guideposts to those who wrestle with striking the right balance.
Have you ever had to cover at work? What did you do about it? We want to hear about it.

Nora Philbin

Nora is a co-founder of Happy Spectacular, which she still can't really believe, and she's on a lifelong quest for the world's best cheeseburger (applicants accepted).