By Josephine Victoria Yam, J.D., LLM.
2019 February 21
Many years ago, after a long summer holiday, I returned to work with inevitable nostalgia. I unpacked from my bag three wooden frames of our family’s recent holiday — and put them on my desk for easy viewing. And when colleagues dropped by my office and asked about the photos, I excitedly shared stories about our “fun under the sun” family holiday.
Until one day, a senior male colleague came over and counselled me: “Josephine, you may want to consider taking those family photos home. They give the impression that you’re not serious with your work. Take this as some friendly advice from an old fogy.” Stunned to hear that I should leave my personal life at home, I took home my family photos that evening. Talking about family stuff at the office was not deemed ”professional”. I would be seen as a mother first and lawyer second.
Years later, I learned that downplaying my being a wife and mom at work actually has a name. It’s called “covering”.
The term “covering” was coined by Erving Goffman in his book “Stigma”. It happens when "persons who are ready to admit possession of a stigma…may nonetheless make a great effort to keep the stigma from looming large."
And covering at the workplace happens more pervasively than we realize.
Like when a female employee always wears dark suits and downplays her interest in makeup to appear more masculine. Or when an LGBTQ employee does not bring his partner to office functions. Or when an employee of colour doesn’t correct people who make jokes about her ethnicity’s stereotypes. Or when an employee avoids associating with others diagnosed with depression like her to avoid being passed over for longer-term projects.
When employees cover at work, they downplay their uniqueness. They are pressured to conform to the dominant group. They bring only a slice of themselves, not their entire authentic selves, to work. They feel excluded, not included. They feel that they don’t belong.
Deloitte’s Report “Uncovering Talent: A New Model of Inclusion” notes that the act of covering detrimentally affects a company’s inclusion programs. And a company’s efforts of uncovering are vital to creating a strong culture of greater authenticity and inclusion.
“The ideal of inclusion has long been to allow individuals to bring their authentic selves to work. However, most inclusion efforts have not explicitly and rigorously addressed the pressure to conform that prevents individuals from realizing that ideal… Indeed, given that everyone has an authentic self, a culture of greater authenticity might benefit all individuals.”
The benefits flowing from a culture of greater authenticity and inclusion are well-known. In the Harvard Business Review article “Help Your Employees Be Themselves at Work”, authors Dorie Clark and Christie Smith observe:
“Enabling employees to feel comfortable being themselves could unlock dramatic performance gains because they can focus their attention on work, rather than hiding parts of themselves.”
When employees feel welcome and included in the workplace, they unleash their creative and innovative juices. They also become more engaged, more productive and more loyal to stay in their jobs for the long term. Their energy fuels the company to achieve greater competitive advantage.
There are many ways to help employees uncover their authentic selves.
An employee quoted in Deloitte’s Report expresses the liberating power of uncovering so well:
“The energy I put into trying to behave differently than who I am drained my energy. Once I decided to bring my whole self to work, it was liberating and I became a lot more productive and successful.”