Covering by employees uncovers organisational shortcomings

If workers conceal who they really are, the inclusivity policies are not working

At first glance, the most obvious link between Margaret Thatcher and Franklin D Roosevelt is that they were both the leaders of their respective countries. However, they share a slightly darker connection. Both engaged in "covering" – a term used to describe the downplaying of some aspect of one's identity.

Roosevelt was paralysed from the waist down and, as far as possible, tried to conceal the fact that he used a wheelchair. Thatcher changed how she dressed and, even more fundamentally, how she spoke, to fit the public image of what a Conservative party leader and future head of government should look and sound like.

The term covering is not new. It was coined in the early 1960s by the Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman, whose interest in the “social construction of self” led him to the conclusion that those marginalised by mainstream society develop modifying strategies to avoid rejection. These included changing aspects of their behaviour or withholding information about their lives.

Inclusion agenda

Covering is coming to the fore now because it is emerging as an integral part of the diversity and inclusion agenda. Those who have conducted deep-dive research into the subject say that even organisations ostensibly doing well on diversity and inclusion metrics still have a way to go in terms of removing all barriers to inclusion in the workplace.


Kenji Yoshino is professor of constitutional law at New York University School of Law and the director of the Centre for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging. A recognised authority on diversity and inclusion, he acknowledges that while there has been a lot of progress, the statistics still show that, contrary to what people had assumed, time alone is not correcting deficiencies in inclusivity.

As an example, he cites the 2015 list of chief executives at Fortune 500 companies and points out that only 1 per cent of them were black, 5 per cent were female and 0.2 per cent were gay.

His point is that organisations are struggling to be both diverse and inclusive and that many people with different sexual, social, ethnic, religious and political orientations still face the choice of either covering their diversity to be included or expressing their diversity and finding themselves excluded as a result.

Yoshino says that covering is detrimental to an individual’s wellbeing and identity. It’s also detrimental to organisational culture as it diminishes commitment and mitigates against opportunity. Last but not least, it’s an impediment to unlocking the full potential of the talent pool.

So where does the battle to root out unhealthy covering start? At the top say the experts, which is why the decision by Apple's chief executive Tim Cook to be open about his sexuality was significant.

"You've got to drive cultural change throughout an organisation but it won't go anywhere unless it starts with the senior management team," says Stuart Affleck, a director with diversity and inclusion consultants Brook Graham, which is now part of the legal firm Pinsent Masons.

“Organisations need people who understand the concept of inclusive leadership and if they don’t know what that looks like then they need to start finding out. We’re not asking people to consider this as a ‘nice to have’. There are sound commercial reasons why it’s important. Inclusive organisations attract better talent, they retain it and they are more innovative.”

Affleck, who is gay, says he was an expert at covering in his early career and it was only when he stopped doing it that he realised how much energy it demands because you’re always on your guard.

“If people are spending time trying to fit in then that affects productivity. We’re not saying that everyone needs to lay everything out on the table. It’s more about being inquisitive, actively listening, drawing people out on alternative points of view and becoming more accepting of others. This needs to happen at three levels: organisational, team and individual,” he says.


Brook Graham helps companies to identify where they are on the diversity and inclusion continuum and to put practices and policies in place that send the right signals. As an example, Affleck cites changing microbehaviours that are unintentionally but nevertheless subtly discriminating such as insensitive wording in written communications.

“If you feel marginalised, you are always looking for signs that tell you that an organisation or a group of people are accepting and this acceptance needs to be hardwired into companies’ DNA,” he says. “We’re getting better at calling it out but the whole process of identifying bias and being aware of exclusive behaviours while focusing on allowing people to be their authentic selves is needed to keep this debate alive.”

Interestingly enough, Yoshino says that even white straight males, widely considered to be the most empowered group in the workforce, are not immune to covering. He cites the example of a chief executive who hid his cancer diagnosis for fear of being perceived as a diminished leader and men who routinely hide their age or socioeconomic backgrounds to avoid other types of prejudice.

One of the classic female covers is women playing down the fact they have children for fear of the “motherhood penalty” – being seen as potentially unreliable.

Yoshino says covering needs to be retired unless it’s justified and that any organisation that gets this right “is going to eat the ones that don’t for lunch when it comes to talent acquisition and management”. And he wonders what the impact on the public perception of disability might have been if FDR hadn’t tried so hard to hide his.