Do you hide parts of your identity do you hide when you step into your office? You wouldn’t be alone: 61% of the workforce cover aspects of who they are in front of their coworkers and managers. In fact, downplaying parts of yourself that you feel might be stigmatized may be so instinctive to you that you don’t even realize you are doing it.
Christie Smith, the managing principal for the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion, and Kenji Yoshino, an NYU Law School professor, have been working on ongoing research about what people choose to hide about themselves at work, their motivations for doing so, and how this behavior impacts their careers. In their survey of 3,129 employees of all ages, genders, ethnicities, and sexual orientations, they found that most people don’t feel comfortable being their authentic selves at work, and this ultimately holds them back in their career.
“The work that we’ve done makes visible how bias (in the workplace) impacts individuals from an opportunities standpoint,” Smith says. “It also illuminates the impact that bias has on organizations.”
People from minority groups tend to hide their identities more frequently. African-American women often report feeling pressure to alter their natural hair at the office to fit in, while LGBT employees regularly refrain from putting up pictures of their significant other in their workspace. Women might say they are rushing off to an offsite meeting instead of saying they are picking up their sick child from school, for fear of being taken less seriously than childless colleagues. But according to Deloitte’s study, 45% of straight white men also hide parts of who they are as well, covering up their religious or political beliefs, for instance.
Yoshino breaks down the things that people hide about themselves into four categories:
Changing your appearance: 29% of respondents said they hide aspects of their appearance. Women reported wearing clothes that are more masculine because they feel their colleagues will be more likely to take them seriously. People with disabilities or illnesses reported forgoing a cane or hiding signs of chemotherapy. LGBT workers express worry about wearing clothing that makes them look “too gay” and overcompensating by dressing overly conservatively.
Hiding your connection to a group: 40% said they hide their connection to a particular community like an ethnic group or a religious or political affiliation. An Asian respondent said they stayed away from work that was stereotypically Asian, such as math. Older employees said they worked hard to avoid ageism. One respondent who grew up poor and was the first in his family to go to college worried he might not be accepted by his upper middle class colleagues, so he rarely mentioned where he came from.
Not sticking up for your beliefs: 37% said they hide their support of particular issues, such as civil unions or gender equality. An advocate for disability inclusion chose not to stick up for these beliefs in case it was an unpopular view in the office. Sometimes, this came across when people stayed silent when confronted by other people’s opposing beliefs: a gay-rights activist refrained from speaking up when a manager said homophobic things.
Not associating with others from your group: 18% said they avoided associating with others from their group to minimize their connection to it. An Asian respondent chose not to participate in activities geared towards the Asian community, while women reported not wanting to join women’s groups. In both cases, there was anxiety that the stigma of being a member of these groups would ultimately harm them.
Covering up who you are on a daily basis comes at a cost: it takes time and energy and is psychologically exhausting. Respondents in the Deloitte survey said that hiding who they were was very destructive to their sense of self.
Of course, the degree to which it harms people’s professional lives varies depending on the exact kind of hiding involved. Sometimes, the cost is hard to calculate. Employees might spend so much psychic energy trying to hide their family responsibilities, health problems, or sexual orientation from their colleagues that they are distracted from their professional objectives. “In some cases, there is a very physical toll,” Smith says. “Several respondents chose not to use a cane although they sorely needed it, and this meant they were in constant pain. They didn’t want to seem less virile in their jobs.”
Employees who feel the need to hide parts of their private life at work also struggle to build close bonds with their colleagues, which makes it hard for them to establish strong networks of support in their career. LGBT employees report working hard not to be seen with their partners in front of their colleagues. This also means they can’t invite their coworkers to their homes or reciprocate invitations like their straight friends.
In another example, one respondent who does not drink alcohol explains that they felt unable to participate in after-work drinks, which has made it hard to forge close relationships at work: “The lead manager in our group often invites all of us to join him in an after-work drink,” they said in the survey. “I joined the group a couple of times and was ribbed loudly for not ordering an alcoholic beverage. Now, when the invitation goes out to our team, I always give an excuse not to join them. I think some people have begun to think I’m standoffish.”
Taken in total, the effect that covering has on your ability to succeed at your job can be significant over the course of an entire career. Yet despite these professional costs, individuals continue to cover because they believe that being open about an identity that is stigmatized might hurt them even more. The fact that minority groups feel the need to cover more than non-minorities might be one of the more subtle mechanisms by which they are held back in corporate America.
Smith makes the case that the degree to which employees feel the need to hide who they are is related to an organization’s culture, which is often deeply related to how managers behave. The Deloitte survey found that 53% of respondents believed that their leaders expected them to cover.
The survey also found that the pressure to cover made employees less loyal to their companies. In fact, 50% of respondents said the expectation to hide who they were affected their sense of commitment to the organization. An employee’s sense that they could not be their authentic self without potentially losing out on opportunities is a source of dissatisfaction. Ultimately, many respondents reported that if a similar job was available at a company where the leadership was more open and diverse, they would jump ship. “I’d switch in a heartbeat,” one respondent said.
Smith and Yoshino conclude that companies who are serious about attracting the best talent and retaining it should focus on ensuring their culture emphasizes diversity and inclusion. In the survey, 93% of respondents said their companies said that inclusion was an organizational value, but only 78% said their companies lived up to those values. It is not enough for companies to have stated objectives about inclusion: they need to live up to these values by ensuring that leaders are not unconsciously or subtly creating cultural norms that exclude people of different backgrounds.