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Are Your Employees Covering Up Their True Selves?

A new report reveals how rare it is for employees to feel they can bring their authentic self to work, and just how bad that is for business.
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new report from Deloitte focuses on the issue of "covering," which, the report explains, was defined by sociologist Erving Goffman as “how even individuals with known stigmatized identities made a ‘great effort to keep the stigma from looming large.’” Think of FDR making sure he was always seated at a desk when his cabinet came into the room to de-emphasize his disability or a female employee avoiding talking about her kids at work.

So What?

Who cares about covering? After all, we go to work to get stuff done and earn a paycheck not to engage in self expression -- that’s what your Thursday night dance class or after hours political work are for. And it’s reasonable to expect, for example, that your customer service rep won’t discuss his religious beliefs or health issues with customers. But covering is an issue for business owners, the report insists, for a couple of reasons.

One, it’s more widespread than you probably imagine. A survey conducted for the report shows 75 percent of workers cover up some part of their identity at work, and covering is almost universal among traditionally marginalized groups: 94 percent of blacks and 80 percent of women cover.

Second, business owners should care for hard-nosed business reasons. Covering is an energy waster and drives disengagement. Half of respondents said the need to cover up who they truly are affected their sense of the opportunities available to them at the company, and the same percentage (49 percent to be exact) said this had  “somewhat” to “extremely” affected their sense of commitment to the organization.

Covering "takes energy that I would rather give to my job," complained one respondent.  

Authenticity Is For Everyone

The point here clearly isn’t to take "uncovering" to unreasonable extremes -- no one needs to share their political beliefs at the cash register or express themselves by letting their long hair fly in a kitchen -- nor is that there’s a cookie cutter answer that’s right for every organization. Rather, it’s that when possible all employees should be encouraged to bring their authentic selves to work. As report co-author and NYU law professor Kenji Yoshino, points in an earlier New York Times Magazine piece on the subject, authenticity is good for everyone:

The new civil rights begins with the observation that everyone covers. When I lecture on covering, I often encounter what I think of as the "angry straight white man" reaction. A member of the audience, almost invariably a white man, almost invariably angry, denies that covering is a civil rights issue. Why shouldn't racial minorities or women or gays have to cover? These groups should receive legal protection against discrimination for things they cannot help. But why should they receive protection for behaviors within their control - wearing cornrows, acting "feminine" or flaunting their sexuality? After all, the questioner says, I have to cover all the time. I have to mute my depression, or my obesity, or my alcoholism, or my shyness, or my working-class background or my nameless anomie. I, too, am one of the mass of men leading lives of quiet desperation. Why should legally protected groups have a right to self-expression I do not? Why should my struggle for an authentic self matter less?

I surprise these individuals when I agree.

Do you agree that more personal authenticity usually leads to better work?

 

 

IMAGE: Maria Guimarães/Flickr
Last updated: Sep 18, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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