By now you've probably heard the news that Apple's CEO Tim Cook came out as a proud gay man.

"I don't consider myself an activist, but I realize how much I've benefited from the sacrifice of others," he wrote in Bloomberg. "So if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it's worth the trade-off with my own privacy."

Cook understood that there are still many people who are nervous to come out to their coworkers and reveal their sexuality, and he wanted to help foster a more welcoming work environment across the country.

For years now research has shown that hiding one's true identity at work can stunt performance. For instance, closeted LGBT employees feel more isolated at work, and they are more likely to feel that their careers have stagnated.

In a blog post for Harvard Business Review, Dorie Clark and Christie Smith propose that this issue extends beyond the LGBT community. They point to the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion report, Uncovering Talent, which shows that 61 percent of employees cover their identity in some way, fearing that it will make others feel uncomfortable or draw undesired attention.

"A gay person might be technically out, but not display pictures of his partner at work," Clark and Smith write. "A working mom might never talk about her kids, so as to appear 'serious' about her career. A straight white man--45 percent of whom also report covering--might keep quiet about a mental health issue he's facing."

For whatever reasons, employees may downplay their differences, and it is up to the managers and higher-ups to ensure that they feel comfortable being true to themselves without having to hide anything.

Clark, a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, and Smith, the managing principal of the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion, came up with some helpful suggestions to create a workplace that makes employees feel comfortable expressing their true identities:

  • Instead of broaching broad ideas like diversity, which employees may not assume applies to them, discuss "covering" or downplaying aspects of yourself. This will help promote dialogue that affects all of your employees.
  • It can also be helpful to tell your own story. Lead by example and show your own vulnerabilities by sharing personal experiences of when you felt like you had to hide something at work, whatever it may be.
  • Track hiring to statistics to analyze your hiring practices and see if you're actually pursuing a diverse group of employees.
  • Create a safe space for open and ongoing conversation. You want to make your employees feel comfortable approaching you if they do feel like they are hiding something at work.

"High performing companies recognize that diverse perspectives can strengthen their performance, and that homogeneity can cause blindspots," Clark and Smith write. "But in order to unlock the benefits of diversity, we have to make it safe for employees to 'uncover' and bring their full selves to work."

Published on: Nov 3, 2014