Everyone has blind spots. No matter how objective, thoughtful, or open we believe ourselves to be, there are various unconscious assumptions or oversights that distort our view of the world and leave us vulnerable to making poor decisions.
With a little effort, you can find numerous studies on “confirmation bias” or the “halo effect” that outline our tendency as humans to make these errors. And in the business world, one of the common methods used to prevent blind spots from negatively impacting organizations is a healthy diversity program.
But if your company’s view of diversity is to hire employees from various backgrounds that all think, talk, and act the same, you might be missing the point. To fully benefit from the innovation and new ways of thinking that diversity can offer, you need to create an inclusive workplace — an environment where everyone on staff feels that they can bring their authentic selves to work.
When employees are concerned about being judged — or even worse discriminated against — for their unique identities, they’ll quickly begin to engage in “covering” behavior, actively obscuring their thoughts, opinions, and feelings in an effort to “fit in.”
What Does Covering Look Like?
In his work Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, legal scholar Kenji Yoshino describes covering as any activity used “to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream.” He then breaks these activities into four common categories:
Appearance-based: which includes any activities that a worker might take to appear “normal” or not stand out. For example, an older employee choosing to dye their hair regularly to blend in with their younger co-workers.
Affiliation-based: which often focuses on engaging in or refraining from behaviors specifically to avoid being labeled with common stereotypes. Consider a female employee that will actively steer the conversation away from the topic of family or avoid mentioning that she has children only to refrain from playing into the stereotype that she is less committed or available than her single or childless coworkers.
Advocacy-based: which relates to how vocal an employee might be when discussing a class or group to which they belong. Just envision any work that needs to walk on eggshells around the office during election season because they’re backing the “wrong” candidate.
Association-based: which is often manifested by an employee actively avoiding other members of their “group.” Such as when a gay employee avoids bringing their significant other to an after-hours work function to avoid appearing “too gay.”
Who Engages in Covering?
Back in 2013, Deloitte examined the concept of covering in more detail, conducting a survey of more than 3,000 workers from a broad mix of industries, ages, genders, races, and sexual orientations. Disturbingly, covering behavior was very common among those surveyed with a full 61 percent of respondents reporting that they engaged in at least one covering behavior while at work.
In more detail, covering behaviors were exhibited by:
- 83 percent of LGBT employees
- 79 percent of black employees
- 66 percent of female employees
- 63 percent of Hispanic employees
Even 45 percent of straight white men — a demographic frequently overlooked in discussions of diversity and inclusivity — reported attitudes and behaviors that aligned with one of Yoshino’s covering axes.
What Can Your Business Do?
By focusing on creating an inclusive workplace, your organization can reduce the likelihood that anyone in your office will feel the need to engage in covering behavior. Develop clear non-discrimination guidelines for your business and enforce them consistently. Provide key decision-makers and managers with unconscious bias training, equipping them with the tools to accommodate for their personal blind spots.
In addition, when more voices are speaking up, there will be an increased chance for disagreements and conflict in your office. Offer your staff regular training focused on effective interpersonal communication strategies that will help them to resolve issues before they can grow into a full-blown crisis.
The Next Step
Ultimately, employees engage in covering behavior when they don’t feel that they can be their authentic selves in the workplace. However, by creating an inclusive culture that makes it clear that all are welcome, you can reduce these stresses and fears, making it easier for your organization to meet the diverse needs and expectations of your employees, customers, and partners.