Joanne Stephane has often avoided talking about her background in the workplace.
A second-generation Haitian American, Stephane believes that discussing her Caribbean culture and heritage with co-workers will inevitably lead to questions about where she was born, what languages she speaks and how her parents immigrated to the U.S., potentially leading people to stereotype her.
"Whatever my colleagues' preconceptions about Haiti and Haitians," she explained, "I didn't want them associating those thoughts with me or to stand out for anything other than my work."
Stephane, the executive director of the DEI Institute at Deloitte in New York City, co-authored a 2023 report from Deloitte and the New York University School of Law on the prevalence of "covering" in the workplace—when employees downplay known disfavored identities to fit into mainstream corporate cultures.
About 60 percent of employees across the U.S. reported covering at work in the past 12 months, according to the survey of 1,269 employees. Among those workers, roughly 60 percent described their covering as detrimental to their sense of self.
The report also found that:
- Employees who are Asian American (66 percent), Black (65 percent) and Hispanic or Latino (62 percent) reported covering at a higher rate than white respondents (56 percent).
- Cisgender women (64 percent) covered at a higher rate than cisgender men (56 percent).
- Respondents who identify as "nonheterosexual" (69 percent) were more likely to cover than those who identify as heterosexual (58 percent).
"We first explored [covering at work] in 2013 and wanted to understand what, if anything, has changed," Stephane said. "What we learned is that workers continue to feel the need to cover parts of their identity today, as they did 10 years ago, signaling that workers still do not feel like they can be their full selves at work."
Personal Stories of Covering
The report identified the top reasons employees gave for covering:
- So that others don't "think less" of them.
- To avoid negative stereotypes.
- To avoid the judgment of others.
- For the convenience or comfort of others.
- To be seen as competent and/or valuable.
- To advance in their organization.
- To keep their job—although firing an employee based on protected characteristics such as race, religion and national origin is illegal in the U.S.
One respondent described suppressing "a lot of my emotions and [acting] happy so that co-workers are not reminded of my depression," while another individual, who has a physical disability, reported trying to "minimize chances for people to see me walk."
The report also outlined four categories of covering:
- Appearance-based covering is altering self-presentation—such as grooming, attire and mannerisms—to blend into the workplace. For example, an employee who uses a cane to assist with their mobility might not use it in the office.
- Advocacy-based covering involves an employee's reluctance to defend or promote the interests of their group. For example, an immigrant might refrain from challenging a xenophobic joke to avoid being seen as "difficult" or "humorless."
- Affiliation-based covering is minimizing behaviors widely associated with one's identity. For example, a mother might avoid talking about her children in the office to signal her commitment to work.
- Association-based covering is avoiding contact with other group members during extracurricular events. For example, someone who is gay might not bring his partner to work functions to prevent drawing attention to his sexual orientation.
Most respondents described covering on their own behalf, but some expressed a need to cover on behalf of someone else—also known as "covering by proxy." Protecting others from embarrassment or ridicule shows that those who do not cover can still be impacted by it, the report noted.
"I don't ever mention the religion of my husband as people always have something to say about it," one respondent said. "Or they feel it is OK to make religious jokes that are inappropriate."
Another person explained, "I avoid going to work functions when spouses are invited because I'm in an interracial relationship."
How Covering Damages Workplace Culture
Covering can negatively impact both the individual and the company.
About 74 percent of employees reported being negatively impacted in some way by the need to cover in the workplace. Respondents experienced detrimental impacts on their:
- Sense of self.
- Performance and commitment at work.
Nebel Crowhurst, chief people officer at employee engagement platform Reward Gateway in London, said covering can also have far-reaching repercussions on a company's culture, as it hinders co-workers' ability to create genuine connections and relationships.
"When individuals feel the need to suppress their true selves, the lack of authenticity can also spread to other parts of the workplace, putting an emotional toll on individuals that can lead to reduced morale, increased stress, and negatively impact their overall mental well-being," she said.
Stephane said HR professionals can reduce covering among the workforce by:
- Increasing workplace diversity.
- Offering well-being programming and flexible work options.
- Providing inclusion, equity and diversity training and programming.
- Diagnosing and discussing covering demands with the workforce.
- Engaging in active allyship.
- Sharing their own experiences, signaling that it is safe—and encouraged—to be yourself.
"Of course, we do not expect workers to uncover when it is unsafe to do so," Stephane said. "But we know that when others collectively take intentional, meaningful action to disrupt the status quo, you start to see change."