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Workplace IDs

Kenji Yoshino uncovers the cost of conformity at the office.

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With a diversity and inclusion officer posted at most major companies, bias in the workplace would seem a thing of the past. And yet, only one percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are black. Less than five percent are women. None are openly gay. Kenji Yoshino, Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law, is examining why.

Last September, the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion—an initiative of Deloitte University in Westlake, Texas—released a white paper co-authored by Yoshino and their managing principal Christie Smith, entitled “Uncovering Talent: A New Model for Inclusion.” Yoshino and Smith hypothesized that the pressure to “cover” prevents members of minority groups—as well as some straight white men—from bringing their authentic selves to work, and that this affects job satisfaction.

“Underrepresented groups pay a tax, which we call covering, in which they are asked to downplay their identity in order to fit into the mainstream,” Yoshino said at the 14th annual Korematsu Lecture last April, at which he presented the data produced through this initiative.

Yoshino credits Erving Goffman with naming this phenomenon in his 1963 book Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Goffman used Franklin D. Roosevelt as an example: To take attention away from his disability, the president would “cover” by having himself seated behind a desk prior
to meeting with advisers.

Yoshino has long had an interest in this topic. His 2006 book Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights was praised in the New Yorker: “Exploring the history of civil-rights litigation in the United States, Yoshino concludes that courts have too often focused on individuals’ capacity to assimilate, rather than on the legitimacy of the demand that they do so.” Five colleges have assigned this award-winning book as a first-year read for all incoming students.

Yoshino and Deloitte’s survey asked respondents whether they covered along four axes: appearance, affiliation, advocacy, and association. One respondent shared a memory of affiliation-based covering: “Even though I am of Chinese descent, I would never correct people if they made jokes or comments about Asian stereotypes.”

The white paper’s results included 3,129 respondents from seven industries; a shorter version was published in March in the Harvard Business Review. The white paper corroborated what Yoshino had discussed in his book: A majority of employees surveyed—61 percent—felt pressure to cover some facet of their identities at work. Even 45 percent of the straight white men admitted to covering aspects like age and mental health issues. “The question was not whether they were included, but on what terms they felt their inclusion rested,” Yoshino and Smith wrote in the white paper. “These individuals felt they had to work their identities alongside their jobs.”

Yoshino and Smith say change must come from the top. While half of survey respondents said they felt pressured to cover by both company leadership and company culture, the real damage happened when leadership emphasized covering. Of the 53 percent who said they felt pressured to cover by leadership, a whopping 50 percent of them said it undermined their dedication to the organization. “Individuals leave managers, not organizations,” Yoshino observed.

As a result, the co-authors have proposed the Uncovering Talent model, a series of steps that organizations can follow to reevaluate what they communicate to employees about covering. For example, an organization can legitimately ask employees to engage in appearance-based covering like requiring business attire, but may also decide that employees should not have to cover their family responsibilities, such as needing to leave the office to attend a parent-teacher meeting.

The next step, Yoshino and Smith emphasized, is for management to change their own behavior at work. As one survey respondent put it, “Leaders have to uncover first. If they don’t, we won’t.”

When employees can bring their real selves to work, the results are promising. The white paper reported that 21 percent of respondents had “uncovered”—with positive results. “Once I decided to bring my whole self to work,” one said, “it was liberating and I became a lot more productive and successful.”

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