Building office culture with diversity and inclusion. Employers are working to improve office culture and research by Deloitte can help them close the gap between values and practices.

A better office culture starts with diversity and inclusion but more than 60 percent of marginalized groups working for companies that focus on those values still feel pressured to “cover” their identities to fit in at work, according to research by Deloitte. Organizational expectations to “cover” lead these employees to perceive a lack of opportunities within the company, which results in their decreased commitment, negatively impacting job satisfaction and retention.

There are four common ways marginalized groups make efforts to conceal their identities in the workplace. Understanding how employees “cover” and how it impacts their relationship with the organizations they work for is essential for employers focused on improving office culture and bolstering diversity and inclusion efforts.

How Employees Cover at Work to Fit into Office Culture

Deloitte explores “covering” at work across the four axes defined by Kenji Yoshino in 2006:

  • Appearance-based covering involves altering one’s self-representation to blend into mainstream office culture. This can include changing one’s grooming, attire and mannerisms. A black respondent shared, “I went through a period two years ago where I had a bad reaction to the chemical straightener I used in my hair and had to stop. It was so uncomfortable wearing my natural hair to work that I resorted to wearing weaves, which were very costly and did more damage to my hair. However, I felt that the weave was more acceptable than wearing my natural hair. I also hated that when I wore my natural hair it always seems to be the subject of conversation as if that single feature defined who I am as a person.”
  • Affiliation-based covering happens when employees avoid behaviors commonly associated with their identity to negate stereotypes. A woman respondent shared, “I was coached to not mention family commitments (including daycare pickup, for which I leave half an hour early, but check in remotely at night) in conversations with executive management, because the individual frowns on flexible work arrangements.”
  • Advocacy-based covering concerns how much employees defend the group they identify with at work. An LGBTQIA+ respondent shared, “I didn’t feel I could protest when the person put in charge of diversity for our group was in fact an extremely vocal homophobe.”
  • Association-based covering occurs when employees avoid contact with other group members at work. A respondent with cancer shared, “I don’t associate with cancer groups, because I don’t want to draw attention to my medical status, disability, or flexible arrangements. People tend to look at me like I’m dying when they find out I have cancer, they avoid giving me longer term or higher-profile projects. Mostly I think they do this to be nice, because they assume I can’t handle it.”

How to Improve Office Culture with Diversity and Inclusion Efforts

Deloitte acknowledges in their report, “Some forms of covering are absolutely justifiable. To join a group is to surrender some degree of individual expression in the name of common expression,” and quotes a respondent who said their appearance-based covering actually increased their commitment to their workplace.

The issue is then identifying which covering demands are proper or improper, and Deloitte developed the “Uncovering Talent” model to help companies close the gap between values and practices, which involves:

  1. Reflecting on current instances of covering.  
  2. Diagnosing the incidence, impact and drivers of covering by gathering qualitative and quantitative data.
  3. Analyzing covering behaviors relative to stated corporate values.
  4. Identifying leadership and cultural solutions. 

It is possible for efforts to improve office culture, diversity and inclusion to succeed. Nearly 20 percent of respondents stated that they have “uncovered in a way that has led to success” both for them and for their organization.

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