Issues of gender, race, sexual orientation, nationality, age, disability, and religion are essential for us to address in today’s world – in society and at work.
However, these important issues can be hard to work through authentically, since they can bring up thoughts, feelings, and experiences that are both deeply personal and difficult to understand from our various perspectives.
They also touch on issues of privilege, oppression, bias (both conscious and unconscious), and opportunity. These things can elicit strong emotions and reactions for many of us, understandably.
For these and other reasons, it’s becoming all the more important to focus on inclusion at work and address all the related challenges that can come up in this regard within our teams and organizations.
The Importance of Promoting Inclusion at Work
For many people who identify as belonging to one or more non-dominant groups, their identity can raise issues of challenge, pride, struggle, and more, especially at work.
Promoting inclusion in our teams and companies involves each of us making a conscious effort to consider, discuss, and remain mindful of these dynamics and concerns. It’s also about fostering a setting that prioritizes openness, empathy, support, and safety, even when it’s difficult or uncomfortable.
“Covering” Your Identity
The term covering was coined by sociologist Erving Goffman to describe how even individuals with known stigmatized identities make “a great effort to keep their stigma from looming large.” Kenji Yoshino, a constitutional law professor at NYU, further developed this idea and came up with four different categories in which we “cover”: (1) Appearance, (2) Affiliation, (3) Advocacy, and (4) Association.
In essence, we often do what we can to cover aspects of ourselves that we believe might put us out of the “mainstream” of our environment. Yoshino partnered with Christie Smith, Managing Principal of the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion, to measure the prevalence of covering at work. They distributed a survey to employees in organizations across 10 different industries. The 3,129 respondents included a mix of ages, genders, races/ethnicities, and orientations. They also came from different levels of seniority within their organizations.
Sixty-one percent of respondents reported covering at least one of these four categories at work. According to the study, 83 percent of LGBTQ individuals, 79 percent of blacks, 67 percent of women of color, 66 percent of women, and 63 percent of Hispanics cover. While the researchers found that covering occurred more frequently within groups that have been historically under-represented, they also found that 45 percent of heterosexual white men reported covering as well.
How to Create Inclusion at Work
Issues of diversity and inclusion impact all of us. And while they clearly play a significant role in the lives and careers of women and members of every minority group, it’s important that we all be willing to look at and talk about these issues and do what we can to create an environment that is as inclusive as possible. For us to do this, it takes authenticity, emotional intelligence, and courage – both individually and collectively.
We’re All More Alike Than We Think
A big paradox of being human is that on the one hand, we’re all unique—by virtue of how we look, our background, our race, our gender, how we think, our religion, our skills, our personalities, our age, what we value, our histories, our orientation, our socioeconomic status, and so forth. Yet on the other hand, the further down below the waterline we go on our iceberg, the more we’re alike.
We’re all human beings and we experience the same emotions—love, fear, joy, shame, gratitude, sadness, excitement, anger, and more.
By prioritizing mindfulness, sensitivity, and awareness in recognizing, understanding, and valuing our diverse attributes, and by actively empowering those who might be marginalized, we can cultivate genuinely inclusive teams, environments, and cultures. And this approach benefits everyone involved.
What are you doing to create an inclusive environment around you at work? What else is needed to make sure that it’s as inclusive as possible?
Portions of this piece were excerpted from Bring Your Whole Self to Work, by Mike Robbins, with permission. Published by Hay House (May 2018) and available online or in bookstores.
This article was updated for 2023.