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4 ways of covering at work

4 ways of covering at work

Have you ever changed your appearance at work to give your boss a different impression? Do you refrain from expressing your opinion because you’re afraid it won’t be accepted? Do you feel like you can’t be authentic with your colleagues and you’re constantly playing a role? Congratulations: you are covering at work. 

As with Impostor Syndrome and Radical Candorthe concept of Covering might sound abstract and scary, but it’s nothing to be worried about….. or is it?

So, what is covering?

Covering is the need to hide, inhibit, mask or copy some personal traits in order to fit in with a social group that has more power or is at a higher level in the hierarchy. To share a very simple example: remember when you were a kid and the “cool kids” started to wear Converse, so you asked your Mum to buy you a pair. Or the other way around, when you wanted to take your Spongebob Squarepants pajamas to school, but then changed your mind, because you were afraid people might judge you. You were covering.

This “new” idea was actually formed in 1963 by the sociologist Erving Goffman, who is considered by some to be “the most influential American sociologist of the twentieth century”. With his Presentation of self” theory in his book Stigma: notes on the management of spoiled identity, he said that even people with very marked stigmatized identities made big efforts to hide or “cover” those stigmas.

4 ways of covering

Many years later (2006), a behavioral description was introduced by Kenji Yoshino, in his book Covering: the Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights he explained the four axes where individuals cover at work:

Appearance based: when individuals alter their self-presentation, including grooming, attire, and mannerisms. For example: a black woman may straighten her hair to avoid being associated with her race. 

Affiliation based: when individuals avoid behaviors that are linked to a certain identity because they fear being associated with stereotypes. For example: A man in the office might avoid talking about being his children’s primary carer because it might create a sense of lack of commitment to his work.

Advocacy based: relates to how much an individual feels the need to defend the group they belong to. For example: a person refraining from joining a Mariguana legalization protest, because he/she fears this might affect his/her career or image at work. 

Association based: when individuals avoid contact with other group members. For example: a gay person might not invite her partner to a work event, to avoid being seen as “too gay”. 

According to Deloitte’s 2019 Diversity and Inclusion Survey of 3,000 employees from different organizations and varied industries, 61% of the respondents admitted having done some type of covering at work. We don’t know if the other 39% were also covering while completing the covering survey.

Minorities and covering

Covering may be strongly related to race (79% of black men, 67% of black women, and 63% of latinos accepted it) and sexual identity (83% of LGBT individuals cover at work [1]), although there is also a strong relationship with the way that a whole company behaves in order to imitate those in top management. For example: when the directors of an organization are all the same gender, age, and race, employees might cover personal traits that are not aligned with these characteristics. 

Now that we have defined covering and explained its implications, many questions may arise: have you thought about how much covering you do at work? Do you suspect there is some kind of covering happening within your team? Can covering be positive? And most importantly, how much can we live a day to day life without filters?

Many questions will remain unanswered. The only thing we know for sure is that when people take off their masks and show their vulnerability to the world, they create deeper and better connections between team members. We have seen this at numerous Private Failure Events, where CEOs and managers show their true selves and stop covering…. for at least for 7 minutes and 10 images. 

Ricardo Castañeda
Movement Manager at Fuckup Nights
After studying Electronic Engineering and merging himself into the software world, Ricardo realized that rather developing bits and chips, his purpose in life was more related to human and social development. He is now the current Movement Manager at Fuckup Nights.

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