01 July 2021
Every morning, millions of vibrant, creative people deliberately make themselves as bland as possible to avoid seeming out of place at work.
From avoiding discussion about their same sex partner to feeling forced to remove their dreadlocks, many people are unable to be their true selves.
The peace of mind that comes with knowing that our identity is welcomed by our employers is a leading factor for high performance.
Yet, research shows 61% of employees bend themselves out of shape to fit in at work.
This phenomenon is known as ‘covering,’ a term coined by sociologist Erving Goffman in 1963¹.
Yielding to the perceived power of a ‘higher-ranking’ group, such as company leadership teams, people feel compelled to conform to the accepted norms to fit in.
How identity threats at work hurt employees
Workplace culture plays a critical role. These unwritten norms, typically prescribed by the dominant group within a workplace, reflect the behaviours necessary for career progression.
When an individual believes their identity goes against a company’s culture, they soon become threatened and detached from the rest of the team. This can occur when we feel pigeonholed, disrespected, or deemed less capable by others because of who we are.
The result? Individual wellbeing and performance suffer. University of Exeter researchers found that concealing stigmatised characteristics from colleagues – such as being gay or religious – resulted in lower self-esteem, job satisfaction and commitment at work.
The key to overcoming these threats is to create a working culture that uplifts employee identity, ensuring they feel valued and an integral part of the team.
If one person in your team is fully remote, while the rest are office-based, for example, the whole team should make a strong effort to include the remote colleague in the key decisions and meetings. This ensures different types of employees feel a welcome part of the group, while appreciated for their unique circumstances.
By contrast, ostracising that remote colleague, by keeping them away from the key meetings, discussions and social gatherings is an example of exclusion. Managers should be very wary of exclusion, whereby individuals feel their uniqueness isn’t appreciated nor do they feel part of the team.
While trying to transition your culture from exclusive to inclusive, some of your colleagues may experience either differentiation or assimilation.
When we feel respected for our personal characteristics, but are still detached from the wider team, we’re experiencing differentiation. If one person receives different technical training to the rest of the team, which then affects how they communicate and operate at work, then that person can, unsurprisingly, feel left out. Therefore, managers should optimise their communications and processes, including onboarding and training, to ensure everyone can contribute to a shared work experience.
Assimilation, on the other hand, defines situations where we feel a sense of belonging to the company, but must hide a part of who we are.
A lesbian or gay person who feels uncomfortable bringing their significant other to work events, like their colleagues, is a prime example. While they may feel positively about the group, they fear that revealing their true selves will be met by rejection and ridicule. To tackle this, leaders must make it abundantly clear that no matter their sexual orientation or any other characteristic, everyone is welcome and empowered in the workplace.
For further proven practical insights on how to create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive culture, read our free DE&I whitepaper The inclusion solution.
To find out how to get the senior leadership to buy-in to DE&I, read our third blog here.