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Combating Cover Culture

Deloitte’s DEI Institute’s 2023 study, Uncovering Culture, explores how U.S. workers “cover,” or downplay known disfavored identities to fit into mainstream corporate cultures. According to the same study, 60% of respondents have covered at work within the last 12 months, nearly the same percentage (61%) of respondents reporting covering at work 10 years ago in the first study of its kind.  

Workers cite avoiding negative stereotypes, being seen as competent and valuable, and not wanting coworkers to think less of them as the top reasons for covering, highlighting ongoing fears of discrimination and unconscious bias in the workplace.  

Covering is defined along four axes: appearance-based (modifying aspects of self-presentation to fit in), affiliation-based (minimizing behaviors widely associated with identity), advocacy-based (not defending or promoting the interests of their group), and association-based (avoiding contact with other group members). This research confirms that much like in 2013, workers continue to cover in these ways at work, along a broad spectrum of identities including age, religion, race, ethnicity, and mental health status.  

The study comes 10 years after Deloitte collaborated with Kenji Yoshino on the Uncovering Talent study. The new study explores a wide range of demographics and firmographics to highlight why it is important for leaders to help disrupt covering culture—an environment in which workers feel that they would be penalized for displaying greater authenticity. The study offers three tangible actions that leaders can take to build a culture of greater authenticity and achieve better workforce outcomes.  

Key findings from the study can be found below.  

  • Covering in the workplace remains a widespread practice across demographics and is most prevalent among individuals with multiple marginalized identities. Among workers with five or more marginalized identities, 71% report covering at work compared to 56% of workers with just one or two marginalized identities. While 56% of white respondents report covering, incidence of covering is higher among other racial or ethnic cohorts. This includes 66% of Asian, 65% of Black, and 62% of Hispanic and Latinx workers. When looking at the intersection of race and gender, covering increases, with 86% of Asian women and 80% of Black women saying they cover at work, compared to 55% of Asian men and 43% of Black men. Black workers with disabilities report covering at a high rate of 93%, compared to 60% of disabled white workers. All Black LGBTQIA+ workers report covering.  
  • Younger generations tend to cover more in the workplace than those over 50. When looking at generational breakdowns, 66% of millennials and 65% of Gen Z say they cover at work, compared to 56% of Gen X and 49% of baby boomers.  
  • Covering demands in the workplace—whether explicit or implicit—have adverse effects on well-being. More than half (56%) of workers say that the need to cover at work negatively impacts their commitment to their organization, while 60% of workers say that the need to cover at work negatively impacts their overall well-being and makes them feel emotionally drained. Approximately 58% of workers say they feel the need to mirror behavior and appearances of those with favored identities to be perceived as more professional.  
  • Individuals with “advantaged” identities also cover, particularly if they are a perceived person of power or privilege. About half (51%) of workers who do not have a marginalized identity say they cover at work. Notably, 54% of white cisgender men report covering at work. Consistent with the previous study, some white men report covering along traditional lines of marginalization, such as sexual orientation, mental or physical disability, age, and socioeconomic status, while others report covering advantages identities. Across organizational levels, covering is most prevalent among leadership, C-suite leaders, and senior managers (67%). Workers feel the need to cover more when engaging with anyone in leadership positions, such as C-suite leaders (54%) and senior managers (51%).  
  • Greater workforce and leadership diversity, as well as modeling “uncovering” in the workplace can help disrupt cover culture. Approximately 40% of workers believe their team leaders expect them to cover, and only 35% of respondents took the risk of uncovering an identity in the past 12 months. Nearly 90% of workers say that actions taken by their organization have helped reduce their need to cover, citing greater work flexibility, diverse teams, and teammates who uncover as examples that have helped them.  

To foster a culture of uncovering at work, survey respondents recommend driving greater diversity in the organization, seeing leaders and teammates who model uncovering and encourage others to follow suit, and increasing open, honest communication and active allyship in the workplace.

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