Apple CEO Tim Cook became the first openly gay CEO on the Fortune 500 list on Thursday, after publicly acknowledging his sexuality with a personal essay published to the web. The move was widely heralded as the start of a new chapter for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in the workplace—and for good reason. At businesses across the country, so many gay business leaders and employees feel the need to hide their sexuality in order to be successful at work, and Cook—one of the most recognizable figures in the business world—can help pave the way to a world where they can be more open.
The problem is more acute than you might think. With a recent study, Deloitte University’s Leadership Center for Inclusion examined a phenomenon that sociologists refer to as “covering,” where people will attempt to mask part of their identity in the workplace, and it revealed just how pervasive—and potentially damaging—the practice is among members of the LGB community.
The study surveyed more than 3,000 employees at businesses across the country to determine what percentage of them admit to covering at work, and why they feel the need to do it. The study included people of a variety of races, genders, and sexual orientations, and found that while 61 percent of all respondents said they had covered, a whopping 83 percent of gay respondents said they had. That’s more than black respondents, female respondents, and any other minority group surveyed (the transgender sample size was too small to be included).
That came as no surprise to Dr. Christie Smith, managing principal of the center. In 29 states, it’s still legal to be fired for your sexual orientation. “Of course that would produce more covering,” she tells WIRED. “No other cohort faces that same threat to their livelihood.” But what’s more troubling than the fact the vast majority of gay subjects reported covering is the fact that more than half of them also said that doing so was detrimental to their sense of self.
It’s not hard to see why. Covering can take many different forms, some of which can have a significant impact on an individual’s personal relationships outside of work. There’s appearance-based covering, in which a person might dress differently or change his looks to downplay a certain part of his identity. There’s affiliation-based covering, where someone purposely avoids behavior that might verge on being a stereotype. And there’s advocacy-based covering, in which people choose not to “stick up for” a group, even though they belong to that group.
But, according to the study, the most detrimental type of covering is association-based, in which, say, a gay employee might refrain from bringing his same-sex partner to a company party. This type of covering, you see, influences life both in and out of the workplace.
The survey also asked questions about why people cover, and who or what is pressuring them to do so. Among respondents in the LBG community, 57 percent said that pressure comes from leadership. In some cases, Smith says, that pressure is overt. “Some people gave us examples where their leader would make derogatory jokes about gays or they might say, ‘That’s so gay,’” Smith explains.
‘We’re fearful of asking people who are different from us about themselves and what their experiences have been.’
The study yielded some other surprising findings — like the fact that millennial LBG employees reported higher incidences of covering than their older peers — as well as some not so surprising findings, including the fact that managers tend to cover more than their junior staffers.
And yet, despite these dismal results, some 93 percent of respondents said that their employers list “inclusion” as a core value. That’s a good indication, Smith says, that the current approach to inclusion isn’t quite working. She says that at most organizations, inclusion means setting up a safe space for employees from the same group to connect. Google, for instance, has its Women@Google group and it’s Gaygler club. Smith calls this type of inclusion “bonding capital,” because it forms bonds between people with a common life experience.
But what more businesses need today, she says, is “bridging capital,” or vehicles that allow people from different groups to openly and honestly discuss their differences. “We live in a society and in a corporate world that’s almost gone too far on the spectrum of equal opportunity employment rules. We’re fearful of asking people who are different from us about themselves and what their experiences have been,” she says. “Bridging capital is about building a competency within your organization to have those conversations across differences.”
The good news is 17 percent of respondents to the study say that they have “uncovered,” and that doing so has actually enabled them to be more successful at work. As one subject put it: “If you can’t be your ‘whole self’ at work, you’re not at your best. A company that allows people to be themselves and judges them only on the quality of work they do will be far ahead in the long run.”