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Costs of Covering Who You Really Are — Kenji Yoshino and Christie Smith

Contributor: Andrea Yeh

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Kenji Yoshino and Christie Smith. Christie Smith is the National Managing Principal at Deloitte University’s Leadership Center for Inclusion.  She was named Diversity Journal’s 2013 Woman to Watch and was thrice recognized by San Francisco Business Times as one of the most influential women in the Bay Area.  Kenji Yoshino is the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU, author of Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, formerly on the faculty at Yale where he also served as Deputy DeanTogether, Smith and Yoshino have been studying why people of all backgrounds cover up their identities in the workplace. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stew Friedman: Christie you are a phenomenally accomplished professional who is out and raising children with your same-sex partner.  Your portfolio of professional activities includes many other issues apart from those that affect the LGBT community.  You’ve really been at the forefront of bringing awareness to these complex issues that are faced by some gay men and women at work. I wonder if we could start with the question of how and when you decided to come out at work and to invest so much of your time and energy in the workplace issues affecting the LGBT community?

Christie Smith: christie smithI’m not sure that it was a conscious decision to advocate strictly for the LGBT community.  I come by this very naturally having a mother who was a tremendous social justice activist working in Newark, NJ in the 60s helping to educate black men and growing up watching my father support her in her career. He took part in raising six daughters, all of whom were very strong young women. I guess I grew up in an atmosphere that valued social justice – fighting for the underdog – with a very untraditional father figure in terms of his support of my mother and of his daughters.  I think with that as the basis, my entire life has been about the values of service, seeking social justice, and fighting for the underdog.  It wasn’t until I made the decision to join Deloitte – and I had been out as a gay woman for twenty years prior to joining Deloitte – that I made the decision through the interview process not to hide my identity and not change pronouns and not do things that I had done to cover previously in my work world because I was simply uncomfortable or felt that it hindered my professional opportunities.

SF: You had been covering in prior professional environments?

CS: Absolutely.  I was being recruited by another firm at the same time.  The stark difference between the two firms was that Deloitte wanted to know who I was, not what I had done.  It was a very different interviewing process.

SF: How was that manifest?  Was it particular questions you were asked, or was it nonverbal cues?  How did you get that sense?

CS: I think it was all of the above.  When you join Deloitte as I did, as a direct entry partner, it is a long process to be admitted into the firm. Mostly that is to honor our culture but it is also to make sure this is the right decision, not only for the firm but also for the individual.

SF: Backing up a bit, what led you to decide at that moment in your life and career that you were no longer going to cover up who you really are?

CS: I knew I was successful enough that I didn’t need to anymore, and I was comfortable enough in my own emotional journey to feel that I didn’t need to play the game anymore. If I was going to make a commitment to a firm like Deloitte – which really was a decision to join a firm that I knew I would retire from – it was going to be long-term, and I couldn’t do that unfaithfully by hiding who I was.

SF:  You had a track record of success that gave you the confidence to be more true to yourself. Do you regret not revealing more of yourself sooner in your life? How do you advise young people on this question of when to reveal oneself?

CS: I’m not sure that regret is the right word.  I am saddened by the missed opportunities by having covered or hidden an aspect of who I was.  I often say in Kenji and my work on covering that it’s almost as if you’re going to work a second job.  Imagine the feeling of only giving half of yourself to your work – half of your brain, half of your passion, half of your emotional connection – because you’re working so hard to work that identity instead of your job.

SF: Can you give us an example of what kind of extra burden or work that covering requires, this second shift as it were?

CS: It requires not engaging in personal conversation.  So when frequently asked about my weekend on Monday morning, I would probably give one response: “Oh, I went for a long run.  I’m training for a marathon.  What did you do?”  I’d immediately deflect by asking a thousand questions to the person who was talking to me, so as not to have to field any other personal questions about my weekend.  It’s not only distracting in the moment because you’re working so hard to protect your identity, but it even lingers afterwards.  For me, when I walked away from a conversation, it impacted me for the next fifteen minutes, sometimes a half hour.  I just would be distracted by the fact that I didn’t feel comfortable revealing my own identity as a gay woman.

SF: Of course, you’re basically having to lie about yourself, and that’s got to create all kinds of angst and doubt about confidence in your professional life.

CS: Exactly.  I wonder about the missed relationships that I didn’t feel I could develop.  I wonder sometimes in some instances, Could I have been more successful? Could I have served my clients better?  While there were no great catastrophes, I am left wondering, If I had felt comfortable in bringing my whole and authentic self to work, would I have had more energy to have deeper human connection and engage in greater productivity?

SF: So that’s a huge cost, isn’t it?  What have you thought about or even assessed in terms of the economics of this cost?

CS: What we saw in our research are three main things.  First, covering is happening: not just in life or the law, but at work as well. 61 percent of our respondents said that they are actively involved in hiding an aspect of themselves while at work.  Second, and as a result of the first, people are showing up feeling sub-optimized in their roles.  Finally, people who cover or feel that they have to cover are contemplating walking out the door.  The real cost is to their productivity and retention.

SF:  Kenji, could give us the short version of what brought you to focus on this issue in your professional life, in addition to all the other work that you do as a constitutional law professor at Yale and now at NYU?

Kenji Yoshino: Kenji YoshinoFor me, it was driven by the experience of being a gay man in the workplace and particularly in academia. Like many other gay people, I overcame the demand to downplay my identity. It evolved from a time when I just wanted to be straight; to passing, which was when I was in the closet; to, by the time I entered the workforce, covering, which is when you admit you have a particular identity but make every effort to downplay it.  Stew, I’ll never forget walking down the corridors of Yale Law School as a junior law professor and having a very well-meaning colleague put his arm around me and say, “Kenji, you’ll do a lot better here if you’re a homosexual professional, than if you’re a professional homosexual.”

SF: What does that mean?

KY: I knew what he meant was that I would go further and faster if I were a constitutional law professor who just happened to be gay, rather than if I were the gay law professor who taught gay rights subjects and litigated gay rights cases and wrote on gay rights issues.  Unfortunately for me, my passion was the latter.  For a couple of years I tried to heed to his advice, but after a while, I realized that I would much rather not get tenure acting as somebody who I was, rather than get tenure as somebody who I wasn’t.

SF: How did you come to that decision, Kenji?

KY: I think it was really cumulative.  I sensed that I wasn’t doing the things that were at the front of my mind nor was I doing them at the top of my game and that those two feelings seemed to be related.  I looked peripherally, and I saw that my colleagues who taught constitutional law were teaching a lot more gay content in their classes. This was the 1990s when cases like Romer v. Evans were breaking and when same-sex marriage was on the horizon.  It was a very exciting time to be in that area of law, and I felt like it was crazy that I was gay and passionate about this but couldn’t bring myself to be involved in it.

Ultimately, the decisive factor was related to the person who actually mentored me when I was at Yale Law School – an openly gay man who came from the ACLU to teach a class on sexual orientation in law.  Once Yale had hired me on the tenure track, they no longer kept him on because he was just a lecturer, and they wanted somebody who was a full-time professor.  There was this kind of irony that they wanted a gay person but didn’t necessarily want – at least according to this individual who gave me advice – a person who was too passionate about working on gay rights issues.

That’s when I started wondering about what was going on and whether there was a word to describe this phenomenon. It wasn’t conversion or passing – nobody wanted me to be straight or to say I was straight or to stay in the closet – but it was this notion of “you can be different, but just downplay it.”  Instead of having diversity and inclusion, it was diversity or inclusion; you could be included so long as you downplayed the things that made you different.  I found the term “covering” from Erving Goffman.  The more I delved into it, I realized that it seems to hit LGBT people first, but once you start pulling on the thread, it really becomes a universal phenomenon.

SF: We all wear masks, right?

KY: Exactly. All the organizations that Christie and I survey believed in inclusion on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability, but when we actually talked to respondents about whether or not they felt like they had to downplay those identities in order to be fully included, we saw a supermajority saying that they had to choose between being included and being diverse.

SF: Wow.  So Christie, what did you make of that startling distinction?

CS: Well, it certainly wasn’t unanticipated. We did expect that we would find that traditional minority groups covered, on one dimension or another.  What we didn’t necessarily anticipate was that 45 percent of straight white men would also state that they covered or hid some aspect of themselves.  Many of the straight white men covered that they were participating in their son’s or daughter’s soccer game, for example.  They would say they were leaving for a meeting instead of leaving for the game.

SF: Was that the most common kind of covering activity by the straight white men in your study, or were there others that were also apparent?

KY: People reported covering age a lot as well; “I colored gray hair to look younger” was a common answer.  People also covered their class background, so if someone was coming from a working class background or their parents had not been professionals, that would be a form of affiliation-based covering.  People would cover their veteran status too.

SF: They would cover their veteran status because that was stigmatized?

KY: Yes, people would say that, particularly in advocacy-based covering, which is where you don’t stick up for your own group, that people would report hearing an anti-military joke and not speak up lest they be perceived as overly strident or militant.  But also, on affiliation-based grounds, veterans would also often report PTSD.  The veterans who reported affiliation-based covering on the basis of the PTSD were very candid.  I think we were actually honored by how candid the responses were.

SF:  Affiliation-based covering – could you define that term for our listeners, Kenji?

KY:  Affiliation-based covering is the form of covering of behaviors that can trigger stereotypes about you. The idea is that I might tell you very proudly that I’m a veteran, but I might not tell you that I have PTSD because I worry that will trigger you to have conscious or unconscious biases toward how I’m going to behave.

SF: So you were proud of those veterans in your study who spoke to you about the fact that they were doing such covering?

KY: Not exactly. I was proud of the fact that they were very candid about it, and that they were also very pragmatic.  Christie and I are very practical people, and we don’t want our research to just sit on a shelf.  We said, “What can we do to help you uncover yourself in ways that would be helpful to you?”  Some of our military respondents said, “When we were in the military itself, and we had PTSD, we had a buddy system so that somebody would know that we had PTSD and would actually support us when we were in situations where that manifested itself.” PTSD itself is not an easy fix, but assisting people who have it can be easier.  For example, say I’m going into a meeting, and I have PTSD.  A car backfires in the street, and I suddenly have an episode.  If Christie is there with me at the client meeting, and she knows my condition, she can actually help run interference for me.

SF: I want to make sure we get to what you have been doing with this research in practice by helping to raise consciousness. You were talking about the importance of really digging into how these stigmas play out in everyday life because that’s the only way we’re going to get to solutions.

CS: I think there are two buckets for the solutions.  One is the personal bucket: What will I do in order to uncover? The second is organizationally: What can an organization do to help?

On a personal level, there are five aspects we generally look to, but I’ll share a couple just to give you a flavor.  First is to develop your personal uncovered narrative – how does your personal diversity or experiences define who you are at work and your leadership? The second thing from a personal standpoint is to share your story – your personal uncovered narrative instead of your professional resume – and we have leaders who are actively doing this now. When they give presentations, they start with who they are, not what they are, and include their experiences growing up such as being the first to go to college in their family.

SF: Whatever has been a source of struggle for them – is that the key to the narrative, that it creates that sort of trust?

CS: It includes anything leaders believe they had to cover because they thought these might impact their sense of opportunity or commitment.

SF: When you’re coaching people, particularly executives, to be able to convey these stories, what do they wrestle with most? Or is it an easy thing for most people to be able to do?

CS: I think they wrestle with the vulnerability, first and foremost, but they also face an internal challenge because “this isn’t how we’ve always done it. 

SF:  How do you help them?  What do you do to coach people through that anxiety of vulnerability?

CS: We generally do that on an individual basis, through one-on-one coaching. We discuss what they stand for, what they’re hoping to accomplish from a business standpoint, and how revealing their own story – including the challenges they went through and overcame in developing a followership – will be useful in creating a culture of bringing diverse experiences in order to ultimately solve business problems on the table.

SF: So we’ve discussed your belief system about diversity and your personal story about where you’ve had to cover and how you’ve dealt with that.  What’s the third piece?

CS: I think it’s to dare to have the conversations across difference.  We’ve spent so much time in the past ten years talking about emotional intelligence as a great attribute to great leaders. That is certainly true, but what we need to do is to move to emotional maturity, which is a competency to take my own self-knowledge and create an environment in which I can have a conversation across difference and invite other people’s stories into the room.

That is a different competency; it takes more time, which we don’t like in our organizations, but it ultimately creates great teams and great innovation and enables us to delight our clients. From a personal standpoint, those are some of the things we look at.

Organizationally, we want to diagnose and analyze whether covering is happening in your organization, and, if it is, what the impact is. We administer our survey to understand where the blind spots are and where covering may be happening.  The second step is to understand where biases show up in your talent life cycle, so we examine the analytics in your hiring, retention, attrition, and performance management system.  The combination of those data sources gives us an opportunity to specifically identify where the breakdown or the stalling of leadership efforts is happening and ultimately provide point solutions to those business units, rather than just a blanket initiative across the entire organization, which is what we’ve done for thirty years.

SF: Kenji, what have you found to be most challenging about the work of engaging the organization or other institutions in doing the fundamental work of diagnostics?

KY: We actually haven’t struggled that much in the area of diagnostics. I think the real struggle has been in beginning the conversation.  Part of this project includes public education regarding self-diagnosis and organizational diagnosis, and it’s been happily a pretty smooth ride for both of us in terms of different sectors of society getting involved –

corporations but also educational institutions. Organizations are really driving to take the survey in order to understand both how they might be diminishing the authenticity and commitment of individuals who are in their organizations and how that might be hurting organizational effectiveness across the board.

SF: Can you tell us about a success story that you’re either in the midst of or that you’ve been a part of in doing this work of both diagnosis and then intervention to create meaningful change in an organization?

KY: Well, the phenomenon that Christie was sharing earlier was the “Share your Story” campaign at Deloitte, which is a form of mature vulnerability.   A number of versions of this have gone out, and I think they were outgrowths of Deloitte’s commitment to authenticity and leadership.  “Sharing your story” is exactly what Christie was alluding to earlier when leaders were videotaped and asked to tell not their resume stories, which are extremely polished and manicured, but rather to show up as human beings.

Harvard Business School Professor Robin Ely is fond of talking about “mature vulnerability,” which I think is a wonderful phrase.  The idea is that when you actually show up as a human being in one of these videos, the videos go viral within the organization because you have individuals who say that they had to cover the fact that they were gay or Latino or black or female and then explain how they overcame it.  That’s not only inspiring for people within their own cohorts, it also sends a broad signal which is particularly important to the millennial generation.

CS: I think one problem we’ve seen in our push to shift organizational mindsets for our clients occurs when you begin to talk about diversity and inclusion and all of the eyes straight, white men tend to glaze over.

SF: Why does that happen?

CS: I think it’s because they don’t feel or see a path through which they actually belong as participants in this conversation.  Rather than showing them as knights in shining armor that are coming in to sponsor a program or vilifying them because they have the roles that everybody wants, our research ironically levels the playing field for the straight, white males in the conversation of inclusion, and ultimately the adoption of the change management process is thus accelerated.

SF: So is that working?  What is the trigger that helps you get past the glaze?

KY: The trigger is the statistic.  When we present the fact that 45 percent of straight white men cover, they immediately want to know how they cover.  So when we start going through anything from veteran status to mental or physical illness to working class background, immediately people are leaning forward and engaged for the first time.  Many people in the room find themselves actually inside the paradigm.  They’re not outside looking in, rather, they’re actually part of this communal issue.

SF: What’s the main message that you want our listeners to take away?

KY: I would say to be yourself because being anybody else is a lot harder work, and you’re going to use up a lot of bandwidth to do it.  When you actually begin to be your authentic self and uncover that in public, you plug yourself into a power source that hugely benefits both you and your organization.

SF: Christie, what is your final word for our listeners in terms of what you want them to take away?

CS: I would agree that being your authentic self is important, but I think you also have to be particularly intentional. You have to develop that personal, uncovered narrative and connect it to how it defines who you are when you’re leading at work. Then you have to be able to share that story.


To learn more about Christie Smith’s and Kenji Yoshino’s work on uncovering you can visit www.deloitte.com/us/uncovering, check out Yoshino’s book, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights (Random House, 2006) and follow on Twitter @Kenji_yoshino.


Join Work and Life next Tuesday at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.

About the Author

Andrea YehAndrea Yeh is an undergraduate junior majoring in Operation and Information Management and in International Relations.


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