We've All Been Lying at the Office

Why We Should Stop 'Covering' Our True Identities

Nov 27, 2018

By Nicole M. Coomber

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  The meeting was still going at 2:30 p.m. on a Friday, which was the scheduled end time, and I had kids to pick up from school. I was happy when another colleague began packing up her notebook and said, “I’m sorry, guys, I’ve got to run to another meeting.”

I said, almost to myself, “Yes, I’ve got to pick up kids from school.” I don’t think anyone heard me, and I followed my colleague out of the conference room as the meeting wrapped up.

My reticence to voice my reason for leaving the meeting is ironic. After all, I worked on a video series at work called “Managing Motherhood,” featuring my four children, complete with a photo of me on a laptop surrounded by my four wild boys. My office has pictures of all four of the boys as well as their artwork, and my speaking engagements usually revolve around how to “balance” career and motherhood. Of all people to set a clear boundary about leaving a meeting at its scheduled time to pick up children from school, it should be me.

The phenomenon of “covering” our true identities in the workplace, however, is a common experience for people from all backgrounds. In a Deloitte study on Uncovering Talent, 61 percent of employees reported covering their true identity in some way at work.

LBGTQ individuals felt they needed to keep their sexuality in the closet. Mothers refrained from discussing their children so they would seem more dedicated on their work. Black employees felt the need to wear their hair in certain ways or refrain from discussing racially charged topics in the news. Even straight white men, who are usually not the subject of diversity and inclusion efforts, covered in a variety of ways, from family status to health issues.

As the report from Deloitte points out, covering is not something that “others” do. It’s something we all do.

Research at a top strategy consulting firm demonstrated the benefits some employees realize from engaging in covering behaviors. Many men at the firm, who despite family obligations were expected to put in 80-hour work weeks, found ways to keep their load more manageable. Some would slip out to attend their child’s soccer game; others cultivated relationships with local clients to cut down on their travel.

Women at the firm often sought formal agreements to work fewer hours or cut back on travel while men essentially “pretended” to continue to pull the 80-hour-a-week load.

That research might suggest that “covering” is the way to go to advance in your career, especially when other recent research finds that scaling back on hours can create a pay gap from which you will never recover. That study, by researchers at the U.S. Census Bureau, found that women who had their first child between the prime career-building ages of 25 to 35 never recovered from the hit to their career earnings potential, fueling much of the current gender pay gap.

Ultimately, both individuals and organizations benefit from allowing all employees to, as Sheryl Sandberg put it, “bring your whole self to work.” Pretending to work 80 hours a week while really putting in fewer hours makes true balance between work and personal time seem impossible, and doesn’t encourage organizations to support their employees’ well-being as people. And cutting back on hours because of family obligations can be a lifelong career blow.

Instead, for organizations to retain talented employees, encouraging them to “uncover” their true identity helps in a number of ways. The energy put in to hiding your true identity can go into your work instead. And it’s likely that clients and customers look just like our workplaces — full of people from a number of different backgrounds, including moms and dads. Allowing our employees to be their true selves gives them the freedom to speak about how a firm’s products and services might benefit people like them, giving firms a competitive advantage.

While next time I need to leave a meeting I might not shout, “I have to go because I’m a MOM, everybody!” I also might not wait for another colleague to take the lead. Asking our leaders to “uncover” and be their true selves at work is one way we can encourage employees to be themselves, and by being honest about how I “manage motherhood” with my colleagues and students, I hope to inspire them to see themselves as capable of handling parenting and a job successfully.




About the Expert(s)

Nicole M. Coomber

Nicole Coomber is on the faculty in the Management & Organization area at the Robert H. Smith School of Business.

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