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Too Many Employees Feel the Need to "Cover" Their Identities

Good managers enable their employees to feel comfortable being themselves.

I spend an undue amount of time thinking and reading about management — specifically, about relationships between managers and employees, and how managers can be more effective.

As this tends to be pretty well-trod ground, it’s not too often one comes across a new path… especially when that path is in such plain sight it should have been have been obvious all along.

But that’s how I felt recently when I happened across a 2014 Harvard Business Review piece by Dorie Clark and Christie Smith: “Help Your Employees Be Themselves at Work.”

Wikimedia Commons
Andrew Stevovich, "Diana's Little Venice Party," oil painting
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s a brief but insightful article, worth reading in its entirety. Here, let’s just say they make the basic point that hiding one’s true identity hinders professional performance, and they provide statistics showing just how prevalent in the workplace this sort of unfortunate behavior is.

The authors discuss the notion of “covering” — meaning the tendency to downplay or hide “certain aspects of yourself so as not to appear different.” They cite data from a Deloitte study, “Uncovering Talent: A New Model of Inclusion,” showing that “61% of all employees ‘cover’ their identities in some way.”

Breaking out the numbers for different segments of the population, the study reports “covering” activities by 83% of LGBT individuals, 79% of blacks, 66% of women, 63% of Hispanics, and 45% of straight white males. In short, it appears seriously common on multiple fronts.

The authors conclude: “Enabling employees to feel comfortable being themselves could unlock dramatic performance gains because they can focus their attention on work, rather than hiding parts of themselves.”

Or, to put it another way, as I often like to say:

People don’t do their best work anxious. Why would they? Work is hard enough even when you can completely concentrate on it. Add extra layers of unnecessary stress, worry, anxiety — whatever you want to call them — and it’s a very reasonable bet that performance focus will only diminish.

So what can managers do? Most importantly (and simply), they can create an environment where employees are comfortable being themselves.

This is in no way an abdication of managerial authority — good managers always demand excellence and manage to high standards — but simply saying that employees should be encouraged to be individuals… to be themselves… while at work. In all likelihood productivity will only increase without considerable energy being wasted covering up something that shouldn’t need to be covered.

For many years I managed advertising and marketing — unusually creative business functions even in conservative industries — and I’d go so far as to say that over the years my most valuable employees were often, for lack of a better term, “a little different.” Meaning they were unique individuals, with their own unique personalities and needs and quirks and habits.

But they were also brilliant. And highly creative.

One thing I know for sure: They did exceptional work for our company.


What do readers think about this issue? I'm always interested to hear their perspectives…

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This article first appeared at

Victor is author of The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World.

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