Kenji Yoshino explores the cost of conformity at work

With a diversity and inclusion officer posted at most major companies, bias in the workplace would seem a thing of the past. And yet, only one percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are black. Less than five percent are women. None are openly gay. Kenji Yoshino, Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law, wants to know why.

Professor Kenji YoshinoLast September, the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion—an initiative of Deloitte University in Westlake, Texas—released a white paper co-authored by Yoshino and their managing principal Christie Smith entitled “Uncovering talent: A new model for inclusion.” Yoshino and Smith hypothesized that the pressure to “cover” prevents members of minority groups—and even straight white men—from bringing their authentic selves to work, and that this affects job satisfaction.

“Underrepresented groups pay a ‘tax,’ which we call ‘covering,’ in which they are asked to downplay their identity in order to fit into the mainstream,” Yoshino said at the 14th Annual Korematsu Lecture on April 1, at which he presented the data produced through this initiative.

Yoshino credits Erving Goffman with naming this phenomenon in his 1963 book Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Goffman used Franklin D. Roosevelt as an example: To take attention away from his disability, the president would “cover” by having himself seated behind a desk prior to meeting with advisers.

Yoshino has long had an interest in this topic. Published in 2006 by Random House, his book Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights was praised by in the New York Times: “[H]e presents his story and weaves in the legal cases in such an engaging way that we really do feel newly inspired.” American culture may celebrate the melting pot, but Yoshino asks, “What happens when individuals who don’t feel comfortable adhering to those norms are asked to do so, and feel pressured to do so?” Five colleges have assigned this award-winning book as a first-year read for all incoming students.

Yoshino and Deloitte’s survey asked respondents whether they covered along four axes: appearance, affiliation, advocacy, and association. For instance, reflecting on her appearance-based covering, one respondent said, “[W]hen I wore my natural hair it always seemed to be the subject of conversation as if that single feature defined who I am as a person.” Another respondent shared a memory of affiliation-based covering: “Even though I am of Chinese descent, I would never correct people if they make jokes or comments about Asian stereotypes.”

The white paper’s results included 3,129 respondents from seven industries; a shorter version was published in March in the Harvard Business Review. The white paper corroborated what Yoshino had seen in the case law he discussed in his book: A majority of employees surveyed—61 percent—felt pressure to cover some facet of their identities at work. Straight white men—45 percent—also admitted to covering aspects like age and mental health issues.

“The issue is not formal inclusion—none of these individuals complained of exclusion from a particular work situation. The question was not whether they were included, but on what terms they felt their inclusion rested,” Yoshino and Smith wrote in the white paper. “Often that perceived social contract involved managing aspects of their identity in a way that the dominant group would not have to do. These individuals felt they had to work their identities alongside their jobs.”

The research isn’t over yet. This summer, Yoshino and Deloitte will release papers on the Leadership Center for Inclusion’s website highlighting specific groups, such as women of color, LGBT, and straight white men. In the fall, they plan to administer an education survey on university campuses. Meanwhile, they are also soliciting respondents for the second version of their survey, encouraging law firms in particular to take it.

Yoshino and Smith say change must come from the top. While half of survey respondents said they felt pressured to cover by both company leadership and company culture, the real damage happened when leadership emphasized covering. Of the 48 percent of respondents who said they felt pressured by company culture, only 27 percent said it harmed their commitment to the organization. Yet of the 53 percent who said they felt pressured by leadership, a whopping 50 percent said it undermined their dedication to the organization.

“Individuals leave managers, not organizations,” Yoshino quipped, underscoring the potential loss of talent.

As a result, Yoshino and Smith have proposed the Uncovering Talent model, a series of steps that organizations can follow to reevaluate what they communicate to employees about covering. For example, after self-reflection, an organization can decide it can legitimately ask employees to engage in appearance-based covering like wearing formal business attire, but that pressuring employees to cover their family responsibilities is uncalled for.

Then, the next step, Yoshino and Smith emphasized, is for management to change their own behavior at work. As one survey respondent put it, “Leaders have to uncover first. If they don’t, we won’t.”

When employees can bring their real selves to work, the results are inspiring. The September 2013 white paper reported that 21 percent of respondents had “uncovered”—with positive results. “Once I decided to bring my whole self to work,” one said, “it was liberating and I became a lot more productive and successful.”

Posted April 30, 2014