On October 28, Christie Smith, the managing principal of the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion, visited the Broad College to speak about the results of her research and what can be done to foster a greater sense of inclusiveness in workplace environments.
Smith’s talk, titled “It’s Time to Get Under the Covers,” addressed a phenomenon she and her research partners refer to as “covering”—when people hide elements of their identities in order to conform and thereby avoid discrimination in the workplace. In a cross-industry research study, 61 percent of respondents reported covering some area of their lives.
“People who cover feel less than, sub-optimized,” said Smith. “Those who feel this demand are contemplating walking out the door. It’s a productivity and retention issue for many organizations.”
Smith made the statistics personal by sharing workplace experiences of professionals who cover, from an African-American woman who devoted great energy to keeping her hair straight to a gay man who shaped his persona around sports to her own experiences. Smith was in a World Trade Center restaurant on September 11, 2001. She lived through the plane crash but developed post-traumatic stress disorder, which she hid for several years in an attempt to live up to the identity she felt she ought to have.
The Q&A after the talk turned to solutions to the extensive cultural problem of people feeling they need to cover themselves.
Deloitte pursued an organizational solution recommended by research participants. They launched a “share your story” video campaign in which the top 60–80 leaders talked about something they’d covered about themselves. As staff saw their leaders in a new light, they became more open with them.
On a personal level, Smith suggested several strategies.
“Individuals need to really think about their personal, uncovered narrative—to define it, to think about how that defines them,” she said. “They need to do their homework on an organization’s values and make sure they test those values right off the bat in interviews.”
She also recommended modeling a “basic inquisitive nature about someone,” asking others about their experiences and providing opportunities for them to share.
“The fact that you were hired puts you in a leadership role,” Smith noted.
Students responded positively to the discussion of workplace values and identity.
Lauren Little (BA Finance ’15) appreciated the discussion of “what Deloitte’s culture is like, how they incorporate more data related to research on how people function and do well at work.”
“I actually left a past company because the culture wasn’t for me, so I appreciate their steps to make the culture more inclusive,” she said.
Aiden Wong, a student consultant for MSU’s Office for International Students and Scholars, saw this expression of support from the American corporate world as an encouragement to him as an international student who had been coached to cover his differences. “There is hope, something to look forward to,” he said.