By Dr. Nika White 

President and CEO, Nika White Consulting, Best Selling Author of “The Intentional Inclusionist®” and “Next-Level Inclusionist: Transform Your Work and Yourself for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Success”

Masking, or covering, is the practice of people feeling as though they can’t show up fully as themselves—personally or professionally. At its simplest definition, masking is when people disguise who they are.

Through a diversity and inclusion lens, masking causes people to cover up, conform to mainstream thinking, and shrink back portions of their identity. People end up covering what they’re really thinking and feeling as a way of coping, especially in the workplace.

Masking is detrimental to the benefits that diversity and inclusion work brings. If people aren’t bringing their full selves to work and do not feel safe to disagree or have a different perspective‚ this does harm to the individual and the organization. This occurs more often in marginalized, oppressed, and disenfranchised populations. It is a symptom of their psychological safety being compromised.

The Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion report, Uncovering Talent, reveals that 61% of all employees “cover” their identities in some way – not necessarily hiding something, but downplaying it for fear of drawing unwanted attention or making others uncomfortable.” 

We have to support productive environments and mindsets where people can “unmask” and show up as their true selves. When we show up fully—we are more productive, more authentic, and business has the potential to improve.  

6 Ways to Minimize Masking in the Workplace

#1. Be very intentional about creating (and encouraging) a culture that finds healthy conflict to be normal. 

This is vital. We have to welcome differences of opinion and open dialogue. Encouraging this level of banter produces greater problem solving, a higher level of creativity and greater innovation and—ultimately—leads to more competitive advantage.

Create a culture that doesn’t only welcome this type of conversation, but also encourages disagreement and healthy conflict. This is not something that can passively be done, but must be integrated into leadership, general communication, standards, and company culture.

See my other blogs here and here for tips in relationship to this. 

#2. Once you create more diversity, you have to manage diversity

It’s a tough pill to swallow but diversity by itself doesn’t necessarily bring results. It’s the effective management of that diversity that brings results. This is why we pair it with the concepts of inclusion and equity.

One standout diversity and inclusion leader I often quote is Kenji Yoshino, the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU and former Guido Calabresi Professor of Law at Yale Law School. Kenji is frequently quoted in regards to masking from his book, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights.

In one famous study, Kenji surveyed 3000 employees across 10 industries.

“Each organization had a stated commitment to inclusion, yet 61% of the survey participants said they had faced overt or implicit pressure to cover in some way or to downplay their differences from the mainstream. 66% of these employees said that it significantly undermined their sense of self. 50% stated that it diminished their sense of commitment. Other stats from this study:

  • 29% altered their attire, grooming or mannerisms to make their identity less obvious
  • 40% refrained from behavior commonly associated with a given identity
  • 57% avoided sticking up for their identity group
  • 18% limited contact with members of a group they belong to”

These are very interesting statistics since we’re speaking about organizations who have a specific statement dedicated to diversity and inclusion. From their vantage point, they’re putting procedures into practice and being systematic about infiltrating all aspects of the organization. Yet, we still see over 50% of people still having these experiences to feel implicit pressure to cover or mask. 

This is why some people say diversity can work against you. This is only the case if diversity is not effectively managed.

If people feel they have to mask, because their levels of uniqueness and authenticity are not being effectively managed, this results in people being less committed to organizations. It causes them to undermine their sense of self. 

So what has to happen? These businesses and organizations need to create systems for learning and development. They must create systems with the goal to improve cultural competence and manage diversity for successful outcomes.  

#3. Give people the full liberty to disagree with both each other and leadership.

Another way to create environments where masking is minimized is to allow employees to be vocal with leadership.

This is understandably hard for people to do and takes some training, coaching, and a culture that values speaking up. It also takes coaching with those who are in senior levels of influence. Sometimes people don’t come forth because they fear the risk of retaliation. Or they fear how they may be treated after having fully shown up in a capacity that allows them to freely align with their identity.

Working with a diversity and inclusion specialist or coach can be extremely beneficial in helping leaders, teams, and employees to better foster this open communication. 

#4. Shout it out from the rooftops — be vocal everywhere.

Along with being vocal to leadership, I believe people should be vocal everywhere: at work, at home, to friends, throughout their daily life. We have to normalize people being their most authentic selves in society. 

A simple example I like to give (and I am actively vocal about) is African American or ethnic hair. Women of color often go through long, expensive, and complicated processes to make their hair not look like the way it grows naturally out of their head!

This may sound simple or trite but it’s vital to a person’s authentic and God-given identity. If we don’t feel comfortable enough showing up as our natural selves (and we have to spend extra time and money to change it) — how can we truly be a diverse, inclusive, and equitable society? How can we foster diverse and inclusive workplaces? People should be empowered to feel natural and comfortable.

A simple switch in an employee feeling empowered to be completely “natural” and authentically themselves can ripple into their productivity and engagement with the workplace.

#5. Create a feeling of belongingness

One element that helps organizations better address the reduction of masking or covering is by placing a high emphasis on authenticity and the sense of belongingness.

Create a culture of acceptance. If you have a leader who is high in belongingness, who also has a high value of authenticity, then you usually have an environment that is very inclusive. This means individuals in environments are treated as insiders but also allowed, encouraged, and welcomed to maintain a level of authenticity in that workgroup.

What does exclusion look like? When people in an organization are not treated as insiders with unique value. When they are viewed as the “other” or “lesser than”. If the people on the “outside” can cleary view other employees or specific groups of employees as “the insiders” then there is an issue that needs to be resolved. 

What does inclusion look like? Insiders of all types are welcomed and expected to keep a high level of authenticity. 

#6. Mindfulness in the workplace

Lastly, “mindfulness” is a word that’s used in so many ways these days, but I believe in its importance. I talk about mindfulness a lot because the bottom line is if you can’t manage yourself, you can’t manage and lead others.

Mindfulness is important for leaders and those writing the reports on this subject. It’s important so they can be more thoughtful about situational awareness. If we are mindful, we have a greater propensity to have self-awareness to observe what’s happening and what’s not happening. We are being more intentional to try and notice where inclusion can be compromised and that’s important because it gives us the opportunity to potentially change the outcome.

Being a mindful individual in this regard means you can practice intentional inclusion consistently. The challenge is that it’s easy to approach a situation with unconscious bias — meaning we are operating from a place of “not being aware”. Lack of awareness leads to blind spots, blind spots leads to exclusion, and this can lead to people leaving an organization or having to mask to “survive” in that environment.

It’s a domino effect. But we can move in the right direction if we’re more mindful by creating cultures of positive momentum towards authenticity.

Conclusion

In my work, I always talk about becoming an Intentional Inclusionist. We have to find proactive ways to create safe spaces for people to feel their contributions are valued. And I don’t think enough organizations are doing that specifically. 

We talk about culture, but how are we really connecting those conversations to psychological safety? Because that’s the big part in all of this. 

What are you, your team, your leadership and your organization doing to foster environments where employees can show up authentically, and fully, as their true selves?

Let’s unmask so we can show up as ourselves. Because this is better for people and better for business.