Hiding a part of who you are is a costly proposition. For the first ten years of my career, I never shared with my colleagues that I was born in Jamaica. My logic was that a) I wanted to separate my work from my personal life and b) I was not comfortable talking about a country I knew very little about. It took suffering some disappointments, like not being included in key meetings or not being invited to certain social events, for me to learn that leaving this part of my identity at the door came with a cost. Withholding aspects of who I am made it harder to cultivate meaningful connections, and that equated to lost opportunities for relationships with colleagues. Not only did I lose out, but the company did as well. I was slow to gain professional wisdom and grow as a leader when I kept people at arm’s length.
For some people, the cost of withholding a part of themselves is not just abstract, it’s quantifiable. At the age of thirty-nine, KR Liu had already spent $60,000 covering up or compensating for a part of who she is. KR has severe hearing loss because of complications from being born premature. Raised in a loving household, she was always encouraged to pursue her passions, but she was also teased and bullied mercilessly at school because she had to wear a hearing aide. Excelling at sports, and using it to fit in, she began to hide her disability.
At seventeen, just before graduating from high school, KR accepted her first job in a tech company. But she soon learned the company was not going to pay for the $500 headset she needed to amplify sound when she communicated with customers over the phone, and she became despondent. That was just one of countless times KR had to spend her own money on hearing aids and other devices not covered by insurance. She said she just wanted to be treated like everyone else, and she was willing to do whatever it would take to compete and succeed. In those first 11 years of her career, she did become hugely successful, but she also kept her hearing loss a secret.
There are as many reasons for hiding one’s identity in the workplace as there are people who work. Fear of being ostracized is perhaps the most common, and it often leads people to hide something about themselves to lessen the attention on that characteristic or to prevent others from feeling uncomfortable. This is such a common phenomenon that the term “covering” has been coined to describe it. In fact, the report Uncovering Talent shows that 61% of all employees “cover” their identities in some way.
It makes sense that we do this. Human beings want to feel they’re a part of a group. When we show our authentic selves, we lower our chances of fitting in. But the cost of covering can be great; our social interactions can suffer and so can our commitment to or passion for our work. In contrast, imagine the benefits we could gain from being true to ourselves:
- Increased feeling of inclusion because of diminished isolation
- Greater discretionary effort due to more energy for work
- Better performance because of the ability to be more focused
- Higher personal satisfaction overall
Research shows that employees, their colleagues and the organizations they work for all benefit when they are able to be authentic. The very thing that makes you unique could be a valuable asset to you and the organization.
Unfortunately, it’s probably not prudent to be 100% open 100% of the time. But in an ideal world, workplaces would be inclusive environments where people wouldn’t have to make a choice between fitting in or being true to themselves and wouldn’t have to worry, like KR, whether or not their bosses will support their career growth or stifle it.
Today, KR Liu, who I interviewed for my book on remarkable women, is a highly successful marketing executive, sought-after speaker, active board member and staunch advocate for people at risk of being excluded. Among her many achievements, including being honored with the US Congressional Award, the one that stands out would probably never have happened if she had continued to cover up her hearing loss: was she successfully lobbied congress to pass the Over-The-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017. The law gives the FDA three years to set new guidelines that will allow the technology industry to enter the hearing device market.
Although she knows it’s not easy to be vulnerable, KR does not advocate that anyone keep any part of their identity a secret. In fact, she wishes she had had the courage to be more open sooner because it would have saved her a lot of stress and emotional toll. “I should have just stood up for myself,” she says. “I should have said, ‘This is who I am. You can accept it or not, but I know who I am, and I am confident in myself.’”
As our interview came to a close, KR said that if somebody doesn't like you because of who you are, then they don't belong in your world. And her message to people in leadership positions is to remember that creating an inclusive environment isn’t hard, but it does require checking egos at the door and taking a genuine interest in people. It starts with sharing who you are and inviting others to do the same, whether you’re born in Jamaica or hearing-impaired or have any of the countless other attributes that enhance the contributions you can make in the workplace.
What are you hiding? It’s time to tell us who you really are.