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Covering At Work – The Ongoing Reality Of Being Ourselves At Work

Written by: Dr. Helen Ofosu, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


To call these complicated times feels like a massive understatement. We’re deep into a global pandemic that forced an instant organizational change onto millions of employees and employers. Racial justice issues and workplace inclusion remain high priorities for the employees most impacted by these issues and their allies. Plus, the US and Canada are dealing with the highest interest rates in 40 years and threats of recession.

Group of people working at a creative office wearing facemasks.

Since the summer of 2020, diversity has seemed “in” and “essential.” Yet, what is still happening in some workplaces is discouraging despite years of platitudes. Diversity includes who is being hired, who’s being developed and promoted, and who is sitting around influential tables. In contrast, inclusion is the behavior that welcomes and embraces diversity. If you are an effective and inclusive leader, you have figured out how to embrace and welcome diverse voices and identities fully. According to a report published by Deloitte in 2019, most employees actively cover up aspects of their identities that they believe are unwelcome and/or stigmatized. In other words, they are intentionally downplaying who they are. While not addressed by Deloitte, I believe that covering at work is done to avoid the pain of exclusion or other forms of mistreatment. For example, “… women are doing it more, LGBT people are doing it more, people of colour are doing it more. And the study also shows that white men cover to a degree as well — almost 50% of the men in their study. They have a political affiliation that’s unlike their peers, or they have a disability, or they are married to a woman of colour.” This means that considerable mental and creative energy is being diverted into covering at work instead of doing one’s actual work because of real or perceived workplace expectations. This means that despite having diversity within your workforce, there’s a good chance that you’re not reaping the rewards of it. Also, all this covering at work just to survive suggests that people cannot entirely focus on developing the best products and services because of their preoccupation on survival. This hurts the individual who would not need to cover if they had adequate psychological safety. This also disadvantages the organizations where people are covering at work since there’s a leakage of mental and emotional energy away from developing and delivering products and services and towards self-protection. This is not just an American problem. A “study of 700 Canadian men and women identifying as Black, East Asian and South Asian… by non-profit women’s advocacy organization Catalyst in association with Ascend Canada found Canadian people of colour carry an extra weight at work that’s so significant that it impacts their health and often causes them to contemplate quitting. The weight is known as an “emotional tax” — a feeling of being different from peers at work because of gender, race or ethnicity, which can affect a person’s well-being and ability to thrive in their job” (Tara Deschamps, July 19, 2019). So, whether you’re a co-worker, leader, or business owner, the workplace culture that you contribute to may have a more significant impact than you know. For example, did you know that many people have been quietly dreading a return to the physical or hybrid workplace? Sometimes, this dread is linked to a long and arduous commute. This kind of dread is understandable and easy to talk about. In this current article, however, I want to focus on the racial dread that countless employees are quietly experiencing because of inadequate inclusion at work. I have spoken to Black, Muslim, and other non-Black racialized people who have acknowledged that they have been very productive and happier while working from home during these pandemic years. They preferred working from home because they no longer needed to deal with modern racism, including microaggressions and inadequate inclusion. They also avoided the additional labour of covering at work.

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Dr. Helen Ofosu, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Dr. Helen Ofosu has been practising Industrial / Organizational Psychology (also known as Work or Business Psychology) in the public and private sectors for almost 20 years. In addition to Career and Executive Coaching, her specialties include the assessment and development of leadership skills, and navigating the complex issues of workplace bullying, harassment, diversity and inclusion. Dr. Ofosu is one of the founding officers of the Section on Black Psychology, Canadian Psychological Association and she’s thrilled to have written a new book “How to be Resilient in Your Career: Facing Up to Barriers at Work” that will be published by Routledge in February 2023.



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