Starting a new job or project, meeting a new boss or presenting to a new audience – even for the most confident among us, these are moments that can cause us to question ourselves. If you feel you’ve got something to cover up, that can be even more the case. It’s important to recognise how much of a load that can be on colleagues and what you can do to relieve them of it.
I’m not talking about outrageous secrets. I’m talking about simple personal facts that for many reasons you might feel a societal pressure to "cover up". Maybe you’re a single parent, you’re devoutly religious, you worry about your accent or culture, you have an invisible disability or you’re gay – the list goes on. None of these is anything to be ashamed about, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a hidden pressure to cover them up – a worry that if you don’t conform, you might be excluded or overlooked.
Covering up makes everything that little bit more complicated. I’m a gay man, so for me it means questions about my personal life lead to unexpected micro-decisions every day. When asked what I did at the weekend, do I mention I was there with my boyfriend? When someone asks if I’m married or have kids, do I just laugh and say I only have a dog? Do I use the fact that I’m engaged and say "fiancé" to swerve the discussion altogether?
I’m a World Federation of Advertisers global diversity ambassador who regularly talks about this and even I have moments when I check myself. Part of this is down to working in a global business, where I often speak to people in countries with potentially very different considerations around homosexuality to my own (not that attitudes are universally positive here).
I’m lucky enough to have never fully experienced homophobia in my career (although I have certainly seen it), but I still occasionally swerve a moment like this. So I try to do the exact opposite and make a deliberate point of saying it, because I know from my own experience that seeing other "out" people in the business or deliberate allies has helped make me more comfortable in myself. I’m also a white, middle-class, native-English-speaking, well-educated man, meaning I’m given lots of unfair privilege that to an extent negates my need to cover up. It can be much harder for other people to do the same.
Stonewall’s research found that 62% of graduates go back into the closet when they enter the job market, even if they’ve finally managed to come out in their personal lives. Nearly all of us are covering something up, but chances are this nuance is a fantastic perspective we could actually be embracing. We’re at an important moment in the diversity conversation and understanding "covering up" is part of unpacking that.
When your colleagues have to cover up, they are expending mental and creative agency just to tread water. It can discourage active participation and engagement, and directly leads to well-documented mental-health implications. Ultimately, you’re not really benefiting from the diversity of your workforce if you accidentally force them all to think and act the same.
If you personally have an aspect of diversity that you feel the need to cover up, it is not your job to change hostile office environments and it’s understandable if you don’t think you can try to chip away at those. Sadly, all too often it isn’t just in your head. I encourage you to try to bring a little more of your full self to work or at least to start talking to some colleagues about it, as it can be a huge weight off your shoulders. We all need to create a work culture where it’s truly OK to be your true self before we can ask everyone to do so.
If you’re in a senior position, I urge you to do so loudly and vocally. When we’re back in the office, shout about the fact you are leaving early to pick up your kids, talk about your same-sex partner or share more about your unusual background. Positively role modelling the fact that we’re all going through such things sets the mood for everyone else in your team to follow.
Straight, white men wondering how they play a part in the current diversity discussion can join in too – leave the office loudly to go pick up your kids too. Show understanding and compassion for those around you and immediately shut down any back chat you hear or are tempted to join.
Realising that many of your colleagues will be covering up something is the first step in better understanding and working with them. Leaders need to own this topic, talk about it and even train your people on how to manage it. Look at the systematic processes in your business and identify any that limits diversity and inclusion, and ask yourself whether looking for a "cultural fit" with new hires is just looking for more of the same.
It has been 10 years since I started at Cadbury, the first job since I had come out to friends and family. One of my first memories is a lunch near the old Fallon office with my new colleagues Alison and Rupal, where the question came up about what I did at the weekend. I bit the bullet and there was a collective sigh of relief when I mentioned that I had done something with my boyfriend. Once I got past the shock that I clearly wasn’t quite as straight-acting as I told myself I was, I immediately relaxed – I could be myself. But it’s that fear of the unknown response, or the drain of the extra explanation that might be needed, that keeps a lot of us covering up.
At WFA, alongside Belinda Smith and the fantastic team there, we’re going to try to keep the industry talking about this until we start to see real change. We created a new "Approach to Diversity & Inclusion Guide" and we launched a diversity and inclusion community with an active task force to keep pushing the industry forward.
The advertising industry has a long way to go to improve its diversity full stop. In time, we may get better at hitting diversity targets, but we won’t ever be truly inclusive until we learn to stop covering up. There’s some diversity sitting under our noses right now that will do more for our businesses and help people go further in their personal careers, if we just give everyone a chance to be themselves.
Jerry Daykin is senior media director, EMEA, at GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare, a World Federation of Advertisers diversity ambassador and volunteer commercial director at Outvertising