The word hell comes to us through the Anglo-Saxon roots of English and from the Proto-Indo-European word kel, which means to conceal or cover up.
If you’ve ever concealed anything about yourself, you understand the hell of closeting your feelings, inclinations, history, or identity. We all have secrets, of course, but if you haven’t had to hide anything as deep as your identity, ask someone who’s recently come out of the closet. They’ll tell you it can be hell.
Obviously you want your employees to feel comfortable at work, primarily because it’s the right thing to do, but also for pragmatic reasons. People perform better when they feel comfortable, when they don’t feel they have to hide what they believe or who they are. When they can proudly proclaim who and what they are.
Closeted employees, on the other hand, spend time and energy concealing their sexual orientation. Time and energy they could be applying to work or self-improvement. The same goes for people who embrace minority political or religious beliefs and those who feel they have to play down physical disabilities or hide a common emotional problem like depression.
Research indicates that while more than a third of openly gay employees feel that their orientation hinders their career development, more than half of closeted LGBT employees feel even more isolated and stagnated.
A study out of the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion claims that 61 percent of all employees feel they must hide or downplay something.
In Help Your Employees Be Themselves at Work, Dorie Clark and Christie Smith explain how complicated and subtle hiding can become.
A gay person might be technically out, but not display pictures of his partner at work. A working mom might never talk about her kids, so as to appear “serious” about her career. A straight white man – 45% of whom also report covering – might keep quiet about a mental health issue he’s facing.
Leadership Intimacy challenges leaders to know not only who their employees say they are or what they appear to be, but the truth. In other words, it begins with you, the leader.
Let your employees know who you are. Be open, honest, and candid. You don’t have to show your dirty laundry, but if you express your anxieties, flaws, and failures in the proper context, your employees will understand that they can be open too.
Start the kind of conversations that allow your employees to express whatever they may have on their mind. It won’t be long, as long as they perceive you as non-judgmental, before you learn what they may be hiding. Then respond without judging them.
Unless your employee confesses to being an underground terrorist hitman, express your acceptance. Don’t judge or express your disagreement, unless they specifically ask what you think. Then agree to disagree and couch your views in their ability to do their job despite your conflicting opinions.
Many companies talk diversity and inclusion but come up short on delivery. Raise your voice as a leader in your organization if and when you see an employee hiding out of fear of exposure. Your company has not done it’s job if any employee fears expressing his or her true self. Until they do, make sure inclusion rules on your patch.