This is part of a series. Check out the following if you would like to see more:

Lessons for Human Resources Professionals: The Care and Feeding of Employees – Part One »

Lessons for Human Resources Professionals: Health and Wellness Programs – Part Two »

Lessons for Human Resources Professionals: Supporting Employees Dietary Needs – Part Three »

Lessons for Human Resources Professionals: Legal Implications – Part Four »

And now, let’s talk about covering

A meeting planner manages and hosts recruiting events for employers. The events bring in thousands of young applicants to meet with potential employers of major Fortune 500 companies. Over the course of the week, there are multiple meal functions. Since she has food allergies herself, she takes managing the dietary needs of the recruiters and applicants very seriously. She works diligently with the hotel staff to ensure that everyone can eat safely.

Last year, at the final dinner where the applicants were dining with the employers most likely to hire them, the catering team told the planner that her special meal requests were way off; none of the special meals had been picked up. She could not figure out why, since all week they were spot on.

She investigated the matter and found out that the applicants did not request their “special” meals because they did not want to be looked upon as burdensome employees, those who might cause hassles in the workplace. This phenomenon, called “covering,” coined in 1963 by sociologist Erving Goffman, also occurs when young women remove their wedding rings to prevent potential employers from assuming that they would leave work to have children.

CoveringCovering is unacceptable on many fronts. But as Kenji Yoshino and Christie Smith point out in their study “Uncovering Talent: A New Model of Inclusion,” most inclusion efforts do not address the pressure to conform to workplace standards. For example, an Indian man accepted the chicken salad plate presented to him at lunch, and ate only the lettuce around the chicken, because he did not want to ask for a vegetarian meal. John, a vegan who was interning at a company who offered him a job upon graduation, was not partaking in the intern pizza lunch. Instead of asking if a vegan pizza could be ordered, he ate the iceberg lettuce instead.

So how does a human resources professional ensure that employees aren’t covering – that they feel safe enough to admit their dietary needs instead of settling for lettuce? The best option would be to let employees choose their meals from menus that offer allergy-free, gluten-free, vegetarian/vegan, kosher and halal options. When that isn’t possible, make it clear to employees and potential employees that your workplace does not discriminate on the basis of disability or religion. When employees are reminded of this, they will often be brave enough to be honest about their needs.