Fitting in is a functional part of human nature. We’ve evolved to build community by establishing commonality, and corporate diversity and inclusion initiatives have emerged to help expand the collaborative impact of workplace culture. But what happens when fitting in keeps you from becoming who you’re supposed to be?
That was the case for Collin, a Northrop Grumman engineer in Palmdale, California. What he kept from his colleagues was more profound than an opinion or personal taste: Collin covered his full, authentic self. Collin is a trans-masculine person, and there was a time when he had transitioned in his personal life, going by a new name and pronouns, but he hadn’t told anyone at work. He felt like he wasn’t really showing up for his job because really, he wasn’t. He was hiding who he was.
Collin makes the impact of this identity dissonance clear: “It affected my productivity and my ability to be fully present.”
Uncovering Our Full Potential
The term “covering” means hiding or downplaying part of your identity. While we all do this to some extent, many individuals who identify as members of minority or underrepresented groups don’t use this technique as a temporary social balm but rather a protection against potential prejudice. Over time, covering can have significant negative impacts on mental and emotional health, along with workplace productivity.
“I think once people are able to be themselves, then they can feel comfortable bringing certain ideas to the table. For the company, that’s great. You want that diversity of thought.”
Arielle, Electronics Engineering Manager
Ultimately, Collin decided he had to bring his whole, authentic self to work, and he came out to his coworkers. They accepted him for who he is, and he says he’s thankful that he works at a company that aspires to foster a safe environment and workplace culture where employees shouldn’t feel the need to cover. “Now that I am able to bring myself to work, I’ve been able to step into new roles and really blossom, and be the engineer that I know I’m meant to be,” he says.
Changing the Status Quo
Northrop Grumman promotes a unified, inclusive culture that encourages everyone to challenge traditional notions about what’s acceptable to talk about, express, or even wear in the office, and actively works to bring new voices forward.
Arielle, an electronics engineering manager in Palmdale, laughingly describes herself as “dramatic and extra.” She likes to dress in bright, colorful clothes that represent her personality. During the early stage of her career, Arielle grappled with feedback that the way she dressed could impact how seriously her colleagues would perceive her. As a female engineer with Black and Puerto Rican roots, Arielle already felt she faced an increased level of scrutiny around how she presented herself.
With the support of her family, Arielle decided to keep dressing in a professional way that gave her the most confidence and was true to herself. Over time, she says she felt her work environment evolve to a place where people are more comfortable to be authentic and express their identities. “I think once people are able to be themselves, then they can feel comfortable bringing certain ideas to the table,” says Arielle. “For the company, that’s great. You want that diversity of thought.”
Having the Hard Conversations
Doc, an agile staffing manager in Palmdale, says he sometimes keeps his feelings on issues around race quiet at work. But when protests broke out all over the country after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Doc, who is Black, says he had trouble leaving his feelings at home. While many workplaces traditionally discourage discussions about contentious political issues, Doc and other members of an employee resource group called the African-American Task Group approached company leadership to express their passion for an open dialogue at work about social justice and racial equity. “While your job may not be affected by what’s happening in Minnesota, your life is affected,” he says. “Your focus is affected.”
Northrop Grumman agreed and facilitated discussions through resources posted in the unity and social justice portal on the company intranet, which also connects employees to counseling and mental health services. And Northrop Grumman went beyond talk to take action by donating $1 million to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Doc says this show of support meant a lot, and he sees it as a framework for respectful discussions on different viewpoints going forward. “To be a part of a company that doesn’t skate around social justice and unity really helps,” says Doc.
Driving True Diversity
Collin suggested that employees who want to create a more inclusive environment should credit and repeat opinions and thoughts from diverse colleagues; this can help the person feel more valued and included in the conversation. Doc recommended that employees put a quick stop to inappropriate comments and make it clear that they disagree with hateful or degrading statements. Northrop Grumman’s expectations are crystal clear: The company does not tolerate racism, discrimination, harassment, retaliation or hateful behavior. We are committed to equality, diversity and inclusion.
Both Collin and Doc also brought up the importance of recognizing that few people fit into neat categorical boxes. Acknowledging our differences can help everyone feel better understood and have their needs met. In particular, Collin says, understanding the intersectionality between different identities and where they overlap — which, in many cases, is between more than one underrepresented group, such as a disabled veteran, or Black woman engineer — can be very empowering.
“When you feel truly accepted and celebrated, you’re a lot more comfortable,” he says. “The work environment would probably be a lot more vibrant if we support each other in bringing our whole, authentic selves to work.”
Put simply, true diversity and inclusion aren’t about tolerating difference — it’s about celebrating the passion, potential and performance that diverse individuals bring to the table.
Ready to define possible and help change workplace culture from the ground up? Explore your authentic identity with Northrop Grumman.
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