Lead With Inclusion

How to welcome “undisclosed” identities at work

April 17, 2024

One moment that’s stuck with me is when a gentleman from HR said this during a session I facilitated:

“We don’t pay enough attention to neurological conditions and mental illness in the workplace,” he said. “So many people come to me about their depression and their fear that they can’t tell anyone because of the stigma.”

Can you relate? Whether due to a mental health condition, chronic illness, or neurodiversity, a lot of professionals have “invisible” identities that impact how they experience the workplace. Unfortunately, many of these identities are stigmatized, leaving people to make this uncomfortable calculation:

Is it worth being myself at work and speaking candidly about what I’m dealing with? What if I get labeled “the depressed employee” or passed over as someone who can’t cope when stretch assignments or leadership opportunities arise?

Be an Inclusive Leader:

My initial reaction to the comment in my session showed me my own bias towards visible identities: afterall, I’m a Black woman and I don’t have a choice about whether to keep those identities private.

Some identities are usually visible—race, gender identity, (some) disabilities, age. Others are visible lessoften, and leave the burden on the individual whether to disclose them: neurological differences, sexual orientation, (some) disabilities, mental wellness, religion, chronic illness, and more.

All kinds of diversity deserve respect and recognition.

My knee-jerk reaction made me realize that I was missing out on a unifying aspect of the human experience: No matter how you identify, it feels bad when something about you is ignored, belittled, mocked, overlooked, or stigmatized. It feels bad when you don’t have the psychological safety to bring your full self to your job or relationships.

This is a reminder that we ALL have bias, and it’s important that we be respectful and inclusive of ALL people—including those whose identities aren’t obvious to us.

Lead with Inclusion:

The uncomfortable truth is that when someone’s marginalized identity isn’t visible, it’s easy for us to ignore it. That’s not because we don’t care, but because we’re all biased toward our own experience of the world. If your experience hasn’t included, say, long Covid or clinical anxiety, you’re unlikely to consider what people with those experiences need at work to thrive.

That’s why mindful self-awareness and self-education are key to being inclusive of and welcoming to all identities and experiences in the workplace.

Here are concrete ways you can expand your awareness and education, and take action within your company:

  1. Consider how your company’s policies could accommodate diverse working needs: do you offer flex time? What about personal leave for anyreason (as opposed to specific caregiving leave or sick time)?
  2. When recruiting, post flexible jobs to job sites dedicated to people with less visible marginalized identities, like Chronically Capable.
  3. Know that people who experience mental health conditions or chronic illness may not feel safe disclosing those personal details at work. It’s never appropriate to confront or call out someone at work (or gossip about them behind their back).
  4. Subscribe to a podcast by and for an audience with a less visible identity. Here’s one from my friend Shannah.
  5. Recognize the need to learn more about dimensions of diversity you’re less familiar with
  6. Make the time and effort to connect with team members you don’t know, with openness and curiosity

I’d love to hear what your company has done to include less visible forms of diversity. What changes has leadership made to be accommodating? What resources are available? Have you seen a good example at work of this kind of inclusion and support? Do share in the comments.

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