A person’s gender, race, and age are often fairly obvious at first introduction. But many other meaningful characteristics — such as a person’s religion, sexual orientation, or parental status — are not immediately visible. People whose invisible characteristics are commonly stigmatized or devalued in the workplace have to make decisions regarding if, when, how, and to whom they will disclose these identities to, while weighing the costs and benefits of their choices.
Undoubtedly, prejudice and discrimination post-disclosure do occur. Yet openly discussing an important aspect of one’s identity can also result in support from colleagues and other affirming experiences. Consistent with this latter possibility, an emerging body of research suggests that being open and authentic about one’s invisible identities typically yields positive psychological and job outcomes.
For example, should you talk about your religion at work? To try to answer this question, we conducted a series of studies to better understand the consequences of disclosing this potentially concealable identity in the workplace.
In one experimental field study (currently under review at an academic journal), student experimenters sought to apply for job openings in retail stores. During the interaction, another student experimenter who was acting as an observer facilitated a situation in which the religious affiliation of the applicant was “outed.” Subsequently, these applicant experimenters either openly discussed or attempted to hide a Christian, Jewish, or Muslim identity. All interactions were audio recorded and evaluated by separate student coders.
Interactions were rated as more positive by job applicants, observers, and coders when religion was openly discussed than when it was hidden. Researchers controlled for the gender and ethnicity of hiring managers (as reported by applicant and observer) as well as religion if the hiring manager was overtly displaying any religious identifiers (i.e., a cross or hijab). Additionally, to ensure stores were equivalent in nature, additional controls were monitored including the type of retail store (e.g., clothing, jewelry, home goods), its upscale rating, and how crowded it was at the time of the interaction.
We also conducted a separate online study and found that when 263 employees with hiring experience evaluated experimentally manipulated resumes and video interviews of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim job applicants, they responded more favorably to applicants who openly discussed their religion. Specifically, these individuals liked, trusted, and felt less awkward toward hypothetical applicants when they embraced, rather than hid, their religion. These findings held after controlling for several employee characteristics, including their self-reported gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and religiosity. This study yielded similar results to the previous one in which we found that findings were consistent across religious affiliations.
Examples of the benefits of disclosure extend beyond religious groups. Specifically, we conducted an experience sampling study in which lesbian, gay, and bisexual workers completed surveys any time they had to decide whether to reveal their LGB identity to a new person at work. We found that revealing was related to greater positive emotions for these employees. Another set of surveys conducted over the course of women’s pregnancies found that women who engaged in more revealing behaviors received greater support and experienced fewer physical health symptoms, especially in earlier stages of pregnancy.
Lastly, our team conducted a meta-analysis (also still under review at an academic journal) that analyzed 65 unique studies in which outcomes of identity management strategies were examined. Corroborating the results of our primary studies, we found that the benefits of disclosure indeed extend to a variety of stigmatized categories, including sexual orientation, religion, mental illness, HIV status, and pregnancy, to name a few. These benefits include both workplace outcomes (such as improved job satisfaction, decreased turnover intentions, increased likelihood of being hired and positive evaluations) as well as life outcomes (improved life satisfaction and decreased anxiety).
These results suggest that employees — even those with often-stigmatized identities — can reap benefits by being open and authentic about themselves. When people communicate their true identities, they tend to elicit more positive reactions from others, are more liked and trusted, and have more opportunities for support from their coworkers.
It is critical, however, to recognize the situations in which the costs of disclosure outweigh the benefits. Our work and the work of others have found specific conditions in which disclosures are less effective or in some cases even harmful. This tends to occur when it happens very early in the time span of an interaction; in one study, for example, an applicant was penalized when they disclosed their sexual orientation in the second interview question versus the 20th. It also happens within hostile workplace environments with unsupportive organizational cultures or supervisors, or in the absence of protective workplace policies.
Many employees may feel the need to be cautious about bringing all aspects of their identity to the workplace. In some cases, this is warranted. However, it is important to remember that hiding important aspects of oneself can sometimes be more damaging.