Each person has many different identities and attributes – gender, ethnicity, professional status, weight, parental status – that both construct and impact how we view ourselves and how we believe others will see, react and interact with us.
Some of these identities are labeled 'conspicuous', such as gender, race or physical disability are clearly visible to others within an interaction, however, we possess the ability to conceal some attributes of ourselves over a belief that revealing may cause more harm - these types of stigmas are labeled 'consealable' and may cover areas such as sexuality, mental illness, HIV/AIDS, if you have been sexually abused as well as others.
Additionally, we have the capacity to show ourselves differently within different scenarios. For example, you would not necessarily know that someone standing next to you in the supermarket queue is a GP, however, if you saw them in their workplace, you would naturally assume that they are.
A person who previously had major depression but is now symptom-free cannot be identified by others. Notably, for many concealable identities, people can choose to make the identity known to others. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people may tell friends and family about their sexual orientation but keep the information private from co-workers.
Costs of Hiding, Displaying, and Distancing
People living with stigmatised identities regularly face prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination, biases that have a considerable negative impact on wellbeing and life outcomes. However, because it is possible to keep a concealable stigmatised identity hidden from others and thereby attempt to avoid stigmatisation, it is often assumed that concealable stigmatised identities are less problematic than conspicuous ones.
Hiding or distancing a consealable stigmatised identity can have huge personal and professional costs on an individual level and includes increased anxiety and/or depression, elevated risk of physical and/or mental health illness, and increased stress. Professionally this could take the form of career progression being slowed down or not being selected for projects.
Individuals often conceal their identities in the workplace with a view to being more accepted, viewed more favourably, or perhaps to avoid discrimination. However, research has shown that concealment often tends to have the opposite effect: leading individuals to feel lower in belonging and acceptance.
As a result, research has observed that those individuals who elect to hide their consealable stigmatised identity really struggle to 'win' in a workplace environment – if they reveal their stigmatise identity they run the risk of further discrimination, however, studies have also shown that when hiding (vs. revealing) a stigmatised identity is detected by individuals who do not necessarily have any stigmatised identity to hide - they have less positive impressions of the person, and of the interaction, when the person conceals an identity.
Moreover, recent research suggests that self-group distancing behaviour by particular genders, but mainly female, in leadership positions has harmful effects for junior employees exposed to this behaviour. Thus, while self-group distancing can allow leaders who are members of stigmatised group to cope with experienced threats, it may increase negative consequences for subordinates coming up in the ranks.
Possible actions to take if you’re thinking of being your 'authentic' self
Here are four questions that may help you decide whether to remain concealed or whether you want to start to change your identity at work.
What’s your evidence for believing you’ll be penalised? Have you actually seen others receive professional punishment for being themselves?
We might believe we know how a certain action or disclosure would be received, but it’s important to remember that unless you’ve seen direct evidence, it’s only conjecture. That grizzled, macho supervisor may actually have a gay brother, and while he doesn’t promote it – he may just be there to support you.
And even if you’ve heard about negative consequences in the past, it’s also possible that circumstances have changed. For example, with nearly 40% of 18-to-29-year-olds sporting tattoos, employers - even if they dislike tattoos personally, may have to accept they can’t afford to rule out nearly half their applicants.
What’s the worst that could happen? It’s also important to understand the ramifications if you do decide to show your authentic self at work. For some categories, the consequences are serious and should be evaluated carefully.
Luckily there is legislation in place within the UK to protect the rights of employees – in some countries this is not the case and thus should be considered ever more carefully. For example, there are still some states in the US that do not have written anti-discrimination policies for LGBT employees.
For others, the implications may loom larger in your imagination. Would they fire you if they knew you were a member of The Freemasons? Probably not. Would it cause them to think you “weren’t a cultural fit” and slow down your career progress? Possibly, but you also have the opportunity to demonstrate in other ways, such as excellence in your job and building good relationships with colleagues, that you actually do gel with the corporate culture (provided it's one that you’d like to stay with).
What exactly would you do differently if you were acting like your real self? "I can’t be my real self" is a painful yet amorphous feeling. Pinning down the specifics is useful, however, because certain elements of self-expression may be easier to attain than you think. Think about how you would dress, speak, and act differently at work if you were being your real self. How does that compare to your behaviour today? You may still need to wear a suit to work, for instance, but there’s likely room to showcase your creative flair with colourful socks or interesting ties.
It’s also quite possible that your co-workers will respond positively to seeing more of your genuine interests and personality.
Is there a way to conduct a pilot? Finally, if it feels risky to go "all in" on being yourself at work, think about a small experiment you could try to test the waters.
For instance, if you’re naturally funny but tamp down your humour at work because "it’s not done" at your company, try cracking a few (carefully chosen) jokes one day. See what sort of response you receive. Did others seem to notice? Did you receive any feedback, positive or negative?
Turn to a trusted colleague to ask his or her opinion.
If the response was negative, you've gotten useful information. Fortunately, a small trial balloon almost certainly won’t hurt your long-term career prospects; you can go back to showcasing your more serious side. But if the response was positive or neutral (i.e., no one really cared), then you can continue your experiment for a week and keep monitoring the reaction.
You may, in fact, inspire others and lighten up the entire office with your behaviour; it’s possible that the sombre demeanour wasn’t a requirement, but merely a habit that everyone followed in lockstep.
If you feel you can’t be yourself at work, sometimes that may really be true. But it’s important to question our assumptions because we may discover there’s more leeway for self-expression than we had previously imagined.