The workplace: Hiding who you are harms you and your career, study finds

EXETER, England — When you walk into your place of work in the morning, are you walking in as yourself or as a stranger? While the workplace is a place to wear your professional face (mostly), it’s also a place where you should feel comfortable and connected to your coworkers.

Turns out there’s good reason for that: A new study finds that hiding your true self at work can harm your career and your sense of belonging in the workplace.

Think about it: covering up who you are on a daily basis can be mentally and emotionally exhausting.

Group of people sitting at table
A new study finds that hiding your true self at work can harm your career and your sense of belonging in the workplace.

For the study, researchers at University of Exeter focused on commonly stigmatized characteristics, such as being lesbian gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) and having a history poverty or mental or physical illness. They sought to see how disguising such conditions could affect one’s ability to thrive.

“When someone conceals their true identity, their social interactions suffer – and this has an impact not just on the individual, but also on the organisation they work for,” says co-author Professor Manuela Barreto in a university press release. “Our findings suggest that openness about one’s identity is often beneficial for stigmatised individuals, the stigmatised group and their workplace.”

When employers fail to create this sense of belonging among their employees, it’s difficult for the individual to find their purpose in work, which then impacts their ability to be productive.

More specifically, the researchers found that hiding these characteristics from co-workers reduces their self-esteem, job fulfillment and job commitment. Despite the illusion that hiding these stigmatized characteristics can protect us from workplace discrimination, individuals are hurting themselves more.

The findings were based on multiple studies they analyzed from the Netherlands and the US. In one of the experiments, they had 95 men and women (lesbian, gay or bisexual) describe a time when they either concealed or revealed a stigmatized characteristic about themselves. In another one, the researchers proposed imaginary scenarios to 303 participants that either involved, again, concealing or revealing.

In both experiments, participants were then asked how they would feel after hiding or sharing the stigmatized characteristic. The answers resulted in their conclusion stated above: lower sense of belonging and job fulfillment and commitment.

“What we need are environments where people don’t need to hide – inclusive environments where people don’t have to make a choice between being liked and being authentic,” says Barreto. “Workplaces that push individuals to hide their differences do not erase difference – they simply encourage masking and concealment of diversity. Given that identity concealment is by nature an invisible act, its social and organisational costs may also be difficult to detect, explain and correct.”

While the idea of being open at all times is ideal, the researchers recognize that in some contexts, unfortunately, it seems worth it to keep your personal information to yourself to avoid negativity and unfair discrimination (although it will still take a toll on the individual).

Encouraging complete openness and transparency can turn the office into a more comfortable place that allows employees to enjoy working.

The study’s findings were published in June in the Journal of Social Issues.


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