Hiding One's True Self in the Workplace
Published on July 11, 2017
Vice President, Human Capital Management Innovation at Ultimate Software
Most of us like to think that we are who we are at home and at work, and the simplicity of that fact affords us the freedom to be productive and expressive, our best selves. Yet, for many people, it isn’t so simple and it can get really complicated, particularly in the workplace. I was curious about what the cost might be, of not being able to be your whole, most productive self at work because you can’t just be who you are.
We know that 95% of people say their ability to be truly themselves at work is directly tied to how they feel in the workplace, according to a recent study by the Center for Generational Kinetics. While employees say their treatment by employers is more important than the company’s mission and value proposition, nearly half feel they are not being treated fairly at work. Their employer’s people philosophy has failed them.
Having the freedom to live life on one’s own terms is the new American Dream, says results from an Economist Intelligence Unit survey. Unfortunately, millions of employees who are not neurotypical or express different gender identities cannot live their lives on their own terms. Only 19 states and Washington, D.C. protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from employment discrimination. In 28 states, LGBT people can be fired simply for being themselves.
As a result, LGBT people are compelled to hide their sexual and gender preferences not only when applying for jobs, but also after they’re hired. They may be “out” in their social lives, but among colleagues at work, they wear the mask of conformity.
Not all employers in the 28 states discriminate against LGBT people or permit behaviors internally that encourage bias. Nevertheless, the absence of actual legal protections could suggest that there is a psychological toll in wearing a mask to hide gender or sexual preference. I recently learned that this outcome was very real and harmful.
A colleague introduced me to the work of Robert-Paul Juster, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Research Fellow, in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University’s Division of Gender, Sexuality & Health. Robert has studied the psychological and biological effects of stigmatizing LGB people in several controlled research projects. Compared with heterosexuals, closeted LGB people who experience perceived discrimination have more mood and anxiety disorders, suicidal ideation and attempts, cigarette smoking, and alcohol and drug use. These devastating outcomes were attributed to higher levels of cortisol (the stress hormone).
“We collected the saliva of LGB people who were out, closeted LGB people, and heterosexual people to measure and compare their levels of cortisol,” Robert explained. “While there were no major differences in biology stress indicators among the subjects by sexual orientation, the determining factor for the differences in cortisol levels was whether or not the LGB participants were out to their families and friends.” The findings underline the important role that self-acceptance and disclosure have on a LGB person’s positive health and wellbeing.
To obtain a more comprehensive profile, Robert and his fellow researchers also collected 20 physiological measures like cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose. Again, LGB people who were less avoidant about their ‘coming out’ had better health indicators. “Being out had a healthy, cathartic effect,” Robert said.
“Our results from Montreal are in stark contrast to an initial study of another group in Arizona, a state with few LGBT protections. Here, gay and bisexual men who came out, specifically at work, had higher levels of cortisol—just the opposite effect. They also self-reported more negative emotional states than those who were not out at work. So where you live is also important in determining the health and wellness benefits of disclosure.
A study by L. Zachary DuBois was recently conducted on the psychological impact for transitioning stressors among transgender men. Transgender men who experienced heighted stigma and stress related to their transitioning identity, ‘coming out’, and using public restrooms showed markedly higher cortisol levels throughout the day compared to transgender men experiencing less social stress. “These findings among transgender men from Massachusetts and Vermont again show how stigma can ‘get under the skin and skull’ of marginized people” says Robert, the senior author of this study.
Neurodiverse people (those on the autism spectrum, with ADHD, and bipolar disorder, for example) face comparable challenges, and even health impacts, since neurodiversity is often equated with mental illness.
Neurodiversity advocates define non-neurotypical people as having a variation in normal human functioning rather than a disorder to be cured. Yet, the neurodiverse potentially require accommodations to reach maxiumum productivity, and since some of these conditions are also covered under the ADA, the stigma of mental illness is often placed on non-neurotypical people.
This can lead to fear and exclusion, because the assumed instability and violent nature of people with mental illness prevents the neurodiverse from openly expressing their requirements. And they have every reason to be concerned, as 58% of Americans do not want someone who is mentally ill in their workplaces, according to a study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior (Vol. 41, No. 2).
The upshot is that being one’s self in the workplace appears to have a salutary effect on mental health. Hiding in the closet may have the opposite effect.
When asked what can be done in the workplace to encourage neurodiversity and LGBT people to embrace and not fear coming out, Robert was realistic. “In large companies, HR organizes these workshops that celebrate people’s uniqueness and individuality and that’s great,” he said. “But it’s harder to do that in a small company, particularly one with a macho culture where there may be only one LGBT person.”
He added, “This is more of a societal issue. The more people recognize that we are vastly more complementary than we are different, the less we will fear our differences. The hope is that we will actually celebrate them—to the benefit of everyone’s health.”
I couldn't agree more. Being out in the workplace isn’t just the right thing from a public policy and health standpoint, it’s also the right people-first philosophy, allowing all of us to realize the new American Dream.
For more of my thoughts on putting people first in the workplace, follow my musings on Ultimate Software’s Blog.