Earnings and Yearnings: Identity Cleft

Should you be yourself at work?

By Michele Lent Hirsch, published on May 3, 2011 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

The thought of avoiding talk of politics and religion seems almost quaint in our tell-all age. But while we breezily flout that old-school code much of the time, experts suggest heeding it at work. Yes, they point out, sharing deep aspects of yourself with colleagues can help you forge bonds—but it may not be worth the risk. Let on about your lifestyle or beliefs, and you may find coworkers unreceptive at best, or mean and retaliative at worst.

"You're vulnerable at all times," says management expert Donna Flagg. The truth is, there are crummy people—and they may lurk at a desk near you. While nobody should be discriminated against, there's a lot more than legality to consider when deciding how much to reveal.

Though each person must decide for herself whether her peers are unconditionally accepting, somewhat judgmental, or downright hostile to specific traits, certain guidelines can help. Here are some illustrative examples and tips to use in constructing your workplace persona.

Coming Out

When Wall Street analyst Michael Jacobs begins a job, he doesn't let on that he's gay. "I normally try to establish myself as part of the team and keep my personal life, including sexuality, on the sidelines." If he feels comfortable after a while, Jacobs considers telling select peers. While working at a law firm several years ago, Jacobs recalls, his boss tried to set him up with a beautiful female client. But when he mentioned his plan to a coworker—who replied, "Uhh, he's gay!"—the boss promptly realized his mistake. Once his boss apologized for making assumptions, "we both laughed about it," says Jacobs. When he later worked at a hedge fund, however, Jacobs made sure to keep his sexuality to himself. People there stuck to business, he says. "I didn't know of anyone else who'd come out."

Jacobs's approach is spot-on, says Jessica Pryce-Jones, author of Happiness at Work. "If I were going to disclose something about myself, I would really want to know whether I'm safe." She suggests test-disclosing: bringing up a minor but related tidbit and tracking the result. If, for instance, you sense poor reactions upon mentioning a gay television character, stop there.

Nando Pelusi, a clinical psychologist based in New York, agrees—with a crucial caveat. Be honest about your motives, says Pelusi. Hiding a trait out of shame isn't healthy: It means you need to work on separating your self-worth from group acceptance. It's great to be strategic about what identity you project at work—as long as you're motivated by practicality, not internal discomfort. Note: It remains legal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in 29 U.S. states.

In Good Faith

Saiyyidah Zaidi, a London-based architect and practicing Muslim, hasn't always been observant. After an epiphany 12 years ago, she became actively religious—and more at peace with herself, too. When higher-ups at a government office failed to accommodate her request for a prayer space, Zaidi ended up praying in a storage closet. As long as it worked, she says, "I wasn't going to become a vigilante." Entering work with a "victim" mentality is harmful, says Zaidi. If a colleague acts unpleasantly, she takes a step back. Rather than assume "they did that because I'm a Muslim," she asks herself: How has this person behaved toward others? If there's still a problem, she raises it in unofficial channels first.

"If you live your whole life just waiting to be accepted, you're going to live a life of anxiety and misery," says Pelusi. Rejection can be disruptive and sad, he acknowledges, but it shouldn't undermine your identity. While religious discrimination is illegal, the rules—and how each individual feels—are not always black and white. Far from a doormat, Zaidi voices concern when she thinks it's warranted; otherwise, she adapts to environments without compromising her faith. "I [still] have a conflict as to whether I should wear my headscarf to interviews," Zaidi admits—but wear it she does. If a place rejects her because of it, she says, "would I really want to work there anyhow?"

Party Lines

At his old San Francisco ad firm, it sometimes took years before Matt S., a libertarian, would broach politics with a peer. Rather than risk someone losing respect for him, Matt would wait—and wait—for a relationship to take off before evincing his ideology. When coworkers blithely inserted "little political jabs in conversations" to signal their bleeding-heart views, Matt realized he was in hostile territory. Indeed, all of San Francisco seemed proudly intolerant of free-market thinkers. Now 42, Matt still avoids aggressive debates, but is less nervous about being found out. "Maybe as a younger person you care more about approval," he says. These days, "if somebody disagrees, they disagree." Matt also surrounds himself with people who know it's "just politics"—who won't reject him out of hand due to ideological disputes. Perhaps not coincidentally, he's also entered a field with a high percentage of libertarian sentiment. Now in the tech world, he says, he feels more at ease.

Unless you're on the campaign trail, says Flagg, there's no reason to discuss politics at work. If it's eminently clear you're not surrounded by like-minded people, ask yourself: Am I uncomfortable enough to go elsewhere? Matt still had a fine time in San Francisco, he says, despite the chasm between him and his coworkers. For others, the difference is too great. Decide how much you're willing to stretch your boundaries, says Pryce-Jones.

Trying to swing it in a sea of ill-matched colleagues? Think of your work-self as a role to play, says Pryce-Jones—like James Bond or the Queen. "When Shakespeare said 'All the world's a stage,' " she adds, "he should've said, 'especially at work!'"

Want more from the experts? Look for these blogs at psychologytoday.com:

Donna Flagg: Office Diaries

Nando Pelusi: Locus of Control

Jessica Pryce-Jones: Happiness at Work