Why Reveal Your Disability or ‘Hidden Identity’ at Work?

It may be best to talk to your boss about your disability.

Posted Dec 19, 2016

By Robert T. Keating and Alecia M. Santuzzi

Consider the following scenario:

Tom was recently promoted at work but is finding that his dyslexia interferes with his new responsibilities. He wants to disclose his disability to his supervisor so he can discuss possible accommodations. However, he fears his supervisor and coworkers might treat him differently or even question whether he really has a disability.

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Tom has to decide whether to keep his disability hidden or request accommodations. Nondisclosure might affect his ability to do his best on the job. If he makes his disability known, he risks being judged in a negative light by co-workers.

Tom is not alone. Many people choose to keep their disabilities and other types of identities hidden because they think they will face discrimination or be rejected by their co-workers (Newheiser & Barreto, 2014). However, recent research suggests keeping things hidden on the job could lead to negative consequences.

There are several hidden psychological and social costs associated with nondisclosure. Keeping an identity secret:

  • Drains cognitive resources. Concealing an identity can be mentally taxing because individuals are preoccupied with keeping their identity secret (Smart & Wegner, 1999). This leaves less mental energy for the job, which can make it hard to do one’s best work (Jones & King, 2014).
  • Makes people feel fake. Individuals who conceal their identities can feel guilt and shame for not being honest, which in turn makes one feel less self-confident (Barreto, Ellemers, & Banal, 2006) and lowers job satisfaction (Cote & Morgan, 2002).
  • Disrupts social interactions. Although hiding an identity might avoid stigma and discrimination in the short term (Goffman, 1963), concealing over time can have a negative impact on the quality of one’s social life.

So how does it negatively affect one’s social life?

  • Sharing information about oneself is important for building social relationships (Collins & Miller, 1994). When people keep personal issues hidden from others, they don’t create strong friendships because they are less likely to share about themselves. People we interact with, such as coworkers, tend to be sensitive to those who close themselves off and respond in kind.
  • Hiding information about an identity or disability could lead people to like us less. Hiding information makes one act less natural, and social interactions are usually not smooth. Concealing personal information can make you seem less likeable (Newheiser & Barreto, 2014). This could be problematic in the workplace as impression management is important for building a professional identity (Roberts, 2005).

With so many negative consequences of concealing information about oneself, we should consider creating work environments that encourage people to be open about an identity or disability. As employers, supervisors and colleagues, how can we help reduce the stigma that prevents people from talking openly?

  • Encourage a supportive work environment. When individuals have supportive supervisors and coworkers, they are more likely to feel safe talking about their identities. This was an important determinant for lesbian, gay and bisexual employees who disclosed their sexual identities at work (Ragins, Singh, Cornwell, 2007).
  • Encourage positive reactions to disclosure. When people in a work place notice that others disclosing does not lead to bad things happening, it provides a cue that it is safe for them to disclose (von Schrader, Malzer, & Bruyere, 2014).
  • Foster inclusion. Organizations are inclusive when they provide their members with both a sense of belonging to the group and a sense that they are welcome to be themselves (Jansen, Otten, van der Zee, & Jans, 2014). Making all employees feel included and valued might effectively promote a positive environment for disclosure.

Our own research supports these ideas of belongingness and individuality.

For example, respondents to an online survey reported that their feelings of belonging to their organizations and being welcomed and encouraged to be themselves were positively related to their intentions to disclose a disability to others at work.

Prejudice, discrimination and other signs of social stigma in the workplace can be very difficult to eliminate. But it’s in the best interest of organizations to create environments that reduce negative social reactions and allow employees to experience the positive outcomes of openly discussing their identities.

Robert Keating is a graduate student in Northern Illinois University’s Social and Industrial/Organizational Psychology Doctoral Program. His primary research interest focuses on inclusion in the workplace, with a current focus on the role of inclusivity in managing concealable stigmatized identities in the workplace.

Alecia Santuzzi is an associate professor in the psychology department at Northern Illinois University. Her primary research interest focuses on social experiences in the workplace, with a particular interest in invisible disabilities and other concealable identities.


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