Which hidden identity should stay hidden in the Workplace?

Laura E. Mercer Traavik

People with non-visible differences, like religion, sexual orientation and some disabilities, must make a choice, to tell or not tell about their identity at the workplace.

As our private spaces transform into public arenas and with the growing understanding of individual differences, and the increasing call for diversity management and integration, there is an underlying assumption that we must share and disclose all who of we are at work.

Some differences are visible (race, gender, and age), however, other differences are not (religion, sexual orientation, some disabilities). 

To tell or not to tell
Those people with non-visible differences must make a strategic choice, to tell or not tell about their identity at the workplace.  There can be a dark side in sharing your non– visible identities.

Not all differences are equal and some identities have low social status or even stigma attached to them, such as being HIV positive. The bright side of sharing who we are at work can include improved relationships with supervisors and coworkers, lower stress, health benefits and organizational inclusion. So the question remains whether to tell or not tell?

Disclosure of low-status identities
Previous research shows that disclosure of low status identities such as having a disability or non-heterosexual orientation can lead to discrimination in hiring, promotions, and performance evaluations. In addition, differences in status between individuals who are demographically dissimilar from one another can hinder the development of good relationships at work.

Researcher Phillips and colleagues present a model illustrating how disclosing a lower status identity may increase distance between people rather than decrease it. 

However, if individuals choose not to share their non-visible identity this can also have negative consequences. Self disclosure is at the heart of building trust in relationships and coworkers can feel betrayed or lied to if a co-worker’s non-visible identity (such as being in a same sex marriage) becomes known and they were not told.

Managing diversity
Managing diversity is becoming increasingly important for organizations in Scandinavian, Europe and globally, and often the first step in implementing these practices is to map the existing diversity in the organization.

This step in diversity management can exert pressure on individuals to disclose their non-visible identity, even if there are possible negative consequences.  This inspired me to examine the anticipated effects of disclosing different non-visible identities. 

I collected preliminary data on how people view the disclosure of non-visible identities in the workplace.  I conducted a simple experiment randomly assigning 61 respondents to one of three conditions investigating their perceptions of the disclosure of one of three different non-visible identities.

Reactions to disclosure
Using a vignette about an individual disclosing either their sexual orientation (bisexual), or their beliefs (atheism or feminism) I asked for the respondents whether they thought disclosing, for example being a feminist would be positive or negative for the individual at the workplace.

Using bipolar adjectives the responses could range from positive (easy, comfortable, safe) to negative (difficult, stressful etc.). The respondents also indicated whether they thought that the employees who disclosed their identity would experience more or less (bullying, trust, and liking).

My initial findings indicate that people thought that an individual’s disclosure of sexual identity as opposed to their feminist or atheist beliefs would be more negative for the individual. 

However, respondents reported that they thought disclosing sexual orientation would lead to increased trust from co-workers.  On the other hand, disclosing ones feminist beliefs was anticipated to lead to more bullying.  These preliminary results indicate that depending on the identity being disclosed one can expect different repercussions in the workplace, both in terms of the negative or positive experiences, but also in terms of relationships with others.

Can have a large impact at work
To tell or not to tell about one’s background such as one’s sexual orientation, disability, or religious beliefs can have a large impact at work. 

By sharing with your employer about your background, you can ensure that the appropriate workplace accommodations are made and that inclusion and diversity initiatives are successful, you can also build trust and good relationships with others.  However, this is not always the case as disclosing can lead to distance and discrimination.  So what is the answer?

Organizations and managers implementing diversity policies must understand the difference with differences and that disclosure cannot be expected from individuals until the organization can guarantee a safe and inclusive environment. 

As I continue my research, I hope to find out in more detail the status differences between identity groups and the risks and benefits of disclosure in the Norwegian workplace. 


Drydakis, N. (2015). Sexual orientation discrimination in the United Kingdom’s labour market: A field experiment. Human Relations. doi: 10.1177/0018726715569855
Phillips, K. W., Rothbard, N. P., & Dumas, T. L. (2009). To disclose or not to disclose? Status distance and self-disclosure in diverse environments. Academy of Management Review, 34(4), 710-732. doi: 10.5465/AMR.2009.44886051
von Schrader, S., Malzer, V., & Bruyère, S. (2014). Perspectives on Disability Disclosure: The Importance of Employer Practices and Workplace Climate. Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, 26(4), 237-255. doi: 10.1007/s10672-013-9227-9

This article is published in BI Leadership Magazine 2015/2016. 

BI Leadership Magazine is a Science Communication Magazine published by the Department of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at the BI Norwegian Business School.

Published 30. November 2015

You can also see all news here.