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Build Your Career Office Life

Be Yourself! Hiding Who You Are Is Bad for Your Career

Be Yourself! Hiding Who You Are Is Bad for Your Career
Credit: I Believe I Can Fly/Shutterstock

If you think hiding your true self at work will make you feel more like part of the team, think again.

A new study recently published in the Journal of Social Issues revealed that professionals who try to conceal some of their core characteristics, such as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, or having a history of poverty or illness, end up hurting their careers.

The research found that hiding who you are in the workplace not only diminishes your sense of belonging, but also lowers your self-esteem, job satisfaction and commitment at work.

"People may choose to conceal stigmatized identities because they want to be accepted, but in fact doing so reduces feelings of belonging," said Manuela Barreto, one of the study's authors and a professor at the University of Exeter, in a statement. "When someone conceals their true identity, their social interactions suffer – and this has an impact not just on the individual but also on the organization they work for."

As part of the research, the study's authors conducted two experiments. In one, they had 95 men and women who were lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) recall a time where they either concealed or revealed their sexual orientation at work. They were then surveyed on their sense of belonging at work, as well as their self-esteem, job satisfaction and commitment. [Not happy with your company's culture? Here's how to improve it]

The researchers found that recalling a situation in which someone concealed their LGB identity at work resulted in decreased feelings of belonging and lower job satisfaction.

"The frequently reported negative association between LGB identity concealment and job satisfaction may be in part explained by the fact that LGB employees feel that they do not fully belong in the workplace and that their co-workers do not value LGB individuals," the study's authors wrote.

In the second experiment, 303 participants were presented with fictional scenarios that involved either concealing or revealing a stigmatized identity. The participants were then asked how they would feel after concealing or revealing such a characteristic.

In this experiment, the researchers discovered that imagining concealing a stigmatized identity at work reduced the belonging employees felt in the imagined situation and their self-esteem.

"In two studies, we demonstrated that recalling or imagining an experience of concealing (vs. revealing) a stigmatized identity in the workplace context resulted in lower levels of belonging felt in the recalled or imagined situation, lower job satisfaction, and lower work commitment," the study's authors wrote.

The researchers said their work provides evidence that identity concealment can be associated with detrimental outcomes.

"Notably, this is the case even though identity concealment is often considered to be an effective way to protect oneself against discrimination," they wrote.

Despite highlighting the costs of concealment, the researchers are not saying that that everyone must be open in all situations.

"It is clear that there are times when revealing a stigmatized identity can be very costly," said Anna Newheiser, one of the study's authors and an assistant professor at the University at Albany, SUNY. "Those effects are very real and worth avoiding in certain circumstances, but it is important to realize that there is also a cost to hiding your true self."

Barreto believes that organizations need to develop inclusive cultures where people don't feel the need to hide who they are or make a choice between being liked and being authentic. 

"Workplaces that push individuals to hide their differences do not erase difference – they simply encourage masking and concealment of diversity," Barreto said. "Given that identity concealment is by nature an invisible act, its social and organizational costs may also be difficult to detect, explain and correct."

The study was co-authored by Jasper Tiemersma, a senior advisor and project manager at Nuffic in the Netherlands.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer who has nearly 15 years' experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.