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Researcher Explores the Psychology behind Revelations at the Office

March 8, 2013

By Tara Laskowski

Eden King

Eden King

An average person might make dozens of conscious decisions at work each day—from what project to tackle first to how to respond to an e-mail.

But we are also making many other choices from moment to moment on a personal level. Our interpersonal decisions at work decide who we are. Every day, we choose which part of our identity to reveal or conceal to co-workers and supervisors. How we do that, why, and with what consequences are of great interest to Mason psychologist Eden King.

“Self-disclosure is key to social relationships,” King says. “The act of revealing personal information about yourself builds friendships and relationships and is linked to intimacy. However, disclosure of something about yourself that makes you different from most people—a stigma—is not always positively received. In the workplace especially, this can make things tricky.”

Take a woman who has just found out she’s pregnant. Maybe she’s up for a promotion, competing against several other co-workers; maybe she’s just been named the lead of a major account; maybe the leadership in her company doesn’t project family-friendly policies; or maybe she’s just a private person who doesn’t want to discuss the ins and outs of her body. Whatever the situation, she has to decide when and how to tell her supervisor, her co-workers, and her clients about her pregnancy. How soon she tells them, and what information she reveals, usually says something about the organization she works for and her comfort level in it.

“On the one hand, many pregnant workers are likely excited about the baby growing inside them and want to share this news with the world. In addition, research suggests that people generally prefer to be authentic [fully honest] in their interactions with others. On the other hand, pregnant women may fear their supervisor, co-workers, or subordinates will view and treat them differently the moment the cat is out of the bag,” King says in her book, How Women Can Make It Work: The Science of Success (with Jennifer L. Knight, Praeger, 2011).

These decisions don’t affect only pregnant women. Religion, politics, illness, sexual orientation, ethnicity—all our personal feelings, issues, passions, and embarrassments can cause tension in the workplace and lead to discrimination or feelings of isolation and bullying.

“Research from scientists across the country has shown that individuals who encounter discrimination report physical, stress-related symptoms and are at risk for depression,” says King.

More important for the company’s bottom line, discrimination is also associated with outcomes that affect worker productivity and organizational performance—decreased job satisfaction and job commitment and increased stress and turnover.

Jennifer Barrett

While pregnancy creates a different dilemma since it manifests itself in a very physical way, certain “invisible” issues can lead people to different decisions. For example, if a person is gay or has a medical disability such as depression, he or she may face the decision of whether to tell an employer or co-workers at all.

“Lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons have to decide whether, how, when, and to whom they should disclose their sexual identity,” says King. “They have to juggle the balance between wanting to be authentic and genuine in their interactions with other people and wanting to avoid potential discrimination. This disclosure dilemma can be incredibly stressful.”

The dilemma can also be very strategic, King found in her research. People are careful about the information they share and when and with whom they share it—incorporating strategies such as prescreening their co-workers or supervisors to determine their receptivity to an issue.

They are also strategic about who they tell first, King says. In one case, a woman decided to come out to her boss first to make sure he wouldn’t find out from someone else. Others feel more comfortable calling a meeting to disclose news to everyone at once. Still others decide to confide in a close co-worker to see how the news would be received.

“In some cases this is a lose-lose situation,” King says. People can feel alienated from their co-workers or face backlash. And by telling only certain folks, they lose control of the process. “It’s just like the middle school rumor mill: once one person knows, it is possible that everyone else will find out.”

Managers and leadership in organizations play an integral role in helping their employees feel comfortable about their identity. “Our research shows that supervisors that show support of a disability or sexual orientation before a person reveals it can lead to an employee feeling more comfortable and coming out with this information earlier,” King says.

In her research, King found that organizations can make their employees happier by practicing all-inclusive strategies and providing resources for stigmatized groups. This can include adding them to diversity and equity statements to supporting outreach efforts (for example, sponsoring Pride events). Companies can also promote their work-life balance mission statements and set up employee resource groups.

“It can be as simple as making sure that gay couples know that partners or significant others are welcome at company social events or having clear, easy-to-follow guidelines about maternity or medical leave practices,” says King.

The research, King says, shows that those who “had more positive experiences seemed to achieve that through a few common conflict management strategies—working with their supervisors, compromising, and being understanding.”

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