Stigma Management

When a person receives unfair treatment or alienation due to a social stigma, the effects can be detrimental. Social stigmas are defined as any aspect of an individual’s identity that is devalued in a social context. These stigmas can be categorized as visible or invisible, depending on whether the stigma is readily apparent to others. Visible stigmas refer to characteristics such as race, age, gender, physical disabilities, or deformities; whereas invisible stigmas refer to characteristics such sexual orientation, gender identity, religious affiliation, early pregnancy, certain diseases, or mental illnesses.

When individuals possess invisible stigmas, they must decide whether or not to reveal their association with a devalued group to others. This decision can be an incredibly difficult one, as revealing one’s invisible stigma can have both positive and negative consequences depending on several situational factors. In contrast, a visible stigma requires immediate action to diminish communication tension and acknowledge a deviation from the norm. People possessing visible stigmas often use compensatory strategies to reduce potential interpersonal discrimination that they may face.

Invisible social identities invoke some distinct issues that cannot be easily collapsed under traditional organizational diversity research that focuses on visible differences. When a person possesses an invisible stigma, they have to determine how to reveal their stigmas, when to reveal their stigmas, if to reveal their stigmas, whether or not their stigmas are already known to others, and whether other people would be accepting of their stigma.

Individuals possessing invisible stigmas can choose either passing or revealing strategies in order to manage their identities when interacting with others. Passing strategies involve strategies that do not disclose the invisible stigma to others, including fabrication, concealment, and discretion. Revealing strategies involve identity management strategies that seek to disclose or reveal the invisible stigmas to others, such as signaling, normalizing, and differentiating.

Passing can be defined as ‘a cultural performance whereby one member of a defined social group masquerades as another in order to enjoy the privileges afforded to the dominant group.’ In other words, passing is simply choosing not to disclose one’s invisible stigma in order to appear to be part of the dominant (i.e., not stigmatized) group. Those who pass must be constantly aware of social cues in order to avoid accidentally disclosing information about their hidden identity, a worry that most individuals from dominant groups do not share. People may rely on several different strategies for passing or concealing their invisible stigma at work. These strategies include fabrication, concealment, and discretion.

The fabrication strategy involves purposefully presenting false information about oneself in order to hide one’s invisible stigma. Individuals using this strategy utilize deception to create a false identity in order to avoid revealing their stigmatized trait. In research involving lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals, Woods identified a similar strategy called counterfeiting which is simply the act of constructing a false heterosexual identity, which also serves as a nice example of the passing strategy of fabrication. LGBT individuals engaging in this passing strategy may even go so far as to pretend they have a heterosexual partner in front of their coworkers.

The concealment strategy involves taking preventative measures to keep others from discovering personal characteristics for fear that may reveal an individual’s invisible stigma. Individuals using this strategy would not actively use deception like individuals using the fabrication strategy would, but they would still take an active role in carefully protecting themselves from revealing too much personal information. In research involving LGBT individuals, Woods has identified a very similar strategy called avoidance which is simply revealing no information about one’s sexual identity in order to avoid disclosure on this topic. This also serves as a nice example of concealment for this specific invisibly stigmatized group.

The discretion strategy is subtly different from the concealment strategy as it involves an individual avoiding questions or revealing information that is specifically related to their invisible stigma. Discretion requires interpersonal elusiveness and speaking in ambiguous language when the conversation threatens to potentially reveal one’s stigmatized identity. An example of this strategy (and a way to distinguish it from concealment) would be a person who is very willing to reveal personal information to their coworker but is also very reluctant to discuss any topics that they think may be related to their invisible stigma.

When a person chooses to unveil an otherwise invisible stigma to their coworkers, they are choosing to reveal their stigma in that situation. It is important to note that individuals may vary in the degree to which they reveal invisible stigmas to their coworkers. For example, employees may choose to reveal their stigma to everyone they encounter, or they might judiciously choose a select few that they are comfortable with telling about their invisible stigma. People may rely on several different strategies for revealing their invisible stigmas at work. These strategies include signaling, normalizing, and differentiating.

The signaling strategy involves avoiding complete disclosure of one’s invisible stigma to his/her coworkers. Rather, people who use this strategy tend to drop hints and send signals to their coworkers without having to completely reveal their invisible stigma. Examples of signals may include the use of cryptic language, bringing up conversation topics that are specific to a stigmatized group, using symbols that are specific to a stigmatized group, and/or the use of nonverbal cues consistent with one’s stigmatized group membership. Individuals using this strategy are essentially inviting others to discover their stigma by providing enough clues for peers without directly revealing their stigma.

The normalizing strategy involves revealing one’s invisible stigma, but then minimizing its significance as to appear just as normal as everyone else. While this strategy does involve disclosure of one’s invisible stigma, it also involves an attempt by stigmatized individuals to assimilate into organizations effectively and establish a semi-normal existence. Researchers have suggested that this strategy helps stigmatized individuals strike a balance between the desire to reveal their stigma and dealing with the consequences that may result from their disclosure.

The differentiating strategy involves not only revealing one’s invisible stigma, but also emphasizing it and how it differentiates one from others. People who use this strategy try to eliminate unfair judgment by presenting their identity as equally acceptable when compared to others. Some researchers have referred to this strategy as deploying one’s identity, citing individuals who reveal their stigmas in order to test the perceptions of dominant organizational groups in an effort to inspire organizational change.

‘Diversity climate’ is a term coined by Tsui and Gutek referring to social norms of acceptance or discrimination established within a workplace environment. As one might expect, research has shown that accepting work environments promote more open communication (i.e., revealing) among their employees with invisible stigmas. Accepting work environments can include supportive coworkers, supportive managers, or simply the presence of other individuals who have revealed their invisible stigma without experiencing negative consequences.

The norms of one’s overarching industry may have implications for stigmatized individuals’ likelihood of passing or revealing in the workplace. Indeed, some have noted that individuals working for conservative industries such as the military may be less likely to reveal their stigma than individuals who work in industries that may actually encourage employees to disclose personal information about themselves, like human services (e.g. social workers, doctors, teachers).

Some individuals with invisible stigmas are protected under laws at various governmental levels (i.e., local, state, and/or federal), while others are not considered among these protected groups. Not surprisingly, those with invisible stigmas that are protected under law (e.g., disability) are more likely to reveal their stigma than those with invisible stigmas that are not protected under law (e.g., sexual orientation). It’s also important to note that, in the case of disability status, stigmatized individuals may actually be required to reveal their stigma in order to receive certain workplace benefits.

An individual’s likelihood of passing or revealing is also affected by the relationship they have with the person they are interacting with as well as the demographic characteristics of the person they are interacting with. Understandably, individuals are more willing to reveal stigmatized information to those that they trust. Additionally, an individual may be more likely to reveal their invisible stigma to a person who possesses the same stigma. Finally, individuals may be generally more likely to reveal their stigmas to females than to males, believing females to be more effective communicators, especially regarding sensitive topics.

Given that individuals vary in their willingness to take risks, the idea has been proposed that individuals higher in risk-taking propensity will be more likely to reveal their stigma at work than those who are lower in risk-taking propensity. This prediction stems from the fact that choosing to reveal an invisible stigma at work could be a very risky decision, especially if one receives (or perceives that they will receive) discriminatory treatment as a result of their disclosure.

Self-monitoring can be defined as the act of controlling and managing the impression one puts forward to ensure that social roles and expectations are being met. While self-monitoring ability may not be directly related to passing or revealing behaviors, it likely is related to choosing effective strategies for managing one’s identity. Research has stated that high self-monitors are better able to examine their environment for signs of acceptance when deciding to pass or reveal, while low self-monitors may have more trouble effectively managing the impressions they are making.

An adult’s level of sophistication and how developed their stigmatized identity is may also have an effect on their willingness to reveal an invisible stigma. Highly developed individuals with stigmas that are central to their self-concept tend to see their stigmatized identity as equally valid in comparison to others, and thus should theoretically not be as afraid to reveal it. Indeed, research has shown that individuals who ultimately reveal their stigmatized identity tend to be more assured of that identity than individuals who choose to pass.

The main issue that can arise from passing is that the individual feels as though they are not being true to themselves, which can create an inner sense of turmoil and lead to psychological strain for the person hiding their identity. Additionally, fears associated with revealing one’s invisible stigma (among those who are currently passing) have been shown to lead to a myriad of negative workplace consequences, including lowered job satisfaction, less organizational commitment, and higher turnover intentions. Interpersonal consequences can also arise when an individual is passing by not revealing much personal information in the workplace. These consequences include strained social relationships, social isolation, and limited mentoring opportunities.

Although revealing could have the positive effect of reducing the psychological strain and dissonance associated with passing strategies, many negative consequences could also result from revealing a devalued stigmatized identity. Potential consequences include opening oneself up to prejudice and discriminatory treatment at work. These negative consequences could become magnified if stigmas are revealed in an organization that is not supportive of the individual’s invisible stigma. However, if an individual can produce social change and reduce their dissonance associated with passing by revealing their stigma, revealing in the workplace might end up being worth the risk in the long run. It is also important to note that revealing is not always a voluntary activity. For example, disabled individuals who require accommodation in the workplace must disclose the nature of their disability in order to obtain benefits under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This disclosure often unintentionally forces a person to reveal when their disability would otherwise be invisible to others.

Disclosure goals affect the content of a disclosure event and the interaction partner response. On one hand, individuals with avoidance-focused goals disclose less frequently because they tend to focus on avoiding the possibility of social rejection and conflict. When they do decide to disclose, these individuals tend to use certain disclosure methods that they believe can minimize their psychological distress by social rejection (e.g. sending an email rather than talking face to face with the interaction partner). By using these methods, however, the disclosure is more likely to be perceived negatively by the interaction partners. On the other hand, individuals with approach-focused goals tend to focus on the possibility of gaining social support, therefore use more direct communication strategies. They are also shown to be better at self-regulating and are more attuned to the presence of supportive interaction partner reactions. As a result, individuals with approach-focused goals may be more likely to benefit from disclosure than individuals with avoidance-focused goals.

People with avoidance goals tend to be more sensitive to the possibility of social rejection and are likely to adopt avoidant coping strategies to deal with information about their identity. Therefore, they tend to experience distress or difficulty coping with their concealable stigma because they typically use passing strategies. Through alleviation of inhibition mechanism, in which people are offered the opportunity to express previously suppressed emotions and thoughts, these individuals may actually be most likely to benefit from disclosure.

A fundamental change in social information occurs after disclosing as people and their disclosure interaction partners now share or ‘co-own’ information about the concealable stigma. The disclosure can then dramatically impact subsequent individual behavior, specific interactions between the discloser and confidant, and interactions within the broader social context. For instance, after employees disclose, they may raise awareness of their identities and, as a consequence, effectively reduce the related stigma throughout the organization.

There are individual differences in whether interpersonal disclosure can be beneficial. Individuals with avoidance-focused goals engage in self-regulatory efforts that weaken their ability to collect positive responses from their confidants, which also increases their chances of social rejection. This group of people may be best served by other methods of disclosure, such as by disclosing in expressive writing or therapeutic settings where they are insulated from social rejection. Interventions with a focus on encouraging individuals to explicitly identify their disclosure goals may be one effective strategy in maximizing the benefits of disclosure. Therefore, practitioners are recommended to screen and identify individuals with strong avoidance-focused disclosure goals and assist them in setting new, approach-focused disclosure goals or helping them find alternative methods of disclosure (e.g., written disclosure).

Visible stigma management is very different from the management of invisible stigmas. However, when invisible stigmas shift along the continuum from being completely invisible to completely visible, they begin to operate in ways that are similar to visible stigmas. In other words, once an invisible stigma becomes visible (by wearing clothes or markers that identify one’s self, or by being ‘outed’ by others), that stigma can then be managed in similar ways as visible stigmas. In order to manage visible stigmas (or stigmas that have been made apparent to others), targets must engage in compensatory strategies, including acknowledgement, providing individuating information, and increased positivity. These strategies are used to pre-emptively reduce interpersonal discrimination that may occur as a result of an explicitly apparent stigma.

Several studies show that people with visible stigmas do in fact use compensatory strategies. When women believe that their writing will be evaluated by a sexist grader, they attempt to portray themselves as having non-traditional gender roles. Similarly, when black individuals are informed that they will be interacting with somebody who is a racist, they disclosed more information to their interaction partners. They were also rated by independent coders as being more engaged, more interactive, and warmer when interacting with targets that were perceived to be prejudice towards blacks than when they interacted with targets that were not perceived to have this prejudice. Lastly, obese women behave differently when they feel that their interaction partners can see them versus when they think that they can’t be seen. When obese women believe that they are visible to their interaction partners, they use more likeable and socially skilled behaviors compared to when they think they can not be seen. This is likely done to counteract the negative prejudice that most people have against obese women. Taken together, these studies all demonstrate that individuals with stigmas do utilize a series of compensatory strategies in order to manage their visible stigmas.

Several studies have shown that people with visible stigmas engage in the compensatory strategy of acknowledgement, referring to the act of openly addressing one’s stigma. This strategy has been shown to be effective in improving perceptions of people with visible stigmas. For instance, individuals with visible physical disabilities are less likely to be viewed with disdain, pity, or contempt when they explicitly acknowledged their physical disability. Researchers have proposed that this effect is due to the fact that acknowledging one’s stigma releases discomfort and tension during an interaction and that not acknowledging one’s stigma is viewed as an attempt to ignore or avoid talking about one’s stigma. Acknowledging has been proposed to be effective in cases where it increases perceptions of adjustment within the stigmatized individual and reduces the suppression of negative stigma-related thoughts on the part of the perceivers. In a study on job applicants with visible stigmas, applicants who used the strategy of acknowledgement received less interpersonal discrimination than those who did not, as rated by both the applicants and independent raters.

Some individuals with visible stigmas also adopt the compensatory strategy of providing individuating information to their interaction partners. This information allows the interaction partner to evaluate the target on an individual level rather than as a product of their stigma. When interaction partners are not given any information about a stigmatized individual, they tend to use stereotypes about that person’s stigma during evaluation. For instance, when told to select a leader, both men and women tend to select male leaders rather than female leaders when given no other information. However, when additional information is given about the individual, people are less likely to rely on their stereotypes. Similarly, when job applicants with visible stigmas provide individuating information to hiring managers, they are able to partially reduce the amount of interpersonal discrimination that they face.

Past research has simplified identity management strategies by dichotomizing stigma into purely visible or purely invisible. This is not the case, however, in that stigmas are never completely visible or completely invisible. Often times, people can tell (to some degree) whether or not the person they are interacting with has an invisible stigma, even before that person engages in disclosure behaviors. This can be due to visual, audio, or movement-based cues, or due to rumors told by other co-workers. Researchers should begin to study the degree to which people with a stigmatized identity choose to either express or suppress their concealable stigma when that stigma is somewhat known by the interaction partner.

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