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Making the Invisible Visible: Fear and Disclosure of Sexual Orientation at Work

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Making the Invisible Visible: Fear and Disclosure of Sexual Orientation at Work

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Stigma theory was used to examine the fears underlying the disclosure of a gay identity at work. Using a national sample of 534 gay, lesbian, and bisexual employees, this study examined the antecedents that affect the degree of disclosure of a gay identity at work and, for those who had not disclosed, the factors that influence their fears about full disclosure. Employees reported less fear and more disclosure when they worked in a group that was perceived as supportive and sharing their stigma. Perceptions of past experience with sexual orientation discrimination were related to increased fears but to greater disclosure. For those who had not fully disclosed their stigma, the fears associated with disclosure predicted job attitudes, psychological strain, work environment, and career outcomes. However, actual disclosure was unrelated to these variables. The utility of fear of disclosure for understanding processes underlying the disclosure of gay and other invisible stigmatized identities in the workplace is discussed.
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Making the Invisible Visible: Fear and Disclosure
of Sexual Orientation at Work
Belle Rose Ragins and Romila Singh
University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee
John M. Cornwell
Loyola University New Orleans
Stigma theory was used to examine the fears underlying the disclosure of a gay identity at work. Using
a national sample of 534 gay, lesbian, and bisexual employees, this study examined the antecedents that
affect the degree of disclosure of a gay identity at work and, for those who had not disclosed, the factors
that influence their fears about full disclosure. Employees reported less fear and more disclosure when
they worked in a group that was perceived as supportive and sharing their stigma. Perceptions of past
experience with sexual orientation discrimination were related to increased fears but to greater disclosure.
For those who had not fully disclosed their stigma, the fears associated with disclosure predicted job
attitudes, psychological strain, work environment, and career outcomes. However, actual disclosure was
unrelated to these variables. The utility of fear of disclosure for understanding processes underlying the
disclosure of gay and other invisible stigmatized identities in the workplace is discussed.
Keywords: diversity, sexual orientation, homosexuality, stigma
The topic of invisible stigmas in the workplace has sparked
considerable interest among diversity scholars in recent years
(Beatty & Kirby, 2006; Bowen & Blackmon, 2003; Clair, Beatty,
& MacLean, 2005; Creed & Scully, 2000; Ragins, in press, 2004;
Smart & Wegner, 2000). Members of stigmatized groups are
discredited, face negative social identities, and are targeted for
discrimination (Crocker, Major, & Steele, 1998; Goffman, 1963).
Some individuals have stigmas that are readily discernible, such as
stigmatized racial identities, obesity, and physical disfigurements
(Jones et al., 1984). Other individuals, such as gay men and
lesbians, individuals with invisible disabilities (e.g., HIV/AIDS,
epilepsy, mental illness) (Corrigan & Penn, 1999; Crawford, 1996;
McLaughlin, Bell, & Stringer, 2004), and those with stigmatized
religious affiliations (cf. Clair et al., 2005), have invisible stigmas.
These individuals face unique challenges not faced by those with
visible stigmas (Clair et al., 2005; Pachankis, 2007; D. M. Quinn,
2006; Ragins, in press, 2004).
One of the most critical challenges faced by workers with
invisible stigmas is whether to disclose their stigmatized identity to
others in the workplace. Although this decision can be stressful for
many individuals with invisible stigmas, it has been identified as
one of the most difficult career challenges faced by lesbian, gay,
and bisexual (LGB) employees (cf. Button, 2001, 2004; Chrobot-
Mason, Button, & DiClementi, 2001; Griffith & Hebl, 2002;
Ragins, 2004). One reason for this is that the risks involved with
disclosure are greater for gay men and lesbians because, unlike
other groups, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is
legal in most workplaces in the United States (Herrschaft & Mills,
2002). Consequentially, discrimination against LGB workers is
widespread. In fact, existing research has indicated that between
25% and 66% of LGB employees report experiencing sexual
orientation discrimination at work (cf. review by Croteau, 1996).
Given this vulnerability to discrimination, the stakes involved
with disclosing a gay identity at work are quite high. Disclosure
has been found to result in reports of verbal harassment, job
termination, and even physical assault (D’Augelli & Grossman,
2001; Friskopp & Silverstein, 1996). In fact, one study of 416 gay
men and lesbians revealed that 75% reported being attacked or
physically threatened as a result of disclosing their sexual identity
(D’Augelli & Grossman, 2001). Given this situation, it is not
surprising that gay and lesbian employees fear negative conse-
quences to disclosure (Friskopp & Silverstein, 1996; Woods,
1994), and up to one third choose not to disclose their identity to
anyone at work (Croteau, 1996). In fact, the fear of negative
consequences of “being out at work” may have a greater impact on
employees than the actual act of disclosure (Ragins, 2004), which
has been described as bringing a sense of relief to LGB workers
(Griffin, 1992; Woods, 1994).
A number of studies have examined the psychological and work
outcomes associated with the disclosure of a gay identity at work
(cf. reviews by Ragins, 2004; Ragins & Wiethoff, 2005; Welle &
Button, 2004). These studies have tested the prediction that dis-
closure is associated with positive outcomes, the rationale being
that employees who disclose at work should achieve congruence in
their public and private identities (Ellis & Riggle, 1995), obtain a
Belle Rose Ragins and Romila Singh, Sheldon B. Lubar School of
Business, University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee; John M. Cornwell, De-
partment of Psychology, Loyola University New Orleans.
An earlier version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of
the National Academy of Management, Washington, DC, August 2001,
and received the Dorothy Harlow Best Paper Award in the Gender and
Diversity in Organizations Division. The research described in this article
was supported by an award and grant from the Wayne F. Placek Fund of
the American Psychological Association to Belle Rose Ragins. We thank
Sarah Freeman for her helpful comments, suggestions, and insights on an
earlier version of this article.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Belle
Rose Ragins, Sheldon B. Lubar School of Business, University of Wis-
consin—Milwaukee, 3202 North Maryland Avenue, Milwaukee, WI
53211. E-mail: Ragins@uwm.edu
Journal of Applied Psychology Copyright 2007 by the American Psychological Association
2007, Vol. 92, No. 4, 1103–1118 0021-9010/07/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/0021-9010.92.4.1103
1103
sense of psychological wholeness and well-being (Reynolds &
Hanjorgiris, 2000), and be relieved of the debilitating strain of
secrecy involved with leading a double life (Fassinger, 1995;
Griffin, 1992). Although this view seems reasonable, the research
has produced surprisingly inconsistent results. Disclosure has been
found to have positive, negative, and nonsignificant effects on
work attitudes, psychological strain, and compensation (cf. review
by Ragins, 2004).
One reason for these puzzling findings is that researchers know
little about the processes underlying the disclosure of a gay iden-
tity at work. In part, this is because research on sexual orientation
in the workplace is a very new area of scholarship that needs
theoretical guidance (cf. critique by Creed, 2006). It is promising
that a number of new conceptual models have emerged that use
stigma theory as a unifying framework for understanding the
disclosure dilemmas faced by employees with invisible stigmas.
These models shed important new light on the disclosure process
by proposing that fear of negative repercussions affects disclosure
and that this fear may lead to psychological distress and decreased
job performance even in the absence of actual discrimination (cf.
Bowen & Blackmon, 2003; Clair et al., 2005; Croteau, 1996;
Ragins, in press, 2004). This perspective reconciles the inconsis-
tent research findings on the disclosure of a gay identity at work by
offering the idea that work attitudes may be affected not only by
the degree to which individuals disclose their sexual orientation
but also by the underlying fears that may be associated with
disclosure. The role of fear in the disclosure of an invisible stigma
has not been empirically assessed but offers significant promise for
understanding the experiences of LGB employees, particularly
those who have not disclosed, or not fully disclosed, their sexual
identity at work.
Accordingly, this study sought to break important new ground
by using stigma theory to examine fear and the disclosure of a gay
identity at work. Using a large national sample of 534 LGB
employees, we offer two valuable insights into the workplace
experiences of LGB employees. First, we examined the factors that
affect the degree of disclosure of a gay identity at work and, for
those who have not disclosed or have not fully disclosed, the
underlying fears that may be associated with full disclosure and the
factors that influence these fears. Second, our study examined the
work and personal consequences associated with these experi-
ences. Specifically, we sought to offer critical insights into the
experiences of employees who have not fully disclosed their
sexual orientation at work by examining not only their fears about
the potential consequences of full disclosure but also the relation-
ship of these fears to work and career attitudes, psychological
strain, compensation, and promotion. In so doing, this study ad-
dresses two significant gaps in the literature. First, although LGB
workers compose 4% to 17% of the workforce (Gonsiorek &
Weinrich, 1991),
1
a larger proportion than many other minority
groups (Lubensky, Holland, Wiethoff, & Crosby, 2004), scholars
know little about their workplace experiences (cf. reviews by
Ragins, 2004; Welle & Button, 2004). This study offers needed
insights into one of the most difficult challenges faced by LGB
workers and provides a foundation for future theory in this emerg-
ing and sometimes controversial area of research. Second, this
study broadens the general knowledge of invisible stigmas by
using stigma theory to assess fear and the degree of disclosure of
an invisible stigmatized identity in the workplace.
Stigma Theory and Fear of Disclosure in the Workplace
Evolution of Stigma Theory
Stigmas are defined as socially undesirable, deviant, or repul-
sive characteristics that discredit or spoil an individual’s social
identity. In his seminal work, Goffman (1963) explained that
stigmatization is a pervasive process of devaluation that permeates
social interactions involving both targets and perceivers. Subse-
quent work by Jones et al. (1984) used expectancy theory, attri-
bution theory, social cognition theory, and early theories of prej-
udice (e.g., Allport, 1954) to flesh out the theoretical domain of
stigma. Jones and his colleagues proposed that stigmas launch
attributional processes in which the target’s actions are interpreted
and responded to on the basis of his or her stigma rather than a full
range of attributes. Using a symbolic interactionist perspective
(e.g., Mead, 1934), Jones et al. hypothesized that stigmas are
incorporated into the target’s self-concept through environmental
interactions and that stigmas influence the target’s cognitions,
behaviors, and social interactions.
Stigma theory has evolved considerably over the past 30 years,
and current perspectives hold that stigmas are social constructions
that involve both targets and perceivers.
2
Drawing on social iden
-
tity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1986), Crocker et al. (1998) defined
stigmatized individuals as those who “possess (or are believed to
possess) some attribute or characteristic that conveys a social
identity that is devalued in some particular context” (p. 505). They
explained that because stigmas are perceived attributes grounded
within the social context, the environment plays a powerful role in
determining whether a characteristic is perceived as a stigma.
3
Psychologists have used stigma theory to study processes un-
derlying stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination for a variety
of individuals with stigmatized identities (e.g., race, gender, sexual
orientation, disability, obesity; cf. Heatherton, Kleck, Hebl, &
Hull, 2000; Levin & van Laar, 2006) and, in support of stigma
theory, have found that stigmas evoke negative attributions about
the target that lead to prejudice and discrimination (cf. review by
Crocker et al., 1998). More recently, stigma research has focused
on how individuals are affected by their stigmas (cf. Major, 2006)
and has found that stigmas shape targets’ identity, behaviors,
cognition, and affect (Deaux & Ethier, 1998; Levin & van Laar,
2006; Miller & Major, 2000).
Although stigmas have been studied by social psychologists for
more than 40 years, management scholars have only recently
applied stigma theory to the workplace (cf. Dipboye, Elsbach, &
Paetzold, in press). In fact, stigma theory is increasingly being
recognized as a useful theoretical anchor for the study of diversity
1
One reason for this wide range is that estimates of sexual orientation
vary depending on the country, the gender, the age group, and whether one
is assessing same-sex attraction, same-sex behavior, or sexual identity (cf.
Savin-Williams, 2006).
2
Although this study focuses on the target’s behavior (i.e., disclosure of
sexual orientation) and attitudinal state (i.e., fear of disclosure), it should be
noted that these outcomes are affected by perceivers (i.e., coworkers,
supervisors).
3
The social context affects whether characteristics reflecting race, eth
-
nicity, age, gender, weight, and other attributes are viewed as stigmas. An
example of the social context effect is the heightened stigmatization of
Muslims since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
1104
RAGINS, SINGH, AND CORNWELL
and discrimination in organizations (cf. Beatty & Kirby, 2006;
Dipboye & Colella, 2005; Stone-Romero, 2005). Although the
roots of stigma theory are grounded in broad psychological theo-
ries that explain identity, behavior, and social interactions, stigma
theory recognizes that these general theories of human behavior
often do not fully capture, or even recognize, the effects of diver-
sity in social relationships. As Nkomo (1992) and others (Ely &
Padavic, in press; Fletcher, 1998, 1999) observed, while general
theories purport to be race and gender “blind,” by not explicitly
addressing the effects of being in a socially devalued group, they
leave open the possibility of assuming parallel processes for dom-
inant and nondominant group members, thus ignoring historical,
systemic, and organizational differences in power, status, and
privilege that have a profound effect on individuals and their social
interactions in organizations (cf. Linnehan & Konrad, 1999; Ra-
gins & Sundstrom, 1989).
4
In contrast, stigma theory precisely focuses on social identities
that are discredited and devalued within a social context and seeks
to explain the interpersonal and psychological effects of devalua-
tion, marginalization, and discrimination in social relationships
(Crocker et al., 1998). Stigma theory therefore offers a more
precise theoretical resource for diversity and LGB research be-
cause it tailors general theories of human behavior to incorporate
critical aspects of human diversity that permeate social relation-
ships in the workplace. As we see next, stigma theory also offers
core insights into the experiences of individuals with invisible
stigmas.
Understanding Invisible Stigmas in the Workplace
In their foundational books, both Goffman (1963) and Jones et
al. (1984) identified the concealability of the stigma as a core
dimension that affects the target, the perceiver, and the social
interaction, and offered a rich analysis of the unique experiences of
individuals with invisible stigmas. A core challenge faced by these
individuals is the decision to disclose their stigma. This decision is
an ongoing process that occurs with each social interaction and
reflects a judgment that weighs the psychological benefits of
establishing an authentic relationship on the one hand with the
potential risks and fears of social rejection on the other (Goffman,
1963). Therefore, disclosure is not an all-or-none phenomenon but
occurs on a continuum ranging from full disclosure on one end to
nondisclosure on the other. To make matters more complex, the
decision to disclose may or may not parallel the actual act of
disclosure. Individuals may decide to disclose but not follow
through, or they may disclose impulsively without engaging in a
full decision process.
A number of new conceptual models have recently emerged that
examine the processes underlying the disclosure of invisible stig-
mas in the workplace from the perspective of the target. Bowen
and Blackmon (2003) used perspectives on voice and silence (e.g.,
Creed & Scully, 2000) to develop a model that explains how fear
and what they call “spirals of silence” affect the decision to
disclose a gay identity at work. Clair and her colleagues used a
risk-assessment, cost-benefit framework to develop a model of the
disclosure of invisible stigmas in the workplace (Clair et al., 2005).
They pointed to the anticipated risks associated with disclosure as
a key factor underlying disclosure and proposed that individual
differences combine with the interpersonal and environmental
context to affect disclosure decisions. More recently, Ragins (in
press) used self-verification, stigma, and identity theories to ex-
plain the processes underlying the decision to disclose an invisible
stigmatized identity in the workplace. This model holds that dis-
closure is driven by anticipated consequences that are balanced by
the internal psychological processes driving disclosure on the one
hand and the environmental factors that support or punish disclo-
sure on the other. Applying self-verification theory, the model
proposes that employees are internally driven to disclose invisible
stigmas because of a primary psychological need to create social
identities that reinforce coherent self-views and bolster feelings of
psychological coherence between public and private identities
(Swann, 1983, 1987). This self-verification process is amplified
when the identity is salient to the individual (e.g., Tajfel & Turner,
1986) and when the stigmatized identity enters the target’s self-
concept as a master status stigma (Goffman, 1963). However, the
need for self-verification is tempered and balanced by the fear of
negative consequences of full disclosure and the support received
from coworkers who share and do not share the stigma.
A common theme underlying these models is that the target’s
fear of negative repercussions influences the degree to which he or
she may disclose an invisible stigma at work. Goffman (1963) also
identified fear as a central experience for individuals who have not
fully disclosed their invisible stigmas, and he observed that the
concealment of a stigmatized identity may not alleviate an indi-
vidual’s fear and psychological stress. In fact, he observed that
those who attempted to pass themselves off as “normals” encoun-
tered an even greater sense of anxiety with “living a life that can
be collapsed at any moment” (Goffman, 1974, p. 87). This fear
crystallizes in situations with the potential for discrimination.
Scambler and Hopkins (1986) proposed that stigmatized individ-
uals face two independent experiences: (a) enacted stigmas, or the
direct experience of discrimination; and (b) felt stigmas, which
reflect the fear of discrimination. They tested this distinction in a
study of epileptics and found that fear of discrimination was more
prevalent than actual discrimination. Moreover, fear was rarely
triggered by actual experiences, indicating that fears associated
with discrimination were independent of actual discrimination.
These findings are also aligned with research indicating that indi-
viduals are sensitive to the discrimination faced by their groups
and are more likely to perceive group discrimination than personal
discrimination (e.g., Moghaddam, Stolkin, & Hutchenson, 1997;
Taylor, Wright, Moghaddam, & Lalonde, 1990). This suggests that
for those who have not fully disclosed their stigma at work, the
fears associated with disclosure may or may not reflect perceived
discriminatory events that are witnessed or experienced.
In support of this perspective, interviews of gay and lesbian
workers have indicated that they fear a range of negative reper-
cussions to disclosure, from social isolation and ostracism to
harassment, job loss, and career derailment (Friskopp & Silver-
stein, 1996; Griffin, 1992). Woods (1994) reported that virtually
4
As an example, social identity theory is often challenged to explain
why individuals identify with groups that are socially devalued, disadvan-
taged, and stigmatized (cf. Nkomo, 1992). The social identification pro-
cesses involved with negotiating a negative social identity in the workplace
may be quite different from the processes involved with negotiating a
positive identity (Deaux & Ethier, 1998; Ragins, in press).
1105
FEAR AND DISCLOSURE OF SEXUAL ORIENTATION AT WORK
all of the 70 gay men interviewed in his study had posed as a
heterosexual at some point in their careers to avoid discrimination;
he concluded that “. . . while actual discrimination is common, the
fear of potential discrimination is epidemic.. . . it is a perpetual
threat, a fact of life for gay professionals who reveal their sexual
orientation at work” (p. 202). Let us now examine some of the
antecedents and consequences associated with fear and the full
disclosure of a gay identity in the workplace.
Antecedents of Fear and Disclosure in the Workplace
Stigmas and Social Context: The Importance of Work
Group
According to stigma theory, stigmatized individuals turn to
other members of their group for social support and to counteract
the stress, social rejection, and isolation experienced as a conse-
quence of their stigma (Crocker et al., 1998; Jones et al., 1984;
Miller & Major, 2000). Deaux and Ethier (1998, p. 311) pointed
out that “with the endorsement of others having the same identity,
a person can affirm the value of group membership rather than
incorporate the negative views of those who stigmatize.” In sup-
port of this idea, Frable, Platt, and Hoey (1998) found that the
presence of similar others lifted the self-esteem and mood of
students with invisible stigmas involving bulimia, minority sexual
orientation, and low socioeconomic status. They concluded that
interacting with similar others offers support and prevents individ-
uals with invisible stigmas from internalizing negative views of
their group.
Applying these perspectives to the workplace, management
scholars agree that the presence of similar others affects the
perception of the stigma, offers group affirmation and support, and
may also trigger a social identity process (e.g., Tajfel & Turner,
1986) that leads to the disclosure of a stigmatized identity (Bowen
& Blackmon, 2003; Clair et al., 2005; Ragins, in press). As applied
to sexual orientation, Ragins (2004) observed that for those who
have not disclosed their sexual identity at work, the very presence
of a LGB supervisor or coworker may precipitate a social identity
process that facilitates disclosure. The presence of similar others
may also provide the support necessary to alleviate fears that may
be associated with the full disclosure of a stigmatized identity at
work. It is therefore reasonable to expect that for those who have
not disclosed, fears about the potential consequences of full dis-
closure will be related to the perceived sexual orientation of
supervisors and coworkers. Similarly, the overall degree to which
LGB workers disclose their sexual identity at work should also be
related to the perceived sexual orientation of supervisors and
coworkers.
Hypothesis 1a: Among LGB employees who have not dis-
closed, or not fully disclosed, those with heterosexual super-
visors will fear more negative consequences of full disclosure
than those with LGB supervisors.
Hypothesis 1b: Among LGB employees who have not dis-
closed, or not fully disclosed, those who work with a greater
proportion of heterosexual coworkers will fear more negative
consequences of full disclosure than those who work with
proportionately more LGB coworkers.
Hypothesis 1c: LGB employees with heterosexual supervi-
sors will disclose to a lesser extent than those with LGB
supervisors.
Hypothesis 1d: LGB employees with a greater proportion of
heterosexual coworkers will disclose to a lesser extent than
those with proportionately more LGB coworkers.
The disclosure of a stigmatized identity may be influenced not
only by the support received from those who share the stigma, but
also from coworkers and supervisors who do not have the stigma
but support those who do (Ragins, in press, 2004). For example,
some college campuses have implemented “safe zone programs”
in which heterosexual faculty and staff offer visible support for
LGBTQ students by posting safe zone stickers that clarify that
discrimination will not be tolerated. Stigma scholars observe that
whereas social support is important for those with visible stigmas,
it is crucial for those with invisible stigmas since these individuals
have less opportunity for social support, validation, and social
comparison than those with visible stigmas (Deaux & Ethier, 1998;
Major, 2006; Miller & Major, 2000). As applied to the workplace,
employees with invisible stigmas face significant social isolation,
and supportive work groups may offer a safe place for disclosure
(Ragins, in press). Social support from heterosexual colleagues
becomes especially important because they represent the powerful
majority group in organizations. Based on these ideas, in their
model of disclosure and sexual orientation, Bowen and Blackmon
(2003) offered the proposition that LGB employees will be more
likely to disclose in work groups that are perceived as more
supportive than in groups that are perceived as less supportive.
Existing research is congruent with the stigma-based prediction
that supportive social relationships facilitate the disclosure of a gay
identity. In their study of 499 lesbians, Jordan and Deluty (1998)
found that perceived social support was a key predictor of sexual
orientation disclosure, and some of the gay men interviewed by
Woods (1994) reported that their decisions to disclose were af-
fected not only by the presence of gay coworkers, but also by the
presence of supportive heterosexual coworkers and managers. This
suggests that supportive work relationships may have a significant
impact on both fear of disclosure and the degree of disclosure in
the workplace, and that these effects may occur independently of
the supervisor’s or coworker’s sexual orientation. It is therefore
reasonable to expect that among LGB workers who have not
disclosed, fears about negative consequences of full disclosure will
be related to the perceived support they receive from their super-
visors and coworkers. It is also reasonable to expect that the
overall degree to which LGB workers disclose their sexual identity
at work should be related to the perceived support received from
supervisor and coworker relationships.
Accordingly, we hypothesized that, even after holding the per-
ceived sexual orientation of supervisors and coworkers constant:
Hypothesis 2a: Among LGB employees who have not dis-
closed, or not fully disclosed, those who lack supportive
supervisors will fear more negative consequences of full
disclosure than those who have supportive supervisors.
Hypothesis 2b: Among LGB employees who have not dis-
closed, or not fully disclosed, those who lack supportive
1106
RAGINS, SINGH, AND CORNWELL
coworkers will fear more negative consequences of full dis-
closure than those who have supportive coworkers.
Hypothesis 2c: LGB employees who lack supportive super-
visors will disclose to a lesser extent than LGB employees
who have supportive supervisors.
Hypothesis 2d: LGB employees who lack supportive cowork-
ers will disclose to a lesser extent than LGB employees who
have supportive coworkers.
Perceptions of Past Discrimination: The Cumulative
Effects of Context Over Time
The disclosure process may be affected not only by the current
environment, but also by the individual’s perceptions of past
experiences with discrimination. As discussed earlier, stigma the-
ory and models that extend stigma theory to the workplace hold
that employees are unlikely to disclose a stigma if they perceive
that disclosure will result in discrimination (Clair et al., 2005;
Deaux & Ethier, 1998; Ragins, in press; Scambler & Hopkins,
1986). Ragins (2004) proposed that past experience with discrim-
ination may be a key factor that affects this perception among gay
and lesbian employees. The effects of this perceptual experience
on disclosure decisions may be explained not only by basic rein-
forcement theory (Skinner, 1969), but also by more complex
models of decision-making processes. Ragins (in press) offered the
idea that signal detection theory can be used to understand the
cognitive processes involved in appraising the risk of disclosure.
Signal detection theory examines the effects of environmental cues
on decision-making processes and behaviors (McNicol, 1972) and
has been used to explain the processes that underlie perceived
discrimination (Feldman Barrett & Swim, 1998). Feldman Barrett
and Swim (p. 28) observed that prior discrimination sensitizes
individuals to the potential for discrimination and proposed that
“anyone who has previous, pervasive experiences with threat will
be pre-attentively prepared to see threat in a current situation
because they have learned a decision rule through interactions with
the environment.” In support of this idea, research on groups with
visible stigmas has found a “persistent injustice effect” in which an
individual’s past history affects his or her current perceptions of
discrimination (Davidson & Friedman, 1998, p. 154). It is impor-
tant to recognize that although perceptions of past discrimination
may or may not reflect actual discrimination, perceptions represent
the reality for employees and therefore play a powerful role in
influencing their attitudes and behaviors (cf. Swim, Cohen, &
Hyers, 1998).
Existing research on gay and lesbian employees offers some
support for the idea that perceptions of past discrimination may
influence current fears and disclosure at work. For example, some
of the gay men interviewed in Woods’s (1994) study reported that
past experiences with discrimination had increased their awareness
of the potential for discrimination in their current position. In a
study of 228 lesbians in New England, Schneider (1987) found that
lesbians who reported that they had lost a job due to disclosure
were less likely to disclose their sexual orientation in their present
position than those who had not had that experience. Although job
termination is an extreme case of discrimination, other forms, such
as verbal comments or differential work treatment, may also affect
LGB employees’ fears and decisions to disclose at work. This
research, combined with an extension and integration of stigma
theory and signal detection theory, leads to the prediction that
perceptions of past discrimination will have a significant relation-
ship with current fears of disclosure as well as the degree of
disclosure in the present position. In particular, it is reasonable to
expect that for those who have not disclosed, or not fully disclosed,
fears about the potential consequences of full disclosure in the
present position will be related to perceptions of sexual orientation
discrimination in past positions. Similarly, the overall degree to
which LGB workers disclose their sexual identity in their present
position should be related to perceptions of discrimination in past
positions.
Hypothesis 3a: Among LGB employees who have not dis-
closed, or not fully disclosed, those who perceive that they
encountered sexual orientation discrimination in past posi-
tions will fear more negative consequences of full disclosure
than those who do not hold such perceptions.
Hypothesis 3b: LGB employees who perceived sexual orien-
tation discrimination in past positions will disclose to a lesser
extent in their current position than LGB employees who do
not hold such perceptions.
An interesting question that arises concerns the relative effect of
these three antecedent variables. Do current perceptual experiences
in a supportive work environment override past perceptions of
discrimination, or do these past experiences create a resilient fear
that overshadows current experiences? Does the perceived support
of the work group matter more than its perceived sexual orienta-
tion? On the one hand, a group of primarily LGB coworkers offers
a relatively safe haven for employees to disclose their sexual
orientation. On the other hand, a supportive heterosexual work
group may not only support disclosure, but also send the message
that other heterosexuals also support disclosure. Moreover, if the
organization is not supportive of LGB employees, a supportive
heterosexual group could provide more of a buffer to the LGB
employee than a primarily gay group. Because there is no research
or theory to guide these competing perspectives, we explore this
issue as a research question that compares the effects of perceived
sexual orientation of the work group, perceived group support, and
perceived history of discrimination.
Research Question 1a: Among LGB employees who have not
disclosed, or not fully disclosed, which antecedent variable
has the greatest impact on fear of negative consequences of
full disclosure?
Research Question 1b: Which antecedent variable has the
greatest impact on the degree of disclosure of sexual orien-
tation in the workplace?
We now turn to an examination of work-related attitudes and
outcomes associated with fear of disclosure and the disclosure of
a gay identity in the workplace.
1107
FEAR AND DISCLOSURE OF SEXUAL ORIENTATION AT WORK
Outcomes Associated With Fear and Disclosure in the
Workplace
A core objective of this study is to offer insights into the
workplace experiences of LGB employees who have not disclosed,
or have not fully disclosed, their sexual identity at work. As
discussed earlier, these individuals may be deeply afraid of the
consequences of fully disclosing their sexual identity. If so, it is
critical that researchers understand the work-related consequences
of this fear of disclosure as well as the more general consequences
associated with disclosing a stigmatized identity at work.
A prevailing view held by stigma theorists is that individuals
who conceal a stigmatized identity will experience negative psy-
chological, behavioral, and interpersonal consequences (e.g.,
Crocker et al., 1998; Goffman, 1963; Jones et al., 1984). Applying
stigma theory to invisible stigmas, Lane and Wegner (1995) de-
veloped and tested a preoccupation model of concealable stigmas
that draws on psychological theories of secrecy, fear, and suppres-
sion to examine the psychological stress that may occur as a
consequence of concealing invisible stigmas (cf. review by Smart
& Wegner, 2000). They proposed that the secrecy involved with
concealing a stigma leads to a state of preoccupation, which in turn
triggers an insidious cycle of intrusive and suppressed thoughts
that they called a “private hell” (Smart & Wegner, 2000, p. 229).
They theorized that concealment leads to a condition in which
stigma-related thoughts become subconscious even as they nega-
tively affect the individual’s psychological state (Wegner & Smart,
1997). There has been some empirical support for this theory
among women with eating disorders (Smart & Wegner, 1999) and
those who felt stigmatized by their experience of abortion (Major
& Gramzow, 1999).
Although it is reasonable to expect that concealment will lead to
a state of “private hell,” environmental perspectives on gay iden-
tity challenge this view by holding that concealment may be a
necessary and adaptive strategy for LGB workers in nonsupportive
or hostile work environments (Cain, 1991; Fassinger, 1995). Ac-
cording to this view, LGB employees who disclose may not
automatically be more satisfied or have less psychological strain
than those who conceal their stigma. This perspective helps ex-
plain the inconsistent and contradictory research findings on the
relationship between the degree of disclosure of sexual orientation
at work and work-related attitudes and outcomes (cf. reviews by
Ragins, 2004; Welle & Button, 2004). This line of research tests
the prediction that employees who disclose more at work will be
more satisfied with their jobs, experience less psychological strain,
and have more positive work-related outcomes than those who
conceal their sexual orientation. The results have been inconsistent
and even contradictory; some studies found that LGB employees
who disclosed more reported more positive job attitudes (Day &
Schoenrade, 1997; Ellis & Riggle, 1995; Griffith & Hebl, 2002),
whereas others found no relationship between disclosure and work
attitudes (Croteau & Lark, 1995; Driscoll, Kelley, & Fassinger,
1996). In fact, employees who disclosed more reported lower
continuance organizational commitment (Day & Schoenrade,
1997); earned less compensation (Ellis & Riggle, 1995; Schneider,
1987); and reported less pay satisfaction (Ellis & Riggle, 1995),
more turnover intentions, and fewer opportunities for promotion
(Tejeda, 2006) than those who concealed their sexual identity.
Degree of disclosure should be strongly related to work-related
stress and psychological strain, but this research has also produced
inconsistent findings. Some studies found a significant relationship
between disclosure and reports of general anxiety (Jordan & De-
luty, 1998), but other studies found no relationship between dis-
closure and reports of work-related stress (Day & Schoenrade,
1997), psychological strain, or occupational coping (Driscoll et al.,
1996).
In short, this perspective suggests that the degree of disclosure,
although important, may have less of an impact than the fears
associated with disclosure. Individuals may conceal their identity
if they believe that disclosure would lead to negative repercussions
(cf. Bowen & Blackmon, 2003; Clair et al., 2005; Pachankis, 2007;
Ragins, in press, 2004), and these fears may have a significant
impact on the quality of work life for LGB employees. It is
therefore important not to treat disclosure in a vacuum, but to
examine the role fear plays in work-related attitudes and outcomes.
Related research has indicated that fear of discrimination influ-
ences mental health and reports of psychological stress among gay
men (Meyer, 2003; Vincke, DeRycke, & Bolton, 1999) and that
this effect is independent of reports of discriminatory events
(Meyer, 1995). Although this research was not conducted in the
workplace, it suggests that irrespective of actual disclosure, the
very fear of negative consequences of disclosure may influence the
workplace experiences of LGB employees. Accordingly, we ex-
pected that the fears experienced by LGB employees who have not
disclosed their sexual identity at work would be related to reports
of work-related attitudes, psychological strain, and career out-
comes.
Hypothesis 4: Among LGB employees who have not dis-
closed, or not fully disclosed, those who fear more negative
consequences of full disclosure will report greater psycholog-
ical strain at work, and less positive work and career attitudes,
work environments, and career outcomes, than those who fear
fewer negative consequences of disclosure.
Our study also offered the opportunity to explore the relationship
between degree of disclosure and a full array of work outcomes.
As discussed earlier, research on this topic has yielded inconsistent
and contradictory results. One explanation for this is that many of
these studies employed small, regional samples composed of either
gay men or lesbians, but not both. In addition, many studies used
employees of a single organization, which may reflect organiza-
tional differences in culture and discrimination that could influ-
ence disclosure (cf. Ragins, 2004). The present study sought to
extend our knowledge of the relationship between degree of dis-
closure and work attitudes by examining a full array of 15 outcome
variables in one large-scale investigation using a national random
sample of LGB employees. Given the inconsistent research find-
ings on this topic, we offered the following research question:
Research Question 2: Will LGB employees who disclose to a
greater extent at work report less psychological strain at work,
and have more positive work and career attitudes, work
environments, and career outcomes, than those who disclose
to a lesser extent at work?
1108
RAGINS, SINGH, AND CORNWELL
Method
Procedure and Respondents
Sampling procedure. As part of a larger national study on
heterosexism and workplace diversity (Ragins & Cornwell, 2001),
anonymous surveys were sent to a national random sample of
2,919 members of three national gay rights organizations in the
United States. Specifically, we sent surveys to 1,488 members of
one of the largest gay civil rights organizations in the nation, 681
surveys to members of a national gay Latino/Latina organization,
and 750 surveys to members of a national gay African American
organization. Stratified random sampling was used to select equal
numbers of men and women by geographic area. Two reminder
postcards and a reminder letter were sent to all respondents. A total
of 334 surveys were returned unanswered for various reasons, the
primary reason being undeliverable mail (n 283); 51 surveys
were returned unanswered because respondents were retired, un-
employed, self-employed, heterosexual, or deceased. Completed
surveys were returned by 768 respondents, yielding a response rate
of 30%.
Respondents. Because this study investigated fear and the
disclosure of a gay identity at work, respondents who indicated
they were heterosexual (n 20), unsure of their sexual orientation
(n 3), self-employed (n 99), employed by a LGB organization
(n 51), or employed as unpaid volunteers (n 61) were
excluded from the analyses.
The final sample therefore consisted of 534 respondents, with
168 women and 363 men; 3 did not report their gender. The
majority of the respondents considered themselves to be gay or
lesbian (92.9%) as compared to bisexual (7.1%). The racial and
ethnic background of the respondents was as follows: 67.6%
White, 15.2% Black, 12.2% Latino or Hispanic, 0.7% Asian, 1.1%
multiracial, and 1.1% other; 2.1% did not report their race. The
average age of respondents was 41 years. In terms of education,
38.6% held bachelor’s degrees, 28.2% had master’s degrees, and
17.9% had doctoral degrees. With regard to income, 41% of the
sample earned between $26,000 and $50,000 a year, and 24%
earned between $51,000 and $75,000 a year. The average tenure in
their current organization was 9.3 years, and the average current
position tenure was 6.1 years. Most respondents held professional
or technical jobs (68.5%) and managerial jobs (19.7%); the re-
mainder were employed in clerical or sales positions (4.9%),
service or crafts (6.4%), or agricultural positions (0.4%). Respon-
dents came from a large range of industries, such as education
(24.2%), health (17%), government (14.8%), service (12.2%),
manufacturing (9.2%), finance/insurance (6.8%), arts/entertain-
ment (4.8%), advertising/publishing (3.1%), travel (2.0%), human
services (2.0%), and design/fashion (0.9%). Respondents were
also employed in organizations that varied in size: 30.3% worked
in organizations with more than 10,000 employees, 26.4% were at
organizations with 1,000 to 10,000 employees, 20.7% were at
organizations with 100 to 999 employees, and 21.5% worked at
organizations with fewer than 100 employees.
Measures
The survey was pretested on a separate pilot group of 28 LGB
employees across the nation. The pretest was used to ensure
clarity, refine instruments, and select items.
Perceptions of past discrimination. Seven items were used to
assess perceptions of past discrimination. The items and responses
are displayed in Table 1. The options for these items were coded
as yes (2), unsure (1), and no (0). The seven items were summed
to create an overall scale of perceptions of past discrimination,
with values ranging from 0 to 14. Higher values represent greater
perceptions of past sexual orientation discrimination.
Perceived sexual orientation of work group. Two items were
used to measure perceptions of work group orientation. First,
respondents were asked about the sexual orientation of their co-
workers and given the following options: most coworkers are
heterosexual (1), work group about equally balanced (2), most
coworkers are gay or lesbian (3), and do not know (coded as
missing). Next, respondents were asked whether their supervisor
was the same sexual orientation as them (heterosexual supervisors
were coded as 0, gay supervisors coded as 1, unsure of sexual
orientation coded as missing). Higher scores therefore represent
perceptions of a greater proportion of gay coworkers and supervi-
sors.
Perceived social support from supervisors and coworkers.
The Caplan, Cobb, French, Harrison, and Pinneau (1975) instru-
ment was used to measure perceived social support at work. This
measure has 4 items for supervisory support and 4 items for
coworker support and assesses general forms of social support
(i.e., “How much can each of these people be relied on when things
Table 1
Perceptions of Past Workplace Discrimination
Item Yes (%) No (%) Unsure (%)
In prior positions, have you ever faced discrimination because of your sexual orientation? 33.9 49.1 17.1
In prior positions, have you ever encountered discrimination because others suspected or
assumed that you are gay, lesbian or bisexual? 37.2 43.7 19.1
In prior positions, have you ever been physically harassed (touched or threatened) because of
your sexual orientation? 10.5 86.2 3.3
In prior positions, have you ever been verbally harassed because of your sexual orientation? 22.4 73.4 4.2
Have you ever resigned from a job in part or because of discrimination based on sexual
orientation? 13.3 83.9 2.8
Have you ever been fired from a job in part or because of your sexual orientation? 6.1 87.4 6.5
Did you leave your last job in part or because of discrimination based on sexual orientation? 11.4 84.8 3.5
Note. Items are given verbatim.
1109
FEAR AND DISCLOSURE OF SEXUAL ORIENTATION AT WORK
get tough at work?”) using a 4-point Likert scale (1 not at all to
4 very much). Scores were computed by averaging items.
Higher values indicate greater perceived social support.
Work and career attitudes. Established instruments were used
to measure six attitudes: job satisfaction, organizational commit-
ment, turnover intentions, satisfaction with opportunities for pro-
motion, career commitment, and organization-based self-esteem.
Job satisfaction was measured with the R. P. Quinn and Staines
(1979) 5-item Likert scale of job satisfaction (Example item: “All
in all, how satisfied are you with your job?”) ranging from 1 not
satisfied at all to 4 very satisfied. Organizational commitment
was measured with Mowday, Steers, and Porter’s (1979) 15-item
scale, and turnover intentions were measured with a 2-item scale
from the Michigan Organizational Assessment Questionnaire
(Nadler, Jenkins, Cammann, & Lawler, 1975). Both scales used a
7-point Likert scale (1 strongly disagree to 7 strongly agree).
Satisfaction with opportunities for promotion was appraised with
the 9-item promotion subscale of the Job Description Index (P. C.
Smith, Kendall, & Hulin, 1969). Career commitment was mea-
sured with Blau’s (1985) 7-item Career Commitment scale using a
5-point Likert scale (1 strongly agree to 5 strongly disagree).
Organization-based self-esteem was measured using the 10-item
Pierce, Gardner, Cummings, and Dunham (1989) scale, which uses
a 7-point Likert scale (1 strongly disagree to 7 strongly
agree). For all attitude scales, scores were computed by averaging
items. Higher values represent more positive career and job atti-
tudes and stronger turnover intentions.
Work environment. Three established measures were used to
assess the general work environment. We used Caplan et al.’s (1975)
4-item role ambiguity scale (i.e., “How often are you clear about what
others expect of you on the job?”), measured with a Likert scale of
1 rarely to 5 very often; their 3-item role conflict scale (“Persons
in equal rank and authority over you ask you to do things which
conflict”), measured with a Likert scale of 1 rarely or never to 4
very often; and their 3-item workplace participation scale (i.e., “How
much do you participate with others in helping set the way things are
done in your job?”), rated from 1 very little to 5 a great deal.
Higher values therefore represent more participation and greater role
conflict. The role ambiguity measure was recoded so that higher
values represent more role ambiguity. For all work environment
scales, scores were computed by averaging items.
Psychological strain at work. Four established instruments
were used to measure psychological strain at work. First, we used
Caplan et al.’s (1975) 10-item somatic complaints at work scale.
Respondents used a 3-point scale ranging from never (1), to once or
twice (2), to three or more times (3) to report stress-related symptoms
experienced on the job in the past month, such as dizzy spells,
shortness of breath, and insomnia. We also used Caplan et al.’s 6-item
work-related depression scale (“I feel sad”) and 4-item work-related
anxiety scale (“I feel nervous”), and Cobb’s (1970) 3-item work-
related irritation scale (“I get angry”). These scales ask respondents to
report how they feel about themselves and their jobs using a 4-point
scale (1 never or little of the time to 4 most of the time). Scores
for these psychological strain scales were computed by averaging
items, and higher values reflect greater psychological strain at work.
Career outcomes. Promotion rate and compensation were
used to measure career outcomes. Promotions were defined as
involving two or more of the following criteria that may occur
within or between organizations: significant increases in salary;
significant increases in scope of responsibility; changes in job
level or rank; or becoming eligible for bonuses, incentives, and
stock plans. Given this definition, respondents were asked how
many promotions they had received over the past 10 years. Re-
spondents also reported their current annual compensation, which
included salary, bonuses, commissions, stock options, and profit
sharing.
Degree of disclosure of sexual orientation in the workplace.
We directly assessed the degree of disclosure in the workplace by
using the following question: “At work, have you disclosed your
sexual orientation to: (Please check one option): (1) no one (2)
some people (3) most people (4) everyone.” These four options
were slightly modified from the “out at work” measure used by
Croteau and Lark (1995), Levine and Leonard (1984), and Schnei-
der (1987), and they were very similar to the degree of disclosure
item used in other studies (cf. Driscoll et al., 1996; Rostosky &
Riggle, 2002; N. G. Smith & Ingram, 2004; Waldo, 1999). Higher
values represent a greater degree of disclosure of sexual orienta-
tion at work.
Fear of full disclosure of sexual orientation in the workplace.
A review of the literature revealed no measures of this variable, so
we used related research to develop a 12-item measure of fear of
full disclosure at work. The measure, displayed in the Appendix,
uses a 7-point Likert scale (1 completely disagree to 7
completely agree). Scale scores were computed by averaging
items. Higher values indicate greater fears of full disclosure of
sexual orientation at work. Individuals who reported that they had
disclosed their sexual identity to everyone in their organization
(n 125) were instructed to skip this measure. A principal
components factor analysis on responses from the 409 respondents
who completed this measure yielded a single factor with an eig-
envalue of 7.78, accounting for 64.9% of the variance. All items
had factor loadings of .49 or higher, and the coefficient alpha for
the measure was .95.
Control variables. We started with a large list of organiza-
tional variables that may be related to disclosure at work and that
have been employed as control variables in other studies, such as
organizational size, industry, respondent’s job, rank in organiza-
tion, organizational tenure, and position. For demographic covari-
ates, we considered variables that may be related to gay identity
formation, such as age, gender, race, and education (Gonsiorek &
Weinrich, 1991). In order to preserve power, we selected covari-
ates that had a significant relationship with dependent variables but
low intercorrelations. We used independent variable interaction
terms to test for homogeneity of the regression assumptions fun-
damental to covariance analyses. On the basis of these criteria,
existing theory, and prior research, we used three single-item
control variables in the present study: respondent’s age, education,
and organization size.
Results
The correlations, means, standard deviations, and coefficient
alphas for all study variables are displayed in Table 2. The coef-
ficient alphas for multiple-item variables ranged from .73 to .95
and are listed on the diagonal of Table 2.
Our respondents reported that they worked primarily with het-
erosexual coworkers; 89.3% perceived most of their coworkers as
heterosexual, 6.6% perceived their work group as equally bal-
1110
RAGINS, SINGH, AND CORNWELL
Table 2
Descriptive Statistics, Intercorrelations, and Coefficient Alphas
Variable MSD12345678910111213141516171819202122232425
1. Age 41.11 8.68
2. Education 4.39 1.08 11
3. Organization size 5.61 2.29 04 01
4. Perceived past
discrimination 3.13 3.50 11 08 11 (80)
5. Supervisor
orientation 0.09 0.29 03 04 15 01
6. Coworker
orientation 1.13 0.40 05 13 22 03 42
7. Supportive
supervisor 3.02 0.92 00 06 13 11 06 12 (89)
8. Supportive
coworker 3.27 0.63 07 10 18 17 09 20 28 (82)
9. Job satisfaction 2.56 0.56 01 17 11 15 01 16 42 28 (82)
10. Organizational
commitment 4.59 1.22 01 04 14 10 03 14 49 35 70 (90)
11. Turnover intention 3.20 2.10 14 06 03 12 07 01 42 24 62 67 (77)
12. Opportunities for
promotion 1.49 0.99 22 04 05 12 05 04 32 32 46 55 46 (87)
13. Career
commitment 3.38 0.98 05 25 15 03 03 15 24 17 58 41 40 27 (88)
14. Organization-based
self-esteem 4.18 0.66 06 14 17 15 01 06 46 40 50 57 43 42 37 (91)
15. Role ambiguity 2.01 0.87 16 10 05 13 06 04 37 26 34 36 43 27 18 43 (90)
16. Role conflict 1.62 0.72 04 06 07 18 05 03 36 22 30 29 37 26 13 26 53 (79)
17. Participation 3.60 1.16 07 14 14 05 03 09 44 38 45 47 28 35 32 59 25 16 (88)
18. Somatic
complaints 1.31 0.33 02 13 03 30 02 03 29 31 26 25 26 27 08 31 43 32 23 (82)
19. Depression 1.81 0.64 06 08 12 16 02 07 42 38 58 54 53 45 34 53 44 35 41 48 (88)
20. Anxiety 1.65 0.53 04 06 11 12 03 09 29 30 33 29 30 28 20 38 47 34 30 52 63 (73)
21. Irritation 1.95 0.64 01 06 11 15 03 04 40 26 37 41 36 29 16 37 36 39 26 38 55 51 (84)
22. Compensation 3.56 1.19 14 29 21 08 00 08 00 06 12 06 12 14 09 11 09 07 23 06 08 05 08
23. Promotion rate 2.43 2.11 21 02 04 02 02 05 08 08 22 24 12 28 11 18 01 02 22 07 21 12 07 22
24. Degree of
disclosure 2.74 0.98 03 10 20 09 10 26 14 18 18 15 05 01 16 08 06 03 22 05 02 03 03 04 10
25. Fear of disclosure 4.77 2.51 03 08 16 23 12 27 45 33 47 42 29 33 27 36 26 28 33 38 35 25 30 04 18 45 (95)
Note. Coefficient alphas, in parentheses, are listed on the diagonal. Decimals have been omitted from correlations and alphas. Significant correlations are in bold. N 348, except for fear of disclosure
(N 273). Two-tailed significance levels are: r .10 p .05. r .14 p .01. r .18 p .001. r .21 p .0001. r .12 p .05. r .16 p .01. r .20 p
.001. r .23 p .0001, for fear of disclosure.
1111
FEAR AND DISCLOSURE OF SEXUAL ORIENTATION AT WORK
anced, 2.3% reported that most of their coworkers were gay or
lesbian, and 1.9% did not know. Most respondents also reported
having heterosexual supervisors (85.8%); 8.9% reported having
gay or lesbian supervisors, and 5.3% did not know their supervi-
sors’ sexual orientation.
Our sample varied on the degree to which respondents were out
at work: 11.7% reported being out to no one at work, 37% reported
being out to some people, 24.6% reported being out to most
people, and 26.7% reported being out to everyone at work.
Antecedents of Fear and Disclosure in the Workplace
Tests of the impact of the antecedent variables on the two depen-
dent variables of fear of full disclosure and the degree of disclosure
were made using a series of hierarchical regression analyses in which
respondent’s age, education, and organizational size were entered as
control variables in the first step of the hierarchical analyses. Analyses
involving the dependent variable of degree of disclosure utilized the
entire sample, whereas analyses involving the fear of full disclosure
dependent variable used a subsample that excluded those who had
fully disclosed their sexual identity to everyone in their workplace.
As displayed in Table 3, full support was received for Hypoth-
eses 1a and 1b. Among LGB employees who had not disclosed, or
had not fully disclosed, their sexual orientation at work, those who
perceived that they had heterosexual supervisors feared more neg-
ative consequences of full disclosure than those who reported
having LGB supervisors. Similarly, those who reported that they
worked with a greater proportion of heterosexual coworkers feared
more negative consequences of full disclosure than those who
perceived that they worked with primarily LGB coworkers. A
similar pattern was found for degree of disclosure. Respondents
disclosed their sexual orientation to a lesser extent when they
perceived that they worked with primarily heterosexual coworkers.
However, the negative relationship between perceived sexual ori-
entation of the supervisor and the degree of disclosure approached,
but did not reach, conventional levels of significance ( p .059;
R
2
.01). Therefore, support was received for Hypothesis 1d
but not for Hypothesis 1c.
The next set of hypotheses (Hypotheses 2a–2d) examined the
effects of perceived social support while holding the perceived
sexual orientation of supervisors and coworkers constant. Full
support was received for this set of hypotheses. Among LGB
employees who had not disclosed, or had not fully disclosed, those
who lacked supportive supervisors or coworkers reported more
fears of negative consequences of full disclosure than those who
reported having supportive supervisors or coworkers. Similarly,
perceived support also predicted the degree of disclosure. LGB
employees who reported that they lacked supportive supervisors or
coworkers had disclosed to a lesser extent than those who reported
having supportive supervisors or coworkers.
More than one third of the sample reported that they had experi-
enced sexual orientation discrimination in past positions (see Table 1).
As predicted by Hypothesis 3a, among LGB employees who had not
Table 3
Results of Hierarchical Regression Analyses
Analysis
Fear of full disclosure Degree of disclosure
␤⌬R
2
R
2
␤⌬R
2
R
2
Step 1: Control variables
Age .02 .03
Education level .08 .09
*
Organization size .21
**
.05
**
.05
**
.19
**
.05
**
.05
**
Step 2: Supervisor sexual orientation Test of Hypothesis 1a Test of Hypothesis 1c
.12
*
.01
*
.06
**
.08 .01 .05
**
Step 3: Supervisor social support Test of Hypothesis 2a Test of Hypothesis 2c
.38
**
.15
**
.21
**
.11
*
.01
*
.06
**
Step 2: Coworker sexual orientation Test of Hypothesis 1b Test of Hypothesis 1d
.19
**
.03
**
.08
**
.22
**
.05
**
.09
**
Step 3: Coworker social support Test of Hypothesis 2b Test of Hypothesis 2d
.30
**
.09
**
.17
**
.15
**
.02
**
.11
**
Step 2: Perceived past discrimination Test of Hypothesis 3a Test of Hypothesis 3b
.22
**
.05
**
.10
**
.12
*
.01
*
.06
**
Step 2: Research questions Test of Research Question 1a Test of Research Question 1b
Sexual orientation of supervisors .05 .00
Sexual orientation of coworkers .11
*
.19
**
Supervisors’ social support .32
**
.05
Coworkers’ social support .19
**
.15
*
Perceived past discrimination .19
**
.25
**
.30
**
.14
*
.09
**
.13
**
Note. The R
2
and R
2
values are based on the entry of all variables listed in that step.
*
p .05.
**
p .001.
1112
RAGINS, SINGH, AND CORNWELL
disclosed, or had not fully disclosed, those who perceived more
discrimination in past positions reported greater fears of full disclo-
sure in their current position than employees who did not have these
perceptions. However, in contrast to Hypothesis 3b, those who per-
ceived more discrimination in past positions had disclosed their sexual
orientation to a greater extent in their current positions than those who
did not perceive past discrimination.
Research Questions 1a and 1b explored which of the antecedent
variables had the strongest impact on the two dependent variables
of fear of full disclosure and the degree of disclosure. Two hier-
archical regression analyses were conducted to answer these two
questions. Control variables were entered in the first step, followed
by the antecedent variables in the second step. Research Question
1a examined the antecedents for fear of full disclosure among LGB
employees who had not disclosed, or had not fully disclosed, their
gay identity at work. For fear of disclosure, the predictor with the
largest weight was the perceived presence of a supportive super-
visor, followed by the perceived presence of supportive coworkers
and perceptions of past discrimination. Research Question 1b
offered a parallel analysis by using the entire sample to examine
predictors of the degree of disclosure at work. For degree of
disclosure, the predictor with the largest weight was the perceived
presence of gay and lesbian coworkers, followed by supportive
coworkers and perceptions of past discrimination. Issues of range
restriction and multicollinearity effects on the regression coeffi-
cients were investigated. No problems were suggested after we had
reviewed the independent variables standard deviations, intercor-
relations, and collinearity diagnostics produced by SPSS (Version
11). Coefficient of variations were computed for each of the five
predictors and correlated with the size of regression coefficients.
The significant negative correlation (r –.53, p .01) indicated
that differences in range and variability of the predictors were not
an alternative explanation for the results.
Outcomes Associated With Fear and Disclosure in the
Workplace
Because we found moderately high intercorrelations among the
dependent variables of work and career attitudes, psychological
strain, and work environment, we used multivariate analysis of
covariance for these variables. Compensation and promotion were
not highly intercorrelated, so analysis of covariance was used in
analyses involving these variables. Because analysis of variance
requires categorical independent variables, we used a mean split to
transform the fear of disclosure variable from a continuous to a
categorical variable. The adjusted means for the dependent vari-
ables are displayed in Table 4.
As displayed in Table 4, Hypothesis 4 was supported; fears
experienced by LGB employees who had not disclosed, or had not
fully disclosed, their sexual orientation at work were significantly
Table 4
Adjusted Means for Outcome Variables and Results of Covariance Analyses
Variable
Fear of
disclosure Degree of disclosure
Hypothesis 4
Fear of full disclosure
Research Question 2
Degree of disclosureLow High No one Some Most All
Work and career attitudes Wilks’s ␭⫽.85 Wilks’s ␭⫽.97
n 226 184 57 195 127 138 F(6, 400) 11.49, p .001 F(18, 1428.84) 0.84, p .657
Job satisfaction 2.70 2.34
**
2.48 2.52 2.61 2.63
2
.112
**
2
.011
Organizational commitment 4.93 4.15
**
4.40 4.54 4.71 4.75
2
.114
**
2
.011
Turnover intention 2.80 3.63
**
3.45 3.16 3.14 3.06
2
.039
**
2
.003
Opportunities for promotion 1.70 1.19
**
1.53 1.46 1.44 1.55
2
.065
**
2
.002
Career commitment 3.49 3.16
**
3.28 3.33 3.35 3.50
2
.028
**
2
.007
Organization-based self-esteem 4.32 4.00
**
4.20 4.17 4.20 4.23
2
.065
**
2
.001
Work environment Wilks’s ␭⫽.93 Wilks’s ␭⫽.97
n 228 182 57 194 126 139 F(3, 403) 10.39, p .001 F(9, 1234.06) 2.04, p .032
Role ambiguity 1.80 2.12
**
1.93 1.88 2.01 2.09
2
.034
**
2
.009
Role conflict 1.53 1.68
*
1.54 1.55 1.66 1.63
2
.012
*
2
.005
Participation 3.79 3.24
**
3.32
a
3.54
a,b
3.72
b
3.77
b
2
.055
**
2
.016*
Psychological strain Wilks’s ␭⫽.93 Wilks’s ␭⫽.99
n 229 182 57 194 127 139 F(4, 403) 8.00, p .001 F(12, 1341.69) .59, p .86
Somatic 1.27 1.35
*
1.29 1.29 1.29 1.36
2
.016
**
2
.009
Work-related depression 1.67 1.98
**
1.83 1.78 1.82 1.83
2
.060
**
2
.001
Anxiety 1.62 1.72 1.66 1.62 1.69 1.71
2
.008
2
.005
Irritation 1.84 2.08
**
1.94 1.92 1.96 1.95
2
.036
**
2
.000
Career outcomes
n 230 182 57 195 128 139 F(1, 407) 2.90, p .089 F (3, 512) 1.80, p .146
Compensation 3.56 3.38 3.38 3.42 3.65 3.62
2
.007
2
.010
n 210 170 51 184 114 129 F(1, 375) 10.11, p .002 F(3, 471) 1.55, p .201
Promotion rate 2.54 1.91
*
2.15 2.14 2.44 2.62
2
.026
*
2
.010
Note. Means are adjusted for covariates. Larger values reflect more positive work and career attitudes, stronger turnover intentions, more role ambiguity,
more role conflict, greater participation, more psychological strain, and more positive work outcomes.
a
Significantly different from other degree of disclosure means at p .05.
b
Significantly different from other degree of disclosure means at p .05.
*
p .05.
**
p .001.
1113
FEAR AND DISCLOSURE OF SEXUAL ORIENTATION AT WORK
related to 13 of the 15 outcome variables. Fear of full disclosure
was significantly related to all of the work attitudes studied:
Wilks’s ␭⫽.85, F(6, 400) 11.49, p .001; those who feared
more negative consequences to disclosure reported less job satis-
faction, organizational commitment, satisfaction with opportuni-
ties for promotion, career commitment, and organization-based
self-esteem and greater turnover intentions than those who feared
less negative consequences. Similarly, fear was significantly re-
lated to all of the work environment variables: Wilks’s ␭⫽.93,
F(3, 403) 10.39, p .001; those who feared more negative
consequences reported more role ambiguity, more role conflict,
and less workplace participation than those who feared less neg-
ative consequences. LGB employees who feared more negative
consequences also reported greater psychological strain than those
who feared less negative consequences: Wilks’s ␭⫽.93, F(4,
403) 8.00, p .001. Follow-up univariate analyses revealed that
fear was significantly related to physical somatic stress-related
symptoms experienced on the job, work-related depression, and
work-related irritation but did not reach conventional levels of
significance for work-related anxiety (
2
.008, p .07). Finally,
those who feared more negative consequences to disclosure re-
ceived significantly fewer promotions, F(1, 375) 10.11, p
.002;
2
.026, p .05, than those who feared less negative
consequences to disclosure. However, differences in compensation
did not reach conventional levels of significance, F(1, 407)
2.90, p .089;
2
.007.
Research Question 2 explored degree of disclosure by examin-
ing whether employees who had disclosed to a greater extent at
work reported different attitudes and outcomes than those who had
disclosed to a lesser extent. As displayed in Table 4, degree of
disclosure was not significantly related to 15 of the 16 dependent
variables. The only exception was that employees who had dis-
closed to a greater extent reported more participation in their work
environment than those who had disclosed to a lesser extent.
These results offer some interesting preliminary insights into the
outcomes associated with fear of full disclosure and the degree of
disclosure. As indicated in Table 4, fear of full disclosure was signif-
icantly related to 13 of the 15 outcomes, whereas degree of disclosure
only predicted 1 of the 15 outcome variables. However, because LGB
employees who had fully disclosed to everyone in their workplace
were not included in analyses involving fear of full disclosure, but
were included in analyses involving degree of disclosure, a true
comparison of the outcomes associated with these two variables could
not be established. In order to offer a more equivalent basis for
comparison, we reran the analyses excluding those who had fully
disclosed from the degree of disclosure variable. The results were
essentially replicated: Degree of disclosure was not significantly re-
lated to any of the dependent variables, and participation was no
longer significant in this set of analyses. Specifically, degree of
disclosure did not predict reports of work attitudes: Wilks’s ␭⫽.97,
F(12, 702) 0.88, ns; work environment: Wilks’s ␭⫽.98, F(6,
704) 1.31, ns; psychological strain: Wilks’s ␭⫽.99, F(8, 706)
0.194, ns; promotion rate, F(2, 358) 1.28, ns,
2
.007; or
compensation, F(2, 330) 0.40, ns,
2
.002.
Discussion
This study sought to expand the understanding of the workplace
experiences of gay and lesbian employees by examining the ante-
cedents and consequences of fear and the disclosure of a gay
identity at work. In particular, we examined the anticipated fears
associated with the full disclosure of a gay identity among LGB
employees who had not disclosed, or had not fully disclosed, their
sexual identity at work. For these employees, we found that their
fears about disclosing a gay identity at work had an overwhelm-
ingly negative relationship with their career and workplace expe-
riences and their psychological well-being. These findings were
both striking and disturbing; those who reported more fear of the
negative consequences of full disclosure had less positive job and
career attitudes, received fewer promotions, and reported more
physical stress-related symptoms than those who reported less fear.
However, when examining employees representing the full range
of disclosure (i.e., disclosure to everyone at work, most, some, and
none), we found that range of disclosure predicted only 1 of the 15
outcome variables.
These findings challenge the assumption that disclosure auto-
matically leads to positive outcomes and instead offers a more
complex explanation of the processes underlying the disclosure of
a gay identity at work. In contrast to the view of disclosure as a
uniformly positive behavior that reflects the final stage of gay
identity development (cf. review by Reynolds & Hanjorgiris,
2000), this study suggests that concealment may be a necessary
and adaptive decision in an unsupportive or hostile environment
(e.g., Cain, 1991; Fassinger, 1995), thus underscoring the impor-
tance of social context. In line with stigma theory and its applica-
tion to the workplace (Beatty & Kirby, 2006; Clair et al., 2005;
Ragins, in press), disclosure may represent a fine balance between
the social support and psychological factors that drive disclosure
on the one hand and the fear of negative consequences that inhibit
it on the other.
One of the more intriguing findings of our study was that LGB
employees who perceived that they had encountered sexual orien-
tation discrimination in past positions reported more fear of dis-
closure, but also disclosed to a greater extent in their current
position, than those who did not perceive past discrimination.
Although our cross-sectional data limit our ability to draw causal
conclusions, this finding suggests that perceptions of past discrim-
ination may heighten the perceived risk of disclosure but may not
automatically suppress the need of LGB employees to obtain a
state of psychological coherence between public and private iden-
tities (cf. Ragins, in press). This apparent resilience in the face of
perceived past discrimination is in line with the idea that disclosure
is driven not only by fear, but also by the need to develop an
authentic sense of self in the workplace (cf. Griffin, 1992). Future
research could assess whether there are individual differences in
self and identity (cf. Roberts, 2005) that interact with past expe-
riences to influence disclosure of stigmatized identities in the
workplace.
The results of this study also highlight the importance of per-
ceived coworker support. Although LGB employees who reported
having gay or lesbian colleagues had less fear and disclosed to a
greater extent than those in primarily heterosexual work groups,
when holding the perceived sexual orientation of the work group
constant, LGB employees with supportive coworkers and super-
visors reported less fear and disclosed more than those who lacked
a supportive group. This suggests that the presence of supportive
heterosexual coworkers may help alleviate fears of disclosure and
allow LGB employees to bring their true identity to work.
1114
RAGINS, SINGH, AND CORNWELL
Although the present study focused on sexual orientation, its
findings have a number of implications for understanding the
workplace experiences of other groups with invisible stigmas (e.g.,
HIV/AIDS, epilepsy, mental illness). First, disclosure decisions
need to be viewed within the context of perceived consequences.
Second, because these perceptions are influenced by the environ-
ment, the presence of safe havens and supportive colleagues may
reduce the fears associated with disclosure. Finally, it is important
to recognize that although an individual’s fear may or may not
reflect objective reality, the subjective experience of living in fear
pierces the quality of work life for many employees with invisible
stigmas. Future research could replicate this study by using the fear
of disclosure instrument on other groups with invisible stigmas.
Study Limitations and Future Research
The results of our study may be susceptible to several limita-
tions. First, the cross-sectional research design limits our ability to
establish directional relationships. A longitudinal study of the
process of disclosure would be useful, although it would be chal-
lenging to identify LGB employees before they self-identify as
gay. Second, we relied on self-report data, which are subject to
misrepresentations. Third, our survey results may be affected by
common method variance. In order to reduce this bias, we sepa-
rated the independent and dependent variable items in our survey
with four pages of other questions. Moreover, common method
variance is not a pressing concern with many of the key variables
in our study, such as work group orientation, perceptions of past
discrimination, disclosure of sexual orientation, compensation, and
promotion rates. Fourth, our 30% response rate was adequate but
not compelling. As a consequence, nonresponse bias should be
considered as a possible limitation. We assessed this bias by
conducting a wave analysis (Leslie, 1972) in which we compared
responses from those who returned their surveys early with re-
sponses from those who returned their surveys after receiving
multiple reminder letters. We found no significant differences
between early and late respondents, which suggests that nonre-
sponse bias may not be a grave concern for this study.
It is important to recognize that our study examined fear of
disclosure only among LGB employees who had not disclosed, or
had not fully disclosed their sexual identity at work. Employees
who had fully disclosed their sexual orientation to everyone in
their workplace did not complete the fear of disclosure instrument,
so the results of this study may not generalize to this population.
Future research needs to examine the workplace experiences of
those who fully disclose, as this population may face a different set
of challenges than those who conceal their identity (cf. Ragins,
2004). For example, those who fully disclose at work still need to
disclose to new coworkers, managers, clients, or vendors, and thus
these employees continually face the risk of a negative reaction to
disclosure (cf. Ragins & Wiethoff, 2005). However, because they
have fully disclosed, their identity is public, and, in a sense, they
no longer have control over the disclosure process. Qualitative
research is needed to uncover the benefits, challenges, and coping
mechanisms among those who have fully disclosed their sexual
orientation at work.
Our study also faced limitations relating to the sample. Survey-
ing members of gay rights organizations may limit the generaliz-
ability of the study in two ways. First, members of these organi-
zations may be more educated and more likely to hold professional
positions than the larger population of LGB workers. This limita-
tion is reflected in our sample, which consisted of highly educated,
professional employees; 17.9% of the sample, for example, had
doctoral degrees. The results of this study may not generalize to
workers of lower socioeconomic or educational levels or to those
who hold blue-collar positions. Second, members of gay rights
groups may be more likely to disclose at work than other employ-
ees. However, the alternative practice of surveying an organization
also creates a bias; workers may be more likely to return surveys
if they disclose at work, and those who have not disclosed may be
less likely to respond or may report that they are heterosexual. In
addition, filling out a survey inquiring about an employee’s sexual
orientation that is administered at the workplace may be stressful
for many LGB employees. Another problem with using organiza-
tional surveys is that it would have been nearly impossible to
obtain a sample that represented gay people of color. In short, the
use of members of gay rights groups as a sample has important
limitations but was effective for obtaining a diverse sample of this
population. Finally, our cross-sectional study did not offer longi-
tudinal information about those who had disclosed and subse-
quently left their positions because of negative consequences of
disclosure. This may have created a sampling artifact in which
those who were studied had more positive outcomes to disclosure
than those who had already left the organization because of neg-
ative consequences to disclosure. It is also interesting to note that
our sample, like others (cf. Button, 2001; Chrobot-Mason et al.,
2001; Griffith & Hebl, 2002), was characterized by relatively high
organizational tenure (9.3 years). This may reflect the “safe haven
hypothesis” (Ragins, 2004), which holds that LGB workers may be
reluctant to leave organizations that offer some degree of safety
from discrimination, even for alternatives that offer more oppor-
tunities, greater compensation, or a better fit with career aptitudes
and interests.
There are also limitations associated with some of the measures
used in the study. Respondents were asked about the sexual ori-
entation of their work group, but we were unable to assess the
accuracy of these perceptions. In addition, we did not ask how they
had ascertained this information, or whether the coworker or
supervisor disclosed only to the respondent or to others in the
group. Our study examined whether social support received from
work relationships predicted disclosure but did not assess whether
respondents were satisfied with these relationships. Future re-
search could investigate whether satisfaction with coworkers pre-
dicts or is predicted by disclosure. We used an established, but
relatively dated, measure of job satisfaction. In addition, our study
examined anticipated negative consequences, and only among
those who had not disclosed to everyone in their workplace. Future
research could examine anticipated positive consequences of dis-
closure among those who have not fully disclosed, as well as
actual consequences among those who have fully disclosed in their
workplace. Last, we used a global item to assess disclosure.
Because one goal of our study was to replicate and extend prior
research, we needed to use essentially the same measure of dis-
closure as used in other studies. Our concerns about using a
single-item were somewhat allayed by the significant correlation
between this item and a parallel item that measured respondents’
disclosure of their sexual orientation outside the work setting (r
.59, p .0001). We also asked respondents to whom they had
1115
FEAR AND DISCLOSURE OF SEXUAL ORIENTATION AT WORK
disclosed their sexual identity at work and gave them eight target
options: no one at work, other LGB workers, close friends, co-
workers, supervisors, workers they supervise, everyone in their
department, and everyone in their organization. The significant
correlation between the target of disclosure and the global measure
of disclosure (r .85, p .0001) offers some insight into the
validity of the global measure.
In conclusion, many employees with invisible stigmas leave part
of their identity at home when they come to work each day, and
they then live in fear that their true identity will be discovered. The
cost of this fear on the quality of work life can never be fully
assessed, but organizations can lessen this fear by providing sup-
portive environments that allow employees to bring their full
identities to work.
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Appendix
Fear of Disclosure Scale
Items are given verbatim. The 12-item scale used a 7-point response
format ranging from completely disagree (1) to completely agree (7).
If I disclosed my sexual orientation to everyone at work:
I would lose my job.
I would be excluded from informal networks.
I would not be promoted.
My prospects for advancement would be stifled.
My mobility would be restricted.
I would not get a raise.
I would be ostracized.
My career would be ruined.
People would avoid me.
I would be harassed.
I would lose the opportunity to be mentored.
Coworkers would feel uncomfortable around me.
Note. Prior to completing this scale, respondents were asked if they
had disclosed their sexual orientation to everyone in their organization.
Those who had were instructed to skip this scale.
Received November 4, 2005
Revision received October 19, 2006
Accepted October 23, 2006
1118
RAGINS, SINGH, AND CORNWELL
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