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How to Make Others Feel Safe Self-Disclosing Aspects of Their Identity at Work

👎 Myth: Employee’s self-disclosing aspects of their identity at work is on them, and therefore, not something managers and peers need to be concerned about.


💡Reality: How we respond to people sharing personal things about themselves at work (which can arise unexpectedly, especially in hybrid work) impacts their ability to perform their best, so we need to be prepared to respond well when self-disclosure occurs.


Many organizations are returning to office, or rearranging their operations for hybrid work, requiring people to meet with their colleagues in person, some of which for the first time ever (e.g., workers initially hired in fully-remote). It can be much easier to hide certain aspects of one’s identity as a fully-remote employee, but requiring people to meet in person may increase the need to share personal information with your colleagues or manager.


For example, personal challenges and well-being concerns can affect any individual at any point in their career. Physical health issues, mental well-being challenges, unforeseen life circumstances, self-driven desire to share--the need to disclose can arise unexpectedly.

Therefore, it's crucial for individuals, managers and organizations to adopt an inclusive and empathetic approach to disclosure. Recognizing that well-being needs can emerge at any time, the focus should be on creating an environment where employees feel safe and empowered to share their concerns when they arise, without fear of stigma or discrimination.


My personal experience self-disclosing at work

A few years ago, I began seeing the value of sharing aspects of my identity with leaders and colleagues when working at the consulting firm, Mattingly Solutions. This experience taught me that self-disclosure is a two way street. I had to feel safe to talk about my identity AND I had to want to share it, and be ready to share when the right moment presented itself.


Even before I entered this workplace, the organization’s and leaders’ reputations were critical in my willingness to work in this environment in the first place. My leaders then created a space that resulted in me feeling safe and comfortable.

  • When I shared otherwise personal aspects of my identity, they listened to learn, rather than respond.

  • They asked my permission to ask thoughtful follow up questions about what I shared…and made it clear that it was 100% okay to choose not to disclose anything out of my comfort zone.

  • They celebrated my engagement to my same-sex partner.

  • They provided accommodations for my neurodivergent needs (e.g., providing agendas before meetings, allowing for recordings of meetings when appropriate, taking the time to do post-meeting following up with written communication and voice messages or small videos to clarify certain areas)

As a result of this company’s inclusive culture, I felt safe and empowered to not only share who I was at work, but publicly as well. Check out this blog I wrote in 2021, boldly sharing that I was out as an LGBTQIA+ individual: https://www.mattinglysolutions.com/post/is-she-yes-i-am-out-at-work


I was then able to take this positive experience into future jobs, enabling me to better advocate for what I need and not worry about hiding aspects of who I am in fear of retaliation.


Managers have to tailor their approaches to individuals otherwise you can end up in a really uncomfortable situation. When I disclosed to my manager that I’m autistic, he could have used references to autism in media and movies (typically centered around boys or men, who are stereotypically non-social and into science or math). Instead, he responded with curiosity and a learning mindset. There is a saying, “if you meet one autistic person, you’ve met one.” That applies for all experiences of disclosure and others then respond.


And by not spending valuable time and energy trying to hide who I am in fear of judgment or stigmatization, I can now just focus on what matters: doing the best work I can do each and every day.


What is disclosure?

Disclosure can come in many forms, from identifying as a member of some vulnerable group that’s not visually apparent, to sharing a medical diagnosis. When defining disclosure, think of it broadly as a behavior where one willingly and openly shares something about their identity. It can come at varying levels, all of which need to be respected.


🚫 Never assume it is okay to share what was shared with you with someone else.

Non-Disclosure

Partial Disclosure

Full Disclosure

Public Disclosure

Private, does not seek support or accommodations

Shares minimal or some context and how it may impact work, and what support is needed

Shares comprehensive information, and how it may impact work, and what support is needed

Shares comprehensive information and lived experience on public platforms such as team chats or LinkedIn

How to handle disclosure: More than just a moment

👎 Myth: Disclosure is a one time event where someone shares information


💡Reality: Disclosure, if handled well, is just the beginning of someone feeling safe to bring their best, authentic selves to work


While many perceive disclosure as a single, isolated event, such as a meeting or an email, it's important to recognize that proactive measures can significantly improve the experience for both the employee disclosing information and the recipient. By remembering that the initial self-disclosure is just the first step in someone being more authentic in the workplace, both parties can better prepare for future identity-based conversations, establish a deeper connection, and create a safer and more supportive environment for more courageous conversations and disclosures moving forward.


Managers

👎 Myth: If a leader discloses, others will think less of them as a leader

💡Reality: Disclosure can protect your reputation as a leader.


Disclosure can be scary, especially if you think it could impact your reputation as a people leader. Research sheds light on the potential benefits of such disclosure, emphasizing that it can play a pivotal role in shaping a leader's reputation and impact. Research shows that leaders who engage in open and honest disclosure about aspects of who they are can reduce biases they may otherwise experience, especially leaders who also belong to vulnerable groups. The act of disclosure not only dispelled negative biases but also enhanced their professional reputation. This research underscores the power of vulnerability and honesty in leadership.


Employees

Disclosure is not only beneficial for managers, it can help employees thrive in their role and protect their well-being. Disclosure opens the door to being one’s authentic self at work. Employees who can be their authentic selves often experience higher job satisfaction (Griffith & Hebl, 2002), gain emotional support from coworkers (Trau, 2014), and increased job engagement (Anaza et al., 2014)


Check out the guide below for specific behaviors managers and employees can take to support others who self-disclose aspects of their identity at work. And be sure to reach out if you’re seeking more organizational-level support for building a more inclusive workplace culture--we got you covered.


Note: Kelsie is a former Mattingly Solutions team member and currently a People Research Consultant at Zoom. Connect with her on LinkedIn.


Guide for Responding to
When Someone Self-Discloses in the Workplace

Managers

Pre-Disclosure

Disclosure

Post-Disclosure

Always be ready

Listen and communicate support

Follow up and deliver

  • Create a team culture that encourages open communication about how identities/experiences and work relate.

  • Consider disclosing your own experiences with your team

  • Know your organization's resources: Connect with your HRBPs, read resources, and resources like EAPs or ERGs

  • Share resources related to identities that may disclosure with your team, or when onboarding a new member

  • Educate yourself about biases and stigmas that can disrupt your decision-making as a leader

  • Be aware of the technology features, and office feathers, that could hinder or better support all employee identities

  • Listen actively, and let the employee know you care about them and are committed to supporting them

  • Thank them for trusting you with this information

  • Co-build accommodations, support, or other needs with the employee

  • It is important to remember every situation is unique and to tailor your response and support to individuals, not their identity.

  • Keep disclosure confidential

  • Co-build accommodations, support, or other needs with the employee

  • Ensure that you follow all necessary workplace laws and regulations regarding accommodations and support

  • Provide relevant resources and support

  • Regularly check in with the employee to see how they are doing, if the accommodations are effective, and if any adjustments are needed. Continued support and communication are key.


Employees

Pre-Disclosure

Disclosure

Post-Disclosure

Make a plan

Communicate openly

Follow up with updates

  • Pick the time and communication type: meeting or asynchronous message, or both!

  • Know your organization's resources and support for disclosure, or anticipated support

  • Be aware of the technology features, office features, or organizational practices, that could hinder or better support you in your work

  • Familiarize yourself with your legal rights if relevant

  • Provide the level of details you feel comfortable sharing and that may help your manager support you

  • Share your ideas about needs or support you desire

  • Co-build accommodations, support, or other needs with your manager

  • Reflect on the conversation and if you believe you communicated what you wanted/needed

  • Co-build accommodations, support, or other needs with your manager

  • Regularly check in with yourself, the support you are getting, and your needs. Desired support may change over time, communicate with your manager on an ongoing basis





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