Stigma Expression Outcomes and Boundary Conditions: A Meta-Analysis

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Journal of Business and Psychology,

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The decision to express a stigmatized identity inside and outside of the workplace is highly complex, with the potential for both negative and positive outcomes. This meta-analysis examines the intrapersonal and interpersonal workplace and non-workplace outcomes of engaging in this identity management strategy. Synthesizing stigma and relationship formation theories, we hypothesize and test boundary conditions for these relationships including the visibility and controllability of the stigma, the study setting, and the gender of the interaction partner. Through our analysis of 65 unique samples (k = 108), we find that expression is more likely to lead to beneficial outcomes in interpersonal, workplace, and non-workplace domains, but only for less-visible stigmas and for studies conducted within a field vs. lab setting. Finally, we explore stigma expression across specific stigmatized identities and determine that there are consistently positive outcomes of expression for individuals with stigmatized religious and sexual orientation identities.

The decision of whether, when, where, how, and to whom to express a stigmatized identity is extraordinarily complex. Stigma, defined as a devalued characteristic within a social setting (Goffman, 1963), encompasses a variety of marginalized characteristics, including but not limited to identities based on race, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, disability status, and certain types of diseases. A great deal of research documents the difficulties associated with having a stigmatized identity, including interpersonal negativity; internal conflict such as stress, life satisfaction, and job commitment; and a variety of negative outcomes that can occur in both social settings, including effects on social support, life satisfaction, positive affect, and stress, and work-related settings, such as workplace anxiety/stress, role ambiguity, job satisfaction, and affective commitment. (e.g., Clair, Beatty, & MacLean, 2005; Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002; Pascoe & Smart Richman, 2009). As a result, individuals possessing a stigmatized identity must learn how to effectively manage their identities in order to try to minimize the internal turmoil and external backlash that they may experience. A defining experience among stigmatized individuals involves balancing a need to act in socially desirable ways and a need to be authentic in social interactions (Jones & King, 2013).

Previous meta-analyses on self-expression more generally have determined that there are positive interpersonal benefits of revealing information about one’s self, including social support, perceptions of authenticity, and social connections (“self-disclosure;” Collins & Miller, 1994; Frattaroli, 2006). Self-disclosure is typically a positive experience because it allows people to improve connections and form relationships with others and free their minds of unwanted thoughts (Frattaroli, 2006). Expressing, or bringing attention to a stigmatized identity (through disclosing, or expressing an invisible, unknown stigma or through acknowledging, or expressing a visible stigma), however, has much greater potential for undesirable outcomes due to the negative perceptions that society often holds towards these groups. In accordance with stigma theory, expressing a stigmatized group membership reveals that the individual is associated with a group that is devalued by society (Crocker, Major, & Steele, 1998), and this expression can cause one’s status to change from “discreditable” to “discredited” (Goffman, 1963). Thus, expressing a stigma is likely to lead to both positive and negative outcomes.

Indeed, empirical studies have uncovered contradictory findings regarding the outcomes associated with expressing a stigmatized identity to others. Some studies have found that expressing a stigma predicts increased experiences of prejudice and discrimination (e.g., Hebl, Foster, Mannix, & Dovidio, 2002). Other studies, however, have shown that expressing a stigma positively relates to one’s internal psychological outcomes, such as increased life happiness (Beals, Peplau, & Gable, 2009), well-being (Balsam & Mohr, 2007), and job satisfaction (Ragins, Singh, & Cornwell, 2007; Balsam & Mohr, 2007). The current study aims to resolve this discrepant literature by determining whether and under what conditions stigma disclosure is beneficial.

One potential reason for these discrepancies may be the existence of individual and situational boundary conditions that influence the nature of expression outcomes. First, stigmas differ in a number of significant ways, such as their level of visibility, controllability, perceived threat, esthetics, dynamism, and disruptiveness (Jones et al., 1984). Goffman’s (1963) seminal work, as well as current literature (Goodman, 2008; Hebl & Kleck, 2002; Hebl & Skorinko, 2005; Jones & King, 2013) theorize that visibility and perceived controllability of stigmas have the greatest impact on expression outcomes. Accordingly, using the framework of stigma theory, we explore how these two important stigma characteristics moderate outcomes of expression. Second, interactions between stigmatized and non-stigmatized individuals also vary in terms of the contexts in which they take place and the extent to which an interaction partner is accepting of one’s stigma will likely determine whether the expression of that stigma is related to positive or negative intrapersonal and interpersonal outcomes (Griffith & Hebl, 2002). Thus, we examine the moderators of context and recipient gender to assess the influence of one’s environment on expression outcomes. In doing so, this meta-analysis will determine the specific individual and situational factors in which stigma expression is likely to yield positive outcomes.

Overall, this meta-analysis study will contribute to existing literature in two significant ways. First, it will help to resolve existing equivocal theories and findings by providing meta-analytic results determining whether expressing a stigma is associated with positive or negative intrapersonal and interpersonal consequences in workplace and non-workplace domains. In doing so, it will provide a direct test of the contradictory assertions proposed by stigma theory and relationship-forming theories. Second, it will explore some of the key boundary conditions that may help to determine the specific situations and characteristics that elicit the most optimal expression outcomes for stigmatized individuals. To begin, we explore the theoretical and empirical evidence regarding the intrapersonal, interpersonal, workplace, and non-workplace outcomes of expressing a stigmatized identity. Then, we examine the boundary conditions that determine the specific situations and characteristics that are more likely to lead to the most optimal outcomes of expressing within each of these four domains. Finally, we provide the meta-analytic results of these relationships and interactions. Thus, this study will provide the first comprehensive test of theoretical assertions regarding whether and when expressing a stigma predicts beneficial outcomes (see Fig. 1).


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