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Social Media Stigma is Real

social media stigma is a problem
Social media stigma is a real thing for employees with stigmatized identities. Social media is not an equally safe space for all! Learn how to navigate it.

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More and more, the world centers on social media. We have accounts on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook ourselves. Yet, not everyone feels equally safe on social media sites. People who have concealable, stigmatized identities – like members of the LGBTQIA+ population – may find it hard to navigate being friends with coworkers on social media. Companies are asking employees to engage on social media for work purposes. This can create problems when some employees don’t feel safe. What do employees do when they face stigma, but are expected to let coworkers in on their personal lives? Read more to find out!

Facing Stigma is Bad for Wellbeing

When employees face stigma because of an identity they hold at work, they have to decide how to manage their identity. Some identities are not concealable. In this case, employees have fewer options. For example, race is not considered a concealable identity because it’s more readily visible. But, sexual orientation is considered concealable because you can’t visually see how someone identifies.

When employees have concealable identities, they have to “come out” about them if they want others to know. This is called disclosure. When people don’t disclose their identities, they risk being inauthentic. They can also experience stress and burnout because of constant worry about revealing their identity to prejudiced people. Overall, facing stigma from others is bad for employees’ health. We have talked about the challenges that occur when people stigmatize others at work before.

Managing stigma at work can be really challenging. On social media, it's even harder.
Managing stigma at work can be really challenging. On social media, it’s even harder.

Social Media Stigma is a Problem

Recent research on gay men in the workforce shows that they have to think harder about how to interact with coworkers on social media. Before, employees were able to have a bit more separation between work and life. Now the boundaries are getting blurry. For example, stigmatized employees may feel like they have to monitor their identity at work. But, when they are friends with coworkers on social media, it’s harder to do that. If they decide not to accept friend requests from coworkers, they might be viewed as unfriendly. But, if they do accept, they have to decide how much to conceal or reveal about their identities online.

Also, workplaces are now asking employees to advertise for events or services on social media. Managers might ask employees to post about events they’re holding. Or they might ask employees to advertise open roles in their company. When stigmatized employees are expected to mix work and life on social media, it’s hard to say no. But, this also makes it difficult for stigmatized employees’ personal and professional lives to stay separate.

Employees can face stigma on social media as well! Social media is not an equally safe space for all.
Employees can face stigma on social media as well! Social media is not an equally safe space for all.

Employees Respond to Social Media Stigma Differently

This new research shows that stigmatized employees respond in a few ways when they navigate social media. First, most people use a strategy called “mirroring”. When mirroring, employees try as much as they can to be the same on social media as they are at work. If information wouldn’t be shared at work, employees don’t share it on social media. Although this research doesn’t address this, being inauthentic with family and friends may become a problem for wellbeing in these circumstances. So, it’s not ideal. Some employees only used this strategy with coworkers. They changed their profile settings and shared more private information with trusted people.

Some folks may not change anything about their online behavior. But, this can create issues for employees with stigmatized identities as well. If other employees feel that they are seeing “too much” of stigmatized employees’ identities, they may face more bias or discrimination. So, this strategy allows employees to be authentic but can make wellbeing worse.

Finally, some employees decided to become more activist about their identities on social media. They used this strategy as a way of educating coworkers. By doing this, they could still be authentic, but they also might change their coworkers’ attitudes. While this will not always be the outcome, it is possible that this strategy allows employees to be themselves and make positive change at work. But, it could become exhausting in the long run. Overall, we recommend that companies eliminate stigma. But, that may not be possible. Stigmatized employees may find that the healthiest option is educating others in the meantime.

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