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Is it saf Is it safe to bring myself t o bring myself to work? Understanding L o work? Understanding LGBTQ
experiences of workplace dignity
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Baker, S. J., and Lucas, K. “Is it safe to bring myself to work? Understanding LGBTQ experiences of
workplace dignity.” 2017 Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences, 34(2): 133â€“148.
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Is it safe to bring myself to work?
Understanding LGBTQ experiences of workplace dignity
Sara J. Baker
Southern Connecticut State University
University of Louisville
Despite increased efforts by more organizations to be seen as â€œgay-friendly,â€ workplaces remain challenging sites for LGBTQ
employees to navigate. We examine the ways in which LGBTQ employees experience dignity threats in the workplace and the
protection strategies they use to deflect those threats. Interviews with 36 LGBTQ working adults revealed that their dignity is
threatened by a range of identity-sensitive inequalities that undermine their safety and security when they claim authentic
gendered/sexual identities. Specific safety and security threats to dignity include social harm, autonomy violations, career harm, and
physical harm. To (re)claim their dignity, they engage in four primary dignity protection strategies: avoiding harm by seeking safe
spaces, deflecting harm with sexual identity management, offsetting identity devaluations by emphasizing instrumental value, and
creating safe spaces for authenticity and dignity.
Keywords: authenticity, gay-friendly, heteronormativity, safety, sexual identity management, workplace dignity
While disrespectful communication plagues many
employees on a daily basis, problematic exchanges may be
even more pervasive or severe for individuals who perform
their gender, sex, and sexuality in ways that differ from
heteronormative expectations. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans,
and queer (LGBTQ) employees often are met with messages
and experiences that are particularly damagingâ€”including,
but not limited to such things as bullying (Cowan, 2007; Hunt
& Dick, 2008), discrimination (Bedgett, Lau, Sears, & Ho,
2007; Lewis, 2006, 2009; Ozturk, 2011; Sears & Mallory,
2011), harassment (Bedgett et al., 2007; Das, 2009; Meyer,
2009), hurtful jokes and taunts (Baker, 2010; Silverschanz,
Cortina, Konik, & Magley, 2008), and ostracism (Embrick,
Walther, & Wickens, 2007).
We explore the experiences of LGBTQ people in the
workforce through a workplace dignity lens. Specifically, we
identify the unique dignity threats LGBTQ working adults
experience because of their gender and sexuality. We then
describe the dignity protection strategies LBGTQ employees
use to deflect threats. By viewing these experiences through a
workplace dignity lens, we draw attention to the complexity of
dignity negotiations as related to marginalized and stigmatized
Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences
34: 133â€“148 (2017)
The Gay Unfriendly Workplace
The term â€œgay-friendlyâ€ has become a catch-all label for
environments where LGBTQ individuals feel accepted
(Giuffre, Dellinger, & Williams, 2008). Workplaces have been
designated as gay-friendly based on equal employment
opportunity policies, the availability of employment benefits
(e.g., partner benefits, trans*inclusive health care),
demonstrations of organizational LGBT competency (e.g.,
training, resources, employee group or diversity councils), and
public commitments to LGBT advocacy (e.g., employee
recruitment, philanthropic support of LGBT organizations or
events) (Human Rights Campaign, 2015). Despite these efforts
to make organizations more inclusive and welcoming,
workplaces remain largely gay unfriendly. In particular,
LGBTQ employees can be harmed in the workplace by
discrimination and sexuality-specific microaggressions.
For LGBTQ employees, workplace discrimination is
marked by a lack of consistent formal policies and informal,
prejudicial treatment that affects material outcomes including
decisions about hiring, firing, job assignments, promotion
opportunities, and fringe benefits (Lewis, 2009). For example,
survey data revealed that one in four lesbian, gay, and bisexual
employees reported experiencing employment discrimination,
but for those who are out at work, the frequency increased to
nearly one in three (Sears & Mallory, 2011). Discrimination
can bar LGBTQ employees from access to certain
organizations and jobs. An ethnographic study of a large
company in the United States revealed that 90% of
respondents admitted they would not hire anyone they thought
was gay, would not consider them the best or first choice for
the position, and, if given the chance, would not rehire gay or
lesbian employees already employed (Embrick et al., 2007).
Once LGBTQ employees gain access to the workplace, they
may have difficulty being promoted or maintaining secure
employment. For instance, 7% of LGB employees surveyed
had lost a job due to their sexuality, while 9% of LGB
employees who are out at work reported losing a job due to
their sexuality (Sears & Mallory, 2011). Finally, LGBTQ
employees experience discrimination in terms of equal pay
and benefits. Between 10-19% of LGB employees believe
they were the recipients of unequal pay or benefits (Bedgett et
al., 2007). These perceptions are not unfounded. In Canada,
white, gay men with partners earn 5% less than heterosexual
men with partners (Waite & Denier, 2015), which is similar to
the pay disparity in the US workforce (Pinsker, 2015).
Notably, LGBTQ employees can be harmed in the
workplace whether or not they face overt and legallyactionable discrimination. They also may be harmed by
repetitive, small injuries inflicted by microaggressions. Nadal
(2008) described microaggressions as â€œbrief and
commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental
indignitiesâ€ (p. 23) that are communicated as microassaults,
microinsults, and microinvalidations (Sue, 2010). Nadal,
Rivera, and Corpus (2010) outlined a taxonomy of seven
common sexual orientation specific microaggressions: (a) use
of heterosexist and transphobic terminology (e.g., calling an
LGBTQ employee a â€œfaggot,â€ â€œdyke,â€ or â€œtrannyâ€); (b)
endorsement of heteronormative or gender-normative
cultures/behaviours (e.g., implicit dress codes that align with
birth sex); (c) assumption of universal LGBTQ experiences
(e.g., stereotyping lesbian women as being â€œbutchâ€ or gay men
as being into fashion or design); (d) exoticization (e.g., asking
explicit questions about sex and genitalia); (e)
discomfort/disapproval with LGBTQ experience (e.g.,
believing that LGBTQ couples should not raise children); (f)
denial of societal heterosexism or transphobia (e.g., a coworker telling an LGBTQ employee that they are being
â€œoverly sensitiveâ€ about discrimination); and (g) assumption
of sexual pathology/abnormality (e.g., believing that all gay
men have HIV/AIDS or are child molesters). In follow-up
research, Nadal, Issa, Leon, Meterko, Wideman, and Wong
(2011) added an eighth microaggression: denial of individual
heterosexism/transphobia (e.g., saying â€œI have a gay friendâ€ to
refute accusations of homophobia).
Combined, workplace discrimination and the
communication of sexuality-specific microaggressions paint a
troubling picture of organizational life for LGBTQ employees.
While organizations are increasingly implementing LGBTQ
protection policies and seeking to create gay-friendly
workplaces, there is certainly more work to be done in order
for LGBTQ employees to achieve a full sense of workplace
A valuable way to examine LGBTQ individualsâ€™
problematic experiences in the workplace is through the
theoretical lens of workplace dignity. Workplace dignity is
defined as â€œthe ability to establish a sense of self-worth and
self-respect and to appreciate the respect of othersâ€ (Hodson,
2001, p. 3)â€”that is, dignity is simultaneously highly personal
and highly relational. Dignity is about oneâ€™s own sense of self
and the ability to maintain and protect that core part of being;
at the same time, oneâ€™s dignity is dependent upon others in
order to be recognized. Moreover, the core principle of dignity
is a fundamental belief that dignity is a universal and
unconditional right of all human beings who possess, simply
by virtue of being human, an inherent and equal value to all
others (Lee, 2008). Because of its normative stance, dignity
provides an important lens for understanding the experiences
of people who experience challenges to their worthiness,
esteem, and respect. A dignity framework is important for
understanding LGBTQ experiences because it necessarily
broadens the scope of attention from illegal and unethical
behaviours that inflict harm to include behaviours that are
necessary to affirm
human value. While dignity spans all domains of life, it has
particular significance in a workplace context.
From the perspective of employees, there is an
expectation for inherent, earned, and remediated dignities
(Lucas, 2015). However, these expectations are frequently
violated. First, inherent dignity is the unconditional value
accorded to individuals for the sake of being a human being
(Sayer, 2007, 2011). It can be denied by disrespectful
interaction or by being treated as a nonhuman object in a
workplace context. Second, earned dignity is the
conditional self-esteem and self-value that is derived from
gaining recognition for efforts, skills, knowledge, and the
like (Honneth, 1995; Islam, 2013). It can be undermined
when peopleâ€™s competence and contributions go
unrecognized or when opportunities to express their
instrumental value are impeded. Third, remediated dignity
is a negatively-valenced valuation based on injuries caused
by organizational inequality and instrumentality, and which
therefore calls for remedies of those injuries. It can be
denied when social interactions and organizational
practices exacerbate or draw unnecessary attention to the
instrumental nature of the work relationship and
inequalities embedded in the workplace (Lucas, 2015).
It is this latter category of dignity injury that is most
salient for LGBTQ experiences of workplace dignity, as it
highlights injuries grounded in inequalities. Sayer (2011)
differentiated between two ways in which inequality is
socially produced. The first is identity-indifferent
inequality, which is the product of economic mechanisms.
These inequalities include a variety of structural constraints
inherent in the employment relationship, such as power
imbalances deriving from internal hierarchies, unequal
distribution of risk and rewards by occupational category,
or differences in working conditions based on professional
status (Crowley, 2012; Dufur & Feinberg, 2007). The
second is identity-sensitive inequality, which is a result of
responses to certain (mis)construals of peopleâ€™s identities,
such as through sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, and
the like. Sayer (2011) explains the unique problems of
A crucial element in all these ills is treatment of
members of the relevant groups in ways which are
undignified: they may be mistrusted, their ability and
probity may be doubted, they may not be taken
seriously; worst of all, their vulnerability may be
exploited, including the special vulnerability which
derives precisely from their stigmatization. (pp 208-
Research on identity-sensitive inequalities has
examined issues of social class (Lucas & Gist, 2015),
gender (Crowley, 2013), and immigrant status (Stuesse,
2010). However, researchers have not yet attempted to
understand experiences of workplace dignity as they relate
to the identity-sensitive inequalities of sexuality. This
omission is troubling because LGBTQ employees are
particularly susceptible to dignity threats at work, as they
are exposed to both identity-indifferent inequalities that
arise from structural conditions of the employment
relationship (which are experienced on par with working
peers) and are vulnerable to further identity-sensitive
inequalities because of (mis)construals of their sexual
orientation. Therefore, we ask:
RQ1: What are the most salient dignity threats
experienced by LBGTQ employees in the workplace?
Within the workplace dignity literature, there is a
growing stream of research that examines individualsâ€™
responses to dignity threats. Some studies describe the
resilience needed to persist in the face of dignity threats
(Mears & Finlay, 2005) or how social support can soothe
dignity injuries (Kim, 2009); however, the primary focus
has been on identity work and resistance.
The first cluster of responses to workplace dignity
threats is identity work. Identity work refers to efforts
individuals engage in to (re)create and maintain a positive,
coherent, and preferred sense of self (Alvesson & Willmott,
2002). Identity work can be undertaken at any time, but is
often triggered by specific events, encounters, and
experiences that threaten individualsâ€™ sense of self
(Watson, 2008). In workplace dignity research, identity
work tends to be prompted by stigma and is often linked to
the performance of â€œdirty workâ€ (e.g., assisting in abortion
procedures, Chiappetta-Swanson, 2005; euthanizing
animals, Sanders, 2010). But some identity work is in
response to stigmatized social identities. For instance,
Lucas (2011) described how blue-collar workers respond to
threats tied to their social class identity by comparing highstatus and low-status outgroups. By claiming that people
above them and below them in the social class hierarchy
are equally deserving of dignity, they discursively construct
an insulated centre space in which they can indirectly stake
a claim for their own dignity. Other identity work is
triggered by stigmatized affiliations. Otis (2008) illustrated
how female hotel workers in China attempted to
differentiate themselves from the sex workers who have an
informal but thriving business linked to the hotel. The hotel
employees maintained their dignity by engaging in a
particular form of identity work couched in performances
The second cluster of responses to workplace dignity
threats is resistance. Karlsson (2012) explained that when
employees are exposed to negative conditions that
undermine their worth, they are likely to respond by taking
steps to restore their dignity or to retaliate against the
organization for harming their dignity. Previous workplace
dignity research demonstrates a range of resistance
strategies such as unionizing (Stuesse, 2010), articulating
cynicism against management (Fleming, 2005), quitting
(Cleaveland, 2005), sabotage (Hodson, 2001), and
engaging in counterproductive work behaviours (Lucas,
Manikas, Mattingly, & Crider, 2017).
Notably, identity work and resistance have received
considerable scholarly attention in LGBTQ research. To
begin, identity workâ€”particularly sexual identity
managementâ€”is one of the most heavily researched
phenomena in LGBTQ studies. Because sexual orientation
can be invisible (in comparison to more visible social
identities such as race), it enables some LGBTQ employees
to make strategic decisions about whether, when, and/or
how to disclose their identity (Clair, Beatty, & MacLean,
2005). Usually decisions follow from a conscious costbenefit analysis that weighs the threat of stigma against
concerns of authenticity and legitimacy (Clair et al., 2005)
as well as overall organizational safety as evidenced by
official organizational policies and informal coworker
communication (Compton, 2016).
Even in situations when employees are â€œoutâ€ at work,
they still may have to engage in sexual identity
management. For instance, some may cover their identity.
In covering, individuals â€œtone downâ€ particular aspects of
their identity that, while formally tolerated, are still not
fully accepted or embraced within the mainstream
(Yoshino, 2006). Rumens and Kerfoot (2009) described the
strategies of dress and comportment that gay men engaged
in to be viewed as â€œprofessional,â€ as defined and
constrained by heteronormative standards (see also Barrett,
2002, for coverage of womenâ€™s gendered identity
negotiation in a hypermasculine organization). Others may
be out at work, but cover their sexuality by not inviting
their partners to work parties or talking openly about them
in casual conversations. For those individuals who choose
to reveal or claim an LGBTQ sexual identity, the process of
disclosing that identity still involves sexual identity
management as it draws upon strategies of signalling,
normalizing, and differentiating (Clair et al., 2005).
In addition to sexual identity management, resistance
by LGBTQ employees is also an important area of
scholarly inquiry. In fact, much resistance is inextricably
intertwined with identity work: identity work (particularly
that which claims a marginalized identity) can in itself be
an act of resistance. But resistance may also require
revealing an LGBTQ identity or, at a minimum, may signal
an LGBTQ identity. For example, although they were not
specifically studying workplace dignity, Creed, DeJordy,
and Lok (2010) explored the ways in which LGBT
ministers engaged in productive resistance to address the
marginalization of LGBT people within their institutions.
Through embodied identity work, these ministers were able
to fuse the prestige of their occupational role with advocacy
for LGBT-rights based equality. Studies such as this one
demonstrate that LGBTQ people have the potential to
become change agents within their respective
organizations. Furthermore, Clair et al. (2005) identified
maintaining self-esteem and generating social change as
key personal motives determining strategies of revealing or
concealing invisible stigmatized identities.
Given that maintaining self-esteem can be achieved, in
part, through the sexual identity management strategies of
passing, covering, or claiming (depending on the particular
context), and that social change is often achieved through
resistance, there is a range of possible responses to
LGBTQ-based workplace dignity threats. Therefore, to
gain a complete picture of how LGBTQ respond to dignity
threats, we ask:
RQ2: What strategies do LGBTQ employees practice
to protect their dignity at work?
For this study, we took an interpretive-critical approach
to examine LGBTQ employeesâ€™ experiences regarding
workplace dignity. In this section, we discuss the: (a)
participants, (b) data collection, and (c) data management
Participants were recruited through a sampling
methodology that included internet outreach, contact with
local, regional, and national LGBTQ interest groups, and
participant referrals. Recruitment resulted in interviews
with 36 LGBTQ working adults from the United States,
representing a diverse range of organizational affiliations:
education, for-profit, nonprofit, and government work.
Participants ranged in age from 23â€“59, with an average age
of 39. The majority of participants identified as gay men (n
= 27), but other participants identified as queer women,
bisexual, lesbian, gay woman, queer, pansexual, and trans.
Most of the participants identified as white (n = 32).
In-depth, semistructured interviews were conducted
with each participant. Questions focused on: (a)
experiences of dignity at work (e.g., defining dignity,
describing times when they experienced dignity at work,
describing times when their dignity was threatened, and
discussing their response to dignity threats), (b) perceived
relevance of gender, sex, and sexuality in their workplace,
and (c) sexual identity management strategies they
employed on the job. Interviews were held at the location
most convenient for participants. The majority were
conducted face-to-face (n = 22), while the rest were
conducted through Skype (n = 2) or by phone (n = 12). All
formats revealed equally rich data. Interviews averaged 40
minutes each for a total of 28.25 hours of recorded talk.
Interviews were transcribed using a near verbatim
approach, capturing the exact words that participants used
but omitting vocal disfluencies (e.g., um, uh). After
transcription was complete, the transcripts were reviewed
ensure accuracy, replace names with pseudonyms, and
conceal any additional identifying information. In total, we
have 233 pages of single-spaced text transcriptions.
The first step of the thematic analysis was open coding
(Rubin & Rubin, 2005). We started this process by coding
â€œchunksâ€ (e.g., whole responses to each question on the
interview protocol), using a qualitative data analysis
program (Atlas.ti) to assist with coding and retrieval. The
research questions as well as new codes that emerged from
the data guided the coding scheme. We also wrote
theoretical memos throughout the open coding process. We
assigned at least one code to every chunk of data in the
transcriptions. This resulted in 122 open codes.
For the second step we engaged in axial coding to
make sense of the open codes in such a way as to clarify
and summarize key concepts and themes (Rubin & Rubin,
2005). We began this process by systematically examining
the open codes and grouping them into higher-order
categories. We made this move from open to axial coding
by creating code families in Atlas.ti. Code families allowed
us to group a series of open codes together and look at
responses in conversation with one another.
Once code families were in place, we processed the
data by looking for semantic relationships among the codes
(Spradley, 1979). We examined each code family by
looking for patterns, connections, and contradictions, which
enabled us to collapse similar codes and eliminate
redundancies. As we processed the data, we went back on
numerous occasions to revisit participantsâ€™ stories in a more
holistic manner. We read through interview transcripts,
reviewed questions, and returned to memos. We also held a
data session to discuss emerging themes. We reviewed the
content of participantâ€™s quotations, tested the accuracy of
the codes, examined relationships between codes, refined
themes, and created strategies for continuing the analytical
In this section, we identify the dignity threats
experienced by LGBTQ employees in the workplace. In
response to the query, What does dignity mean to you?,
authenticity and safety/security emerged as the two most
prominent meanings. Moreover, these two themes
frequently occurred in tension with one another. For
instance, Sam, a gay woman who works as a college
instructor, discussed authenticity and safety as critical
facets of dignity:
Feeling accepted and feeling safe. Feeling that I can be
authentically [emphasis added] myself. That I can talk
openly about myself and my life. That it will be accepted.
There wonâ€™t be any like weird faces, nonverbals, or Iâ€™ll be
verbally attacked. The word safety keeps coming to mind.
Dylan, a gay male college professor, had a similar
When you say dignity at work, I guess what comes to
mind to me would be a respectful and supportive
environment. Thatâ€™s really what I would associate with
dignity at work. You donâ€™t feel like you have to censor
yourself, you can be who you are [emphasis added], and
you donâ€™t have to worry [emphasis added] about those
sorts of things.
Falon, a self-described â€œaging gay maleâ€ who worked as an
auto mechanic, also described dignity in connection to
safety. For Falon, dignity was â€œnot having to look over
your shoulder. Not having to watch your back. No need for
any fear [emphasis added].â€
Throughout their interviews, participants shared stories
that emphasized their interconnectedâ€”and often
incompatibleâ€”concerns of authenticity and safety/security.
They revealed that to protect themselves from dignity
threats, they often had to sacrifice authenticity. But when
they claimed authentic gendered/sexual identities at work,
they were often susceptible to various kinds of harm.
Below, we present four identity-sensitive dignity threats
experienced by LGBTQ employees due to identitysensitive inequalities: (a) social harm, (b) autonomy
violations, (c) career harm, and (d) physical harm.
The first major dignity threat LGBTQ employees
experienced was social harm inflicted by disrespectful
communication. Most definitions of dignity cite respect at
its core, as well as the importance of being able to enjoy the
respect of others. Sayer (2007) describes respectful
interactions as more than â€œmere pleasantries,â€ but instead
as interactions that acknowledge the inherent worth of an
individual. Therefore, people need respectful interaction
from others to affirm their dignity. Moreover, when others
actively and intentionally initiate disrespectful
communication, the dignity of the targets is not only
denied, but also injured with social harm. Social harm is
more than just general incivility or hurt feelings; it is an
injury that poses the risk of degradation of self-worth, wellbeing, and social standing. LGBTQ employeesâ€™ dignity is
particularly vulnerable to a range of identity-sensitive
inequalities in treatment that can lead to social harm.
Nearly all participants described at least some level of
disrespectful communication specifically due to their
sexualityâ€”whether it was at their current job or a previous
one. Slurs, off-colour jokes, name calling, disparaging
remarks about gender and sexuality, being the target of
gossip, and ostracism were common. Some of the social
harm was inflicted indirectly, such as when employees
would overhear people using gay-phobic language (e.g.,
when a heterosexual
customer defensively declared, â€œIâ€™m not some sort of fagâ€),
when coworkers used terms like â€œdykeâ€ or â€œhomoâ€ to
discredit people regardless of their sexual orientation, or
lamenting that attractive men who are gay are â€œa waste.â€ It
also occurred in us versus them language, such as when a
conversation about a local high school whose band trip to
Disney World coincided with Gay Day at the theme park,
led one woman to blurt out in front of a gay coworker,
â€œwell gosh, I just donâ€™t think that I would want my
daughter around them [emphasis added].â€
Xavier, who worked as a financial analyst, described
the social harm that occurred at his previous company. On
his first day of work, he attended a meeting in which the
manager opened with a joke:
I canâ€™t remember what the joke was exactly, but it started
with â€œWhatâ€™s worse than a faggot with a chipped tooth?â€
And I thought â€œOh my god. I have made the hugest
mistake.â€ I couldnâ€™t believe it. The first thing I hear. I
donâ€™t even remember what happened for the rest of the
Despite Xavier ultimately building a decent working
relationship with the offending manager, the incident
portended future problems involving disrespectful
communication throughout the organization.
Most often, however, social harm was inflicted
directly. For instance, Rory was working as a server in a
restaurant when he first came out as gay. He explained that
on his job â€œthere was a lot of talk behind my back about me
being so open about my sexuality and down the road it
blossomed into a lot of outright disrespect and stuff like
that.â€ A group of coworkers targeted him specifically:
They had a specific name for me, I donâ€™t know too much
about Spanish, but they called me â€œBonita,â€ which was
their term for pretty boy. But it was never really used in a
nice, welcoming connotation. As soon as I would walk in
the door thatâ€™s what I heard.
Similarly, Charlie, now a hotel manager, recalled a
troubling incident with a coworker:
Many years ago at another job, I had the head chef turn
around and call me a â€œfaggot.â€ Very loudly, very
outspoken and in front of about 15 other people. Very
loudly with the total malice behind it too. My boss said
â€œThatâ€™s a problem between you two. Thatâ€™s not anything
we have to deal with. You figure it out.â€
For Charlie, it was not only the chefâ€™s disparaging remark
that inflicted social harm, but the fact that management
would not address the problem with the offender, leaving
him vulnerable to further abuse.
Harper, a social worker, described the mocking and
ostracism he experienced after a coworker started sharing
her suspicions that he was gay:
She told a bunch of people apparently that I was gay. It
was kind of like night and day after that. People became
really standoffish. Professional in the sense that we work
together. But I was coming around the corner one time
and [one of my coworkers] was talking to a couple of the
other social workers and they were telling fag jokes. â€œNah
nah nah freaking fagâ€ and whatnot. And I come around
the corner and they were referring to me. I kind of
stopped and they all shut up and went around into another
room and started giggling.
Social harm was a real threat to dignity, self-worth, and
well-being. Even years later, participants still painfully
remembered these disrespectful interactions and the
damage they inflicted.
The second major dignity threat LGBTQ employees
experienced was autonomy violations centering on
employeesâ€™ gender and sexuality. While some researchers
position autonomy as the ability to exert control over oneâ€™s
own work domain (e.g., Crowley, 2014; Hodson, 2001),
here we take Sayerâ€™s (2007) definitionâ€”to have control
over oneâ€™s life and for others to refrain from colonizing that
life and to keep a respectful distance. In this sense,
autonomy is also intrinsically linked to privacy.
Participants indicated that their dignity was threatened
when others in the organization encroached upon their
autonomy, particularly regarding control over their private
information and personal identity.
Phoenix, who describes herself as bisexual, regularly
had her autonomy undermined by her supervisor when she
worked as a college speech coach. She explained that her
boss took issue with her sexuality and then began violating
all boundaries of common decency:
My previous boss made it very vocal because of me being
bisexual and identifying that way that Iâ€™m not really gay.
Iâ€™m just with [my long-term female partner] until a decent
penis come around. This was said on multiple occasions
to students that were on our team competing, to faculty
members, to friends at conferences. And Iâ€™m just like
The boss continued to heckle Phoenix about her sexuality,
despite her explicitly asking him to â€œlay off.â€ At a work
function, he talked so loudly about her sexuality that people
at other tables started turning around to observe. He drove
her to a strip club in an attempt to make her prove she was
sexually attracted to women. The bossâ€™s behaviour is a
clear example of violating oneâ€™s autonomy and not keeping
a respectful distance. He inappropriately concerned himself
with Phoenixâ€™s sexuality by making declarations of
knowing her sexuality better than she did, making crude
comments about imagined future sexual encounters, and
broadcasting these to others in a highly public way, despite
Another way LGBTQ employees are denied autonomy
regards their decisions to stay closeted. Several of the
participants in the study described efforts (some previous,
some current) to remain closeted at work. For them, the
fear of being outed against their will was a legitimate
concern. Harper, who was outed by a coworker early in his
career with detrimental consequences, attempts to remain
closeted at work. However, he encountered a situation
when a subordinate who was losing her job tried to
leverage Harperâ€™s sexuality against him in order to keep her
job. She had threatened to out Harper to their manager,
believing that his sexuality would cause him to lose his job.
While she never followed through with her plan, Harper
was fearful that he was being denied the autonomy of
making his own decisions to reveal or conceal private
information about his sexuality.
The third major threat to LGBTQ employeesâ€™ dignity was
career harm inflicted by risks and limitations imposed due
to their respective gender or sexuality. Establishing an
instrumental value is a central component of dignity for all
employees (Lucas, 2015). Therefore, it is necessary for
people to have opportunities to demonstrate their
competence, make meaningful contributions, and be
recognized for their good work. However, in the case of
LGBTQ employees, they were limited in their ability to do
so because of their gender and/or sexuality. Threats ranged
from fear of job loss, interference with work performance,
and concerns about biased performance evaluations.
Most blatantly, some LGBTQ employees had
legitimate fears of losing their job and their livelihood
because of their gender or sexuality. Sometimes the risk
was only perceived and sometimes it was real. After three
summers working at an amusement park, Cameron had
climbed his way up to a supervisory position and was
responsible for processing daily cash transactions in the
park. A friend of his who worked at the park confessed to
Cameron that he had stolen a large amount of cash from the
front gate. Cameron immediately called his manager to
report the theft and then called his friendâ€™s supervisor. The
friend asked for the day to tender his resignation; instead,
he outed Cameron to management.
And thatâ€™s when the big wigs found out. Thatâ€™s when the
Director of Personnel and all the powers that be found out
I was gay. Suddenly I went from a job where I was paying
my way through college to where I was suddenly on
suspension. I remember talking to [the Director of
Personnel] and I remember it kept coming back to the gay
issue. And I was like, â€œI talked to these people. Did I not
insulate myself completely and do everything that I was
supposed to?â€™ And she was like, â€œYeah, but you know itâ€™s
the whole,â€ and the gay issue kept coming up, the
salaciousness of it. It kept cycling up over and over again.
And finally I said, â€œIs that the problem?â€ And she was
like â€œNo, we have lots of gay people who work here.
They work in shows mostly.â€ I was simply in the wrong
The loss of Cameronâ€™s job had lasting effects. From an
economic standpoint, his immediate loss of income slowed
his degree progress and delayed his college graduation. But
he also described a lingering fear for his career safety.
â€œ[Getting fired] left a legacy that was problematic. It did
affect me as I went forward.. .. I was just perpetually, you
know, just perpetually afraid that something horrible is
going to happen.â€
Another type of career harm occurred when others
interfered with LGBTQ employeesâ€™ ability do to their jobs.
For example, Xavier experienced identity-sensitive
interactions that negatively impacted his ability to do his
job. When he eventually disclosed his sexuality at work, he
â€œwent from being the new senior financial analyst to the
gay guy.â€ Because he could not be fired for being gay,
management â€œbasically went above and beyond to try to
make me so miserable that I would leave.â€ He explained
one incident when he was excluded from an important
There was going to be offsite training for a new software
system that we had developed. It was an hour away. I had
some coworkers come up to me and say, â€œHow are you
getting there tomorrow?â€ And I said, â€œHow am I getting
where?â€ They said, â€œAn offsite training.â€ I knew nothing
about it. They kept me completely out of the loop.
In addition to preventing Xavier from participating in
all work functionsâ€”and therefore interfering with his
ability to do his jobâ€”management also attempted to
sabotage his career by filing negative performance reviews.
Because of his consistent history as a top performer, Xavier
was shocked to get a negative evaluation:
I got an official review from my manager saying that my
work was poor, my work ethic was poor, everything
opposite of anything I have ever heard said to me. I asked
him to document all of this and he refused to document
It quickly became clear to Xavier that his poor review
did, in fact, result from discriminatory action against his
I said to my manager, â€œThe only reason why you are
doing this right now is because Iâ€™m gay and you donâ€™t like
it.â€ And he said, â€œI donâ€™t have a problem with,â€ and he
couldnâ€™t get the word outâ€”homosexuals. â€œI just never
worked with one before.â€ I said, â€œYou never worked with
one what?â€ And he just didnâ€™t know what to say.
Unfortunately, these career injuries were not isolated
incidents. Participants reported being fearful of getting
fired, treated in ways that forced them to quit their jobs,
counselled out of particular career choices, rated poorly on
reviews, questioned on their ability to do their job properly
or competently, and sabotaged at work. Therefore, identitysensitive dignity threats draw attention to real and
perceived insecurities surrounding the workplace for
Finally, LGBTQ experienced dignity threats when their
physical endangered due to their gender and sexuality.
Bolton (2007) positioned safe and healthy working
conditions as an essential element of working with dignity.
In most workplace dignity research, safe and healthy
working conditions relate to physical concerns of the
worksite, such as heavy machinery, appropriate heating and
cooling, absence of injuries, and a general safety culture
(Apostolidis, 2005; Barrett & Thomson, 2012). But even in
workplaces deemed safe for the majority of employees, a
big concern for LGBTQ employees was threats to their
safety because of their gender, sex, and sexuality. One
participant bemoaned, â€œPeople get killed for [disclosing
LGBTQ sexuality]. There are real serious implications,
serious potential for harm.â€
When Walter came out at work, he became his cityâ€™s
first openly gay police officer. In addition to harassment
and social ostracism, he faced numerous safety concerns
that put his very life at risk. In an occupation where people
rely heavily on their partners to deflect the inherent danger
of the position, Walter was denied that support because of
People were afraid to ride with me. People didnâ€™t respond
and back up. There were a lot of things. I felt for my
safety and well-being and the harassment that went on
with that. . . [When I was on patrol I would] call for
backup and backup wouldnâ€™t arrive or would be
extremely late. Or if I was calling out information with
the radio at that time people would cut into the radio
transmission so all of my call would not be brought
through. Therefore, all the information would not come
through so Iâ€™d have to call it over and over again. That
would be some of the things that would happen.
As an openly gay police officer, Walter was
encountering dangerous situations on his own with no
guarantee that his fellow officers would provide backup.
When they did show up, it was purposefully late, leaving
Walter in extremely precarious situations. And the threat of
physical harm was real. Ten months after coming out at
work, Walter was shot in the line of duty. It took two years
to recover from his injuries and return to work. But the fear
of physical safety followed him: â€œMy first night on the job
I was very fearful about what would happen. Were people
going to respond or not? Was I going to get the support of
my fellow officers?â€
When Alex, who identifies as a queer person, worked
night shift in a 24-hour pancake house, she experienced
some targeted harassment from customers who had been
high school classmates. The group of young adults
regularly would come in and yell â€œfagâ€ at Alex across the
restaurant. Even though there were procedures for dealing
with disruptive customers, those procedures were not put in
place when it came to gay slurs. Instead the customers got
to stay in the restaurant and continue their harassment.
It was odd because if anyone was yellingâ€”even if they
were yelling â€œcheese.â€ Letâ€™s say people came in, high
school kids, and they started yelling â€œcheeseâ€â€”we would
kick them out. You canâ€™t just sit in a restaurant and yell
â€œcheese.â€ There was something about it being â€œfag.â€. .. .
But that was really, that was hard because it felt like that
was okay [to yell gay slurs]. It was okay even when it
wouldnâ€™t be okay for them to yell other things. That was
But for Alex, the taunting was more than social harm,
as it also implied a targeted threat of physical harm. Alex,
who had significant experience facing threats to their
physical harm based on their gendered identity, concluded,
â€œIt also seemed like a safety issue, you know.â€
For Blake, a trans man who describes himself as a
â€œfaggy kind of guy,â€ the threat of physical harm manifested
itself in what his future conditions may be like in the
workplace. In particular, Blake was concerned about the
possible physical harm that could result from having a
family, especially because he was intending to get pregnant
and have a biological child. He described his family
planning as â€œa huge source of anxiety.â€ As a college
instructor, he was particularly concerned with how he
would address the pregnancy with his department chair and
his students. Moreover, he was concerned with how people
would respond to seeing a â€œpregnant man.â€
That could put me in a really unsafe physical position to
the point where I have a lie ready. I mean itâ€™s awful, but I
picture being surrounded by a group of young bullies, like
giant students who are like, â€œYou are a pregnant man and
we are here to kill youâ€ or â€œWe are going to beat you up.â€
And me having this lie of â€œoh no, no. See, you know, I am
pro-life and I was raped, and I am carrying this baby for
Jesus Christ.â€ All of this is like not who I am whatsoever.
. Just having this lie ready is kind of mortifying.
Beyond the threat of violence, Blake also faced another
risk of physical harm. Without any precedent in his
organization for dealing with trans* people who are
pregnant, Blake is concerned that he may not get the
medical care and other support needed to have a safe
pregnancy. He says, â€œI worry that they wonâ€™t take things
seriously. Like, â€˜Oh, everything will be fine,â€™ and that will
put me at risk.â€
Blakeâ€™s concerns underscore an important issue
regarding threats of physical harm. Even in the absence of
physical harm, the basic threat of physical harm is
psychologically damaging, as it reduces perceptions of
safety and security that enable confident navigation of the
respective context, imposes emotional distress, and
demands ongoing vigilance. Safe and healthy working
conditions are a basic need of working with dignity. But
these stories show that workplace safety and security
cannot be taken for granted by LGBTQ employees,
particularly when they are targeted for their sexuality in
ways that put them in harmâ€™s way.
Dignity Protection Strategies
In this section, we examine the strategies LGBTQ
employees use to protect their dignity from the sexualityspecific threats identified above. These strategies are
clustered into four main approaches: (a) avoiding harm by
seeking safe spaces; (b) deflecting harm with sexual
identity management tactics; (c) offsetting identity
devaluations by emphasizing instrumental value; and (d)
creating safe spaces for authenticity and dignity.
Avoiding Harm by Seeking Safe Spaces
The first protection strategy LGBTQ employees used
was to avoid threats altogether by seeking safe spaces in
which to work. For participants, seeking safe spaces was a
strategic decision to position themselves in places where
they could be â€œcomfortable.â€ One participant noted that
seeking safe spaces was absolutely essential: â€œThatâ€™s one of
the only ways that in some states we can protect ourselves,
by finding [safe spaces]. Get in where you fit in, find an
employer where you are welcome.â€ Safe spaces included
organizations, industries, and cities.
One of the most common ways participants identified
safe spaces was by carefully monitoring particular
organizations during the interview process. They reported
asking explicit questions about policies and benefits,
searching publicly available information on company
LGBTQ resources, and evaluating the organizational
culture before taking a job offer. For example, Gael, a high
school teacher, described the monitoring process as
You need to know the policies of the places where you
are going to be working. You need to know management.
You need to know administration. You need to educate
yourself and know what you are getting into. Itâ€™s one
thing to say, â€œYes, thatâ€™s wrong,â€ but that doesnâ€™t make
sure that you are going to have a positive work
Where an organization was not deemed to be safe,
participants sought work elsewhere. In other cases, the
reputation of certain organizations prevented people from
applying in the first place. Bailey, a public defender, was
conscientious about organizational fit in her job search:
I wasnâ€™t going to go work for some super conservative,
old boy network firm. I wasnâ€™t going to do that. I had a lot
of biases and prejudice about what they were going to be
like and I wasnâ€™t willing to deal with it. To some extent, I
have opted myself out of a lot of stuff based on my
beliefâ€”whether it is accurate or notâ€”that these old
institutions of traditionalism are not going to be
Some safe space seeking was accomplished by
identifying LGBTQ-friendly occupations or industries,
such as the arts, advertising, and academia. For instance,
Gavin, who worked as an art museum director and taught
part-time at a university, noted he worked in â€œa relatively
safe space. Itâ€™s never been an extraordinary thing for me to
be gay in the academy or the museum world.â€ Likewise,
Jordan noted that in the advertising and marketing industry,
he has come to expect â€œthe people who have hired me have
encountered gays and lesbians before and they have been
cognizant enough, professional enough, and considerate
enoughâ€ to create policies that build safe and inclusive
cultures. Several participants worked in the field of higher
education, noting that academia was more inclusive and
gay-friendly than other career paths. For example, Quinn
adapted her career plans to find a safe occupation. In a
discussion of the challenges faced by public school
teachers, she explained, â€œthatâ€™s why I decided to teach
college. Initially, I wanted to teach high school, but once
this kind of developed and I started exploring my own
sexuality and gender, thereâ€™s no way I could.â€
Finally, participants sought out safe spaces
geographically. Geographic safe spaces tended to include
cities and geographic regions with a reputation for being
more liberal. Dylan, a college professor, noted that he had
to engage in a â€œmultifacetedâ€ evaluation process to choose
his workplace. After coming out to (some of) his immediate
family and being met with an unsupportive and threatening
response, safety became â€œmore prevalent and salient in
terms of what [he] started to look for with a career.â€ He
I eliminated small departments and small universities
from the get go. I eliminated places that were out in
Hicksville that I knew were likely to be places where I
would have a greater likelihood of experiencing more
confrontation and less support. I only applied at
departments and institutions and places that were
embedded within large to semi-large to large community
environments. You know, cities, they tend to be
somewhere where there is more liberalness and openness
to diversity in terms of sexual orientation, identity, all that
sort of stuff. I guess for me, I just made choices early on
that would eliminate places where I would associate risk.
Logan, an IT professional, described himself as
â€œluckyâ€ and credited much of his dignity to living in a US
West Coast city that has a â€œrobustâ€ and â€œvery healthyâ€ gay
community with a mix of vibrant and thriving industries.
I think part of it is geographic. We are in a city where
there is a very large professional gay community. I tend to
think that the policies of the company dictate acceptance
and demand respect for all of their employees from the
top of the company, all the way down.
Logan expressed concern that LGBTQ working adults
in smaller cities or more conservative areas would not be
afforded the same comfortable experiences that he enjoyed.
He advised that LGBTQ individuals experiencing
discrimination seek safer geographic spaces. â€œMaybe you
should get out of Kansas and go to a place that is a little bit
In summary, LGBTQ working adults were able to
protect their dignity by proactively positioning themselves
in career spaces that would present fewer potential threats
and greater potential support. While this dignity protection
strategy enabled them to avoid dignity threats, it did come
with career limitations, as people turned down employment
offers, stopped pursuing desired career paths, and limited
themselves geographically. More importantly, just because
they strategically chose safe spaces, it did not mean that
they were fully protected. Participants remained vigilant to
ongoing dignity threats and navigated workplaces with
Deflecting Harm with Sexual Identity Management
The second strategy employees used to protect their
dignity was to deflect threats as much as possible. Because
LGBTQ dignity threats are identity-sensitive, people can
avoid the threats by presenting an identity that is different
from the targeted identity and therefore safe from
associated inequalities of treatment. This strategy included
attempts to pass as heterosexual (or at least not confirm an
LGBTQ sexuality) and performing identities within the
constraints of heteronormative discourses of
One of the first line approaches to protecting dignity
for LGBTQ employees then was engaging in the sexual
identity management of passing as heterosexual or staying
closeted. Although nearly all participants currently were
out in the workplace, several of them recalled passing at
earlier points in their career, specifically to avoid the harm
inflicted by being LGBTQ, such as the person who said,
â€œYears ago, everything I did was trying to protect my
Participants who employed various passing tactics
explained that fear of dignity threats was a salient
consideration in their decision to stay closeted at work. For
instance, Yancey, who is a manager at a manufacturing
plant, is only out to people at work who he knows are also
gay. Most other people in his company are unaware of his
sexuality. His reason for staying (partially) closeted is
because of his fear of not being respected:
Iâ€™m like, â€œIf I came out to him [a coworker] what would
he think?â€ But again, itâ€™s me putting my projections on
other people and me worrying about not being respected. .
. . They already donâ€™t treat meâ€”some of them donâ€™t treat
Therefore, because of his desire to avoid further social
harm, Yancey is very careful in how he discusses his
If they ask me what I did this weekend and I was out the
whole weekend with my boyfriend on a trip, I will say I
went on a trip with friends or something like that.
Sometimes Iâ€™ll name the place or activity, but I wonâ€™t say
â€œwith my boyfriend.â€
Similarly, Gael, who is a high school English teacher,
attempts to pass in order to deflect dignity threats. He
explains, â€œI find that to protect myself I find that I donâ€™t not
talk about those things [personal life], but I will use gender
nonspecific pronouns and stuff like that, the usual stuff.â€
Others reported calling their partners or spouses
â€œroommatesâ€ when engaged in conversation at work,
distancing themselves from interactions that might elicit
personal disclosures, carefully monitoring what they post to
social media in case it could be seen by coworkers, and
wearing a wedding ring (although not married) to lead to
assumptions of having an opposite-sex spouse. Moreover,
when making the decision to move from passing to coming
out, protection from dignity threats remains a strong
consideration. One participant said that his strategy was to
â€œtest the watersâ€ by coming out slowly to one person and
monitoring the response for cues as to how the organization
will react. And Rory, who was enlisted in the US military
during the Donâ€™t Ask, Donâ€™t Tell era, said that he also
tested the waters:
[I am careful with information about my sexuality]
especially when it comes to newer work, especially when
I am trying to figure out how people feel about it. If it
seems to be a macho environment, I definitely try to keep
it quiet until I know more about the people.
The next major approach to deflecting identitysensitive threats is to downplay LGBTQ sexualities in ways
that aligned within ideals of heteronormative
professionalism. Even when employees were officially out
at work, they still had a tendency to downplay LGBTQ
sexualities as to not draw attention to themselves. Like the
passing approach, the professionalism approach made
people less of a target for identity-sensitive dignity threats.
For example, while the majority of educators felt
comfortable being out to their peers, they were much more
guarded in the classroom and paid attention to things like
dress and vocalics in order to conform to traditional
gender/sex norms. For example, Sam described her
personal and more authentic performance of gender as a
more â€œmasculine styleâ€ and â€œbutch,â€ typically dressing in a
t-shirt and jeans. But when teaching, she assumes a more
I wear lipstick. I wear full-on face makeup in my
organization when I go to work, when I go to school.
Thatâ€™s generally when I perform a more feminine style. I
am generally laid back as a student. But when I am in
class [as the instructor], I perform a more professional
[emphasis added] look, more feminine with the makeup
Gay men made conscious efforts to manage their
voices in ways that were more aligned with
heteronormative expectations. Elliott described his voice as
normally in the â€œhigh tenor range,â€ but in the classroom he
tried â€œvery hard to teach at the lowest pointâ€ even though it
was physically difficult for him to speak in a lower range.
Isaac, an admissions counselor, also consciously adjusted
his voice to present a more â€œstraightâ€ identity:
When I have a male student on the phone my voice
deepens and I have a little bit of a more assertive
approach. Itâ€™s not conscious; itâ€™s just something that I had
always done even when I was an admissions counselor
myself. . . . I was working with military students and I
was having trouble connecting with these military guys so
just having that deep voice, assertive, more typical
masculine traits over the phone. I felt like that helped.
And now my team will joke about it. Thereâ€™s another gay
guy on my team and heâ€™s like, â€œWas that Straight Isaac I
just heard talking to that student?â€ Yes, Straight Isaac had
to make an appearance. Itâ€™s not necessarily with every
person. It depends on the situation.
In summary, participants engaged in various sexual
identity management strategies to protect themselves from
dignity threats. But whether individuals chose to pass as
straight to avoid harm, to â€œcoverâ€ or downplay their
sexuality to make it easier for heterosexual colleagues to
accept and respect, or simply to engage in gendernormative performances that were misaligned with their
authentic selves, their sexual identity management
strategies came with tradeoffs for authenticity.
Offsetting Identity Devaluations by Emphasizing
The third strategy employees used to protect their
dignity was to offset the devaluation of their inherent worth
by emphasizing their instrumental worth to the
organization. In this way, they were able to affirm their
dignity by focusing on ways in which the organization
valued them. This strategy was enacted through filling roles
as a valued token or by engaging in identity work and
sensemaking that promoted their competence and
The valued token approach created spaces for LGBTQ
employeesâ€™ sexualities to become fully visible at work,
particularly when their sexuality had some sort of
instrumental value. For instance, Neal took on the role of a
valued token when his company asked him to be the part of
the recruitment team. As a member of this company-wide
team, he helped recruit undergraduate and MBA students.
However, one of his main tasks was to attend a national job
fair for LGBTQ job seekers. As Neal explained:
You go out and answer questions for the company. We
sponsored a lunch where people who were interested
would sign up to come to our lunch. We were a sounding
board for any of the questions. I did go through and
interview people for internships and full-time positions
from an MBA perspective. Obviously, they needed a gay
man in finance. Now I donâ€™t know if I was the only one,
but nonetheless I got the gig.
Even though Neal recognized that his sexuality played
a part in being selected for the recruitment team, he still
believed that the experience was a positive one, saying, â€œI
took a lot of pride. I had dignity in being in charge of that.â€
For Neal, dignity was equated with â€œrespect and awareness
Another valued token role was to leverage sexuality for
business ends. Riley regularly used this strategy with much
success. As a teenager, he began patronizing gay-owned
businesses. Within a few years, he had built a large
professional network of gay business owners within his
community. Later, when he opened his own construction
company, he used his network to get jobs. Riley also used
his sexuality in various sales positions he held. When he
worked in a real estate agency, he gained an unlikely ally
by connecting his sexuality to potential sales:
Iâ€™ve even had real estate brokers who would allow me to
advertise in the [local gay paper]. I ask them first. I have
to ask the broker first because itâ€™s his name in there. He
said, â€œRiley, I donâ€™t care who you sell to. It doesnâ€™t matter
to me.â€ He was very religious. I donâ€™t think heâ€™s 100%
accepting. I think he saw dollar signs. Heâ€™s like, â€œI donâ€™t
care you can put my name in there.â€
A similar situation occurred when Riley worked in
automobile sales. After the sales manager learned that
Riley was gay, they struck up a friendship tied, in large
part, to their sales partnership. Riley said that when gay
customers would come in to the dealership, the manager
would be sure to match them for the sales call. Riley said,
â€œhe always put
them [the gay customers] with me and I thought that had a
lot of dignity.â€
LGBTQ employees did not have to fill a token role to
emphasize their instrumental value. Some of this was done
through identity work and sensemaking. That is, employees
centered their energy on being excellent employees in
hopes that the value of their competence and contribution
would outweigh the stigma of their sexuality.
For example, Dylanâ€”the professor who described
dignity as not having to worry about being â€œwho you
areâ€â€”belied that sentiment by saying that his sexuality was
not relevant in the context of work:
I think the issues come sometimes when we try to lead
with a part of our identity that isnâ€™t that critical to our day
to day job functioning. Maybe some people will disagree
with me. They would say, â€œOh my sexual identity is an
important part of my work identity, of who I am.â€ But for
me it simply is not.
This strategy of privileging instrumental contributions over
personal identities was also evident in the advice that Dylan
offered for younger LGBTQ individuals entering the
workforce. He explained that it was important to first be
seen as a valuable asset to the organization before sexuality
could be brought into the conversation. Dylan explained:
Give people a reason to want to keep you around that has
nothing to do with your sexual identity. Be a stellar
worker. Show that youâ€™ve got a phenomenal benefit to an
organization and you have skills that can make it strong.
What I think happens is when people get to know you and
they know that you are a strong, good, reliable member of
the organization itâ€™s very hard for them to uphold
prejudices against you. Come to find out, â€œOh Dylan is
gay. Oh well, Dylan is great. That doesnâ€™t matter.â€
This focus on generating and emphasizing instrumental
value was both a way to create a sense of workplace dignity
and a possible way to deflect some of the threats LGBTQ
employees might otherwise face. By being a strong
performer with high instrumental value, employees
believed that they were more immune to dignity threats. As
such, the instrumental value strategy was a way to persist
through difficult experiences.
Creating Safe Spaces for Authenticity and Dignity
The fourth strategy employees used to protect their
dignity was to engage in resistance, advocacy, and support
to create safe spaces for themselves and others to claim
authentic sexual identities at work. Again, safety was a
significant concern for LGBTQ employees. When asked
what advice they had for a young LGBTQ person just
embarking on their career, more than half specifically
shared advice on how to seek safe spacesâ€”carefully
studying organizational culture and climate, asking about
specific policies and protections, listening more than
talking, being careful about becoming friends too quickly
with people at work, seeking allies, not â€œgoing around and
acting in a gay manner,â€ staying quieted and closeted until
they are sure it is safe to come out, and choosing
occupations, companies, and cities that will offer the
But once people were safe, there was for some a
commitment to use that position of relative safety to create
spaces that are safe for others to claim authentic gendered
and sexual identities. Cameron, an educator and an LGBT
campus group advisor, cautioned young people to â€œbe
smartâ€ about their sexuality in the workplace. But he had
different advice for older people:
But Iâ€™m an old man and I donâ€™t care anymore. And a
young personâ€”as I was a young person onceâ€”can lose a
whole lot in an instant. It can have long term effects so
thatâ€™s what I would tell a young LGB [to â€œbe smartâ€]. For
an LGB person my age, I would tell them to get off their
fucking ass and be who you are and make sure itâ€™s the
safest place it can be for the young people coming in
behind them. And thatâ€™s why Iâ€™m here [in my job] in the
Others who shared Cameronâ€™s sentiment, protected
their dignity and othersâ€™ dignity by becoming change
agents. They engaged in what Creed and Scully (2011)
described as encounters, â€œpivotal moments in a larger
process whereby beliefs about and attitudes toward an
identity are mediated and altered and discriminatory
workplace policies and practices are challengedâ€ (p. 409).
For instance, while working as a church music director,
Elliott found it important to publicly express his identity as
a gay man when his church was debating the inclusion of
openly LGBT pastors. The pastor and leadership from his
congregation held several meetings to discuss the
upcoming vote and answer questions. Elliot said that he
made it â€œa pointâ€ to attend all of the meetings. He
My comment is to say if someone wants to stand up and
say that they hate gay people, I think that there should be
a gay person in the room. If thatâ€™s your opinion you are
welcome to say it, but if you are not willing to say it to
my face you should rethink your opinion.
For Elliott, like so many other participants, dignity was
equated with respect and it was important for members of
the congregation and church leadership to see him as a gay
man in addition to his role as the music director.
Other participants engaged in productive resistance for
the purposes of destabilizing the heteronormative and
homophobic status quo. For Logan, who worked in the
information technology industry, dignity was about â€œhaving
acceptance and equality. To think that my husband is
in the exact same way as if I had a wife.â€ So when Logan
put a picture of his husband on his desk he was seeking
dignity at work through acceptance and equality. Instead,
some in the organization saw it as an act of disruption:
My first day on the job, I got to my desk and put out a
picture of my husband. Of course everybody came by and
said, â€œOh, is that your brother?â€ And I was like, â€œNo
thatâ€™s my husband.â€ There were some very religious
people there who took offense to it and had actually asked
one of my supervisors, coworkers, to take it down
because it was offensive.
Despite his coworkersâ€™ claims of offense, Logan left
the picture on his desk. His explained that he wasnâ€™t the
only gay person on the floor at the time. Logan felt like he
needed to take a stand and leave the picture up to show
solidarity with other LGBT employees. Logan said:
It was validating that those who were gay and lesbian had
come up and said, â€œOh my god. I canâ€™t believe you left
that up. Thatâ€™s fantastic.â€. . . . A lot of people would say,
â€œItâ€™s your first day on the job. Donâ€™t you think that it
should be about your performance not your sexuality?â€ I
looked at it as, â€œNo, this is my work environment and if I
canâ€™t be comfortable in my work environment then I donâ€™t
want to be in this environment.â€ I tend to think that
people may not be as accepting because they think they
havenâ€™t met anyone. There are 5 or 10% of us on the floor
who were gay. Then those who think that gays and
lesbians are only in the corners or whatever their
preconceptions are, you challenge them by being out,
open, and honest, comfortable and well adjusted.
The strategy of creating safe spaces presented an
opportunity for LGBTQ employees to contribute to the
creation of workplaces that enabled the attainment of
dignity in the workplace for themselves and for others.
While this strategy enabled (and required) the most
authenticity, it also was the one that put people at the
greatest risk of immediate dignity threats. Also, it is worth
noting that in order to engage in this strategy, people
usually had some level of securityâ€”whether that was
economic security, other career options, a strong sense of
self, or even a feeling of â€œnothing left to lose.â€ Therefore,
people who were the most vulnerable may not have the
opportunity to do the work that would create the most longterm benefit.
This study examined the relevance of marginalized and
stigmatized social identities in the workplace and, more
specifically, the negotiation of gender, sex, and sexuality.
Through our qualitative investigation, we identified dignity
threats experienced by LGBTQ employees and the
strategies they used to protect themselves from those
threats. Interwoven throughout are challenges of safety and
authenticity in the workplace.
First, we demonstrated that LGBTQ employees
experience identity-sensitive inequalities due to their
gender and/or sexuality that threatened their dignity.
Threats were communicated through interactions or
conditions that undermined their sense of self-worth and
self-respect and often denied them respect from others,
including social harm, autonomy violations, career harm,
and physical harm. Then, faced with these threats, LGBTQ
employees engaged in a variety of strategies to protect their
dignity. Some avoided dignity threats by seeking safe
spaces, whether that was picking safe organizations,
industries, or communities. Some deflected dignity threats
through sexual identity management strategies that
concealed or downplayed their LGBTQ gender and/or
sexuality. Some emphasized their instrumental value (for
which their dignity was affirmed) while dismissing the
importance of identity-based devaluations. Yet others,
when they determined it was relatively safe to do so, acted
as change agents to create safe spaces for themselves and
others to claim their authentic gendered and sexual
Contributions to Scholarship
Overall, this project makes important theoretical
contributions. First, we contribute to research on dignity
and identity in the workplace. By examining the
experiences of LGBTQ employees, this study continues to
draw attention to social inequalities that persist in the
workplace (Sayer, 2007). We add to dignity theory by
showing that LGBTQ people experience unique dignity
concerns that go beyond identity-indifferent indignities
embedded in employment relationships. Whereas previous
research on dignity and social identity has shown that
employees who possess marginalized social class identities
may feel threatened by what they do being undervalued
(Lucas, 2011), here we find that LGBTQ employees feel
threated by who they are placing them at risk of harm.
Additionally, while safety has been noted in previous
dignity theorizing (Bolton, 2007), LGTBQ dignity threats
show that there are unique contours to their meanings of
safety. Safety is not just about preventing job-related
physical injuries, but it is about keeping bodies, minds,
spirits, privacy boundaries, and relationships safe from
Second, this study makes important contributions to
LGBTQ studies. A workplace dignity framework is
important because it is based on the principle that all
humans have an inherent and equal value. Therefore, when
LGBTQ people experience harm to their self-worth, selfvalue, and well-being, it is no longer an issue of incivility,
hurt feelings, or discrimination. Instead, a dignity
framework draws attention to identity-sensitive inequalities
being a direct violation of ethical and moral standards.
Also, using a workplace dignity lens to study the
experiences of LGBTQ employees is important because it
rhetorically shifts the conversation away from shame and
focuses attention on positive value to which individuals are
A workplace dignity framework also enabled us to
position identity-sensitive dignity threats as the context and
motivation for a variety of self-protective behaviours. This
approach brings into focus LGBTQ employeesâ€™ agency and
strategic efforts in the quest for upholding dignity. Namely,
we show that individuals protect their dignity by
controlling themselves (sexual identity management;
sensemaking about instrumental value) and their
environments (seeking safe spaces for themselves; making
spaces safer for themselves and others). Yet, we also reveal
the inadequacy of sexual identity management in protecting
dignity, particularly for those individuals with nonheteronormative gender expression or for those who
experience threats of being outed by others. Consequently,
LGBTQ employees must have access to multiple strategies
for protection if they are to be successful in (re)claiming
their dignity at work. Moving beyond the discussion of
revealing or concealing sexuality, then, we can demonstrate
that those people who pass, those who cover their identities
to appease others, and those who resist are all motivated by
a common goal: to protect their fundamental and inherent
human value. As such, we contribute to the scholarly
conversation on invisible social identities (Clair et al.,
2005), passing (DeJordy, 2008), and covering (Yoshino,
A discussion of the role of dignity presents practical
applications for fostering cultures of respect and inclusivity
in the workplace through the promotion of advocacy
encounters (Creed & Scully, 2011). This type of encounter
draws attention to injustice and calls for action. We suggest
that dignity can serve as a productive way for LGBTQ
groups to engage in advocacy encounters. Several
participants mentioned the importance of having such a
group within their organization. At times, other participants
mentioned that these groups were no longer needed in the
organization, but had in the past played an important role in
sparking positive change. LGBTQ groups can use the
discussion of dignity as a way to draw attention to the
heteronormative nature of work. For instance, the
communication of microaggressions could be phrased as an
issue of dignity at work possibly mitigating the impact of
particular religious or personal beliefs about LGBTQ
sexualities. This moves the conversation from just being
about binaries of gender, sex, and sexuality to recognizing
the inherent worth of every human being and the
importance of communicating that respect in the
workplace. This conversation could be extended to invite
solidarity across a multitude of nondominant identities in
the workplace and to help unite people across lines of not
only gender, sex, and sexuality, but race, ethnicity, class,
religion, (dis)ability, and other forms of difference.
Limitations and Future Research Directions
The study is limited in the lack of diversity within the
sample. The sample primarily reflects the voices of cisgendered gay men with lesser representation from lesbian,
bisexual, and trans* individuals. Participants also were
disproportionately white-collar and highly educated, which
likely influenced the kinds of threats they encountered and
the range dignity protection strategies available to them.
Therefore, to fully understand LGBTQ workersâ€™
experiences of workplace dignity, future research in this
area must do a better job of capturing the diversity of
experience by including voices from lesbians and bisexual
people, and from individuals with queer and trans
identities. Also, future research should query workers who
are representative of the working population as a whole,
especially those in blue-collar and service industries whose
dignity threats may be further complicated by intersections
of material and class-based inequalities.
A second limitation of this research is that the stories
and experiences that are captured are retrospective in
nature. Therefore, it raises several questionsâ€”from the
accuracy of recollections of specific dignity threats (are
participants remembering incidents incorrectly?), to biases
within the recollections (are they making problematic
assumptions about othersâ€™ motivations or perceiving threats
that were unintended?), to the current relevancy of
particular kinds of threat (are they recalling problems that
are no longer issues in todayâ€™s workplace?). On one hand,
because dignity is personally experienced and judged and
because sensemaking is retrospective by its very nature, a
retrospective approach was necessary in this study. But on
the other hand, there are research strategies that could add
to the trustworthiness of the findings. Future research could
include different kinds of data collection that could get at
more current experiences of (in)dignities at work. For
instance, diary studies could be one way of accessing
current stories. Alternatively, an extended ethnographic
study of a single organization with several LGBTQ
employee-participants might provide opportunities for
triangulation (e.g., focus groups with LGBTQ employees,
interviews with the HR department, document analysis, and
cultural observations), which could point to salient dignity
threats (and affirmations) and dignity protection strategies
as experienced (almost) in the moment.
The goal for this project was to use a workplace dignity
lens to understand the experiences of LGBTQ employees.
The workplace can be a difficult space for LGBTQ
employees to navigate, particularly when they limit their
safety and authenticity. The lived experiences of these
participants provide a catalyst for a larger conversation
regarding the dignity of LGBTQ persons in the workplace.
It is our hope
that by having a deeper understanding of how LGBTQ
employeesâ€™ dignity is threatened, workplaces can become
more inclusive and respectful environments that make it
safe for everyone to bring themselves to work.
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