SELF-DISCLOSURE OF SEXUAL ORIENTATION BY SOCIAL WORKERS WITH CLIENTS
On my first placement for my Masters in Social Work I was instructed to hide my (gay) sexual orientation, and if asked, deny it, because clients might not want to work with me if they knew, and because self-disclosure was unprofessional and potentially dangerous. Although this struck me as wrong on a number of levels, trying to articulate a coherent response was surprisingly difficult. I had never really thought about the issue before. Having taken it for granted that I could be out in my personal as well as my professional life, I'd never had to justify it.
As a student, I had to write an essay on reflective practice for my course, and I chose to reflect on this experience so that I could try and work out my position on the issue of self-disclosure, especially regarding sexual orientation. Perhaps not surprisingly, there’s not much written about it, and in my search I got some negative reactions from people when I raised the subject, which led me to believe that the attitude I had experienced might not be uncommon.
I chose to explore the issue further in my Masters dissertation. Was my experience a one-off, or are views about the undesirability of self-disclosure of Lesbian and Gay, compared to Straight, sexual orientation common among social workers? And if so, why?
Self-disclosure refers to sharing information with others about the personal rather than the professional self (Zur, 2011). The issue is contentious, with some social workers, health professionals, teachers, counsellors and therapists believing that self-disclosure can be beneficial and helpful for both clients and practitioners, while others believe it can be detrimental and should be avoided.
Deliberate, conscious self-disclosure may help to demonstrate empathy, build trust, and encourage clients to share their experiences. But disclosure may also be unconscious and unavoidable, because of the colour of our skin, our gender, and whether we are known in the communities where we work. Often we don’t think about the things we disclose, because they are ordinary, everyday things that we don’t consider to be private.
Research suggests that Lesbian and Gay people may feel pressured to conceal their sexual orientation in ways that heterosexual people generally are not. The cognitive dissonance this creates may lead to stress and unhappiness in the workplace, potentially impacting on performance. While there may be increasing legal equality and protection for people of different sexual orientations, inequitable attitudes, beliefs and assumptions may still persist.
The study was inspired by the experiences of the researcher while undertaking social work training.
AIM & METHOD
The study aimed to explore whether social workers felt that disclosure of Lesbian or Gay sexual orientation is seen as less acceptable than disclosure of Straight sexual orientation.
A cross-sectional on-line survey of social workers was undertaken nationally and promoted in three local authorities. Participants were asked to rate different scenarios according to how acceptable they felt it was for practitioners to disclose different types of information about themselves to clients. Two in-depth interviews were conducted with participants with polarised views about self-disclosure of sexual orientation by social workers. Quantitative and qualitative analyses were undertaken on the responses.
In February 2013 the survey was promoted nationally through Community Care on-line magazine (no longer available online).
232 social workers responded to the survey. Respondents indicated that it was acceptable, normal, and everyday to disclose heterosexuality more often than they did for Lesbian and Gay sexual orientation, which was more often viewed as private information.
CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Concern for worker safety did not fully account for the difference in responses, since comparative scenarios also containing potential danger to the worker did not elicit similar responses. Whether the disclosure was worker-initiated (proactive) or made in response to a client’s direct question (reactive) did not appear to account for the differences either. Non-disclosure may perpetuate structural oppression by failing to challenge discrimination, in contrast to core social work values (Health and Care Professions Council, British Association of Social Workers). Greater awareness of heterosexism and sexual orientation is needed in social work training and practice settings. There should be greater consideration of self-disclosure in social work education to equip practitioners to make decisions about disclosure from an educated and informed position. Less emphasis should be placed on avoiding self-disclosure and greater emphasis should be placed on managing self-disclosure.
In July 2013 an article was published in Community Care on-line magazine to distribute the findings (no longer available online).
Many thanks to Andy McNicoll at Community Care for running the article; to everyone who took the time to fill in the survey; and to everyone who took such an interest in the research, including Dr Martin Webber at the University of York for his supervision and support, and Matt Cornock at the University of York for his help and advice with IT. Special thanks to the two people who agreed to be interviewed.