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Work Discrimination and Coping Strategies: Conceptual Frameworks for Counseling Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Clients.

Two conceptual models are proposed in this article--one for work discrimination and the other for discrimination coping strategies pertaining to lesbian, gay, and bisexual workers. The work discrimination model includes 3 dimensions (formal vs. informal, potential vs. encountered, and perceived vs. real). The coping strategies model outlines methods that deal with potential and encountered discriminations. It includes vocational choice and work adjustment strategies; the latter are further categorized under identity management or discrimination management strategies.

Lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons may be considered "sexual minorities" because of the pervasive prejudice, social oppression, and discrimination against them (Croteau, 1996; Elliott, 1993; Hetherington, Hillerbrand, & Etringer, 1989; Morgan & Brown, 1991). Many individuals justify their discrimination against lesbian, gay, and bisexual people on the basis of biased biblical interpretations or stereotypes that accuse these populations of being mentally ill, perverts, and child molesters (Levine & Leonard, 1984).

Work discrimination has been a major topic in the rapidly growing literature concerning vocational issues of lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons (e.g., Croteau, 1996; Croteau & Hedstrom, 1993; Driscoll, Kelley, & Fassinger, 1996; Elliott, 1993; Fassinger, 1995, 1996; Griffin, 1992; Hetherington et al., 1989; Levine & Leonard, 1984; Morgan & Brown, 1991; Orzek, 1992; Pope, 1995, 1996; Worthington, McCrary, & Howard, 1998). As a contextual factor, it significantiy influences career development and decision making of such populations. In addition, researchers are interested in studying the coping strategies used by lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons in dealing with work discrimination.

Although different scholars have discussed various conceptualizations of work discrimination and coping strategies, a comprehensive conceptual framework that provides an integrative perspective is lacking. Such integrative conceptual models are much needed to guide future theoretical and empirical work, as well as career counseling with lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients (Chung, 1995; Lonborg & Phillips, 1996). The purpose of this article is to propose conceptual models about work discrimination and coping strategies pertaining to lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons. These models were developed by integrating related theoretical and empirical work in vocational psychology literature with new conceptualizations. After presenting these two models and their relation, implications for counseling and research are discussed.

Work Discrimination

Work discrimination is defined here as unfair and negative treatment of workers or job applicants based on personal attributes that are irrelevant to job performance. The nature of work discrimination has been addressed in literature pertaining to oppressed groups such as women; ethnic minorities; people with disabilities; and lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons. There is a lack, however, of a framework that integrates the various conceptualizations of work discrimination. In response to this deficiency, I discuss and integrate into a three-dimensional model some important conceptualizations of work discrimination.

A review of literature suggests that work discrimination is multifaceted. Brown and Ford (1977) discussed two kinds of work discrimination: "access" (discrimination during hiring, such as denial of job offer or lower starting salary) and "treatment" (discrimination after the person is hired, such as promotion or salary-raise decisions). Chojnacki and Gelberg (1994) identified four levels of work discrimination: (a) overt (presence of explicit formal and informal discriminations), (b) covert (presence of discrimination in the absence of a formal antidiscrimination policy), (c) tolerance (presence of formal antidiscrimination policy, but lacking informal support), and (d) affirmation (presence of both formal and informal support). Chung (1998) suggested another dimension of discrimination: direct versus indirect. Direct discrimination refers to discriminatory practices against individuals who are known or presumed to be lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Indirect discrimination refers to a discriminatory or hostile wor k atmosphere experienced by lesbian, gay, and bisexual workers whose sexual identities are neither known nor presumed to be lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Figure 1 presents a three-dimensional conceptual model of work discrimination that extends the aforementioned frameworks.

Formal Versus Informal

The first dimension is based on Levine and Leonard's (1984) framework suggesting two forms of work discrimination: formal (institutional policies and decisions such as hiring, firing, promotion, salary decisions, and job assignments) and informal (interpersonal dynamics and work atmosphere, such as verbal and nonverbal harassment, lack of respect, hostility, and prejudice). The aforementioned framework by Chojnacki and Gelberg (1994) may be subsumed under this dimension because their four levels of work discrimination can be treated as combinations of the presence and absence of formal and informal discrimination. For example, their overt level means the presence of both formal and informal discriminations, whereas tolerance level means the presence of regulations against formal discrimination, but lacking informal support. In addition, Brown and Ford's (1977) access and treatment discriminations may be subsumed under formal discrimination.

This first dimension is important because it illustrates that work discrimination involves not only formal actions or decisions but also work atmosphere and interpersonal relationships. Levine and Leonard (1984) reported that their lesbian respondents experienced verbal harassment (e.g., gossip, taunts, ridicule), nonverbal harassment (e.g., hard stares, ostracism, damages to personal belongings), physical harassment, or even violence. Formal discrimination directly affects a person's vocational achievement or status, but informal discrimination may affect a person's morale, psychological well-being, and job performance, which may also influence the person's career achievement.

Potential Versus Encountered

The second dimension of the conceptual model involves potential and encountered discriminations--the former refers to possible discrimination as a result of disclosing one's sexual orientation, and the latter refers to discriminatory practices encountered by the person. This dimension is similar to Levine and Leonard's (1984) distinction between anticipated and actual discriminations. "Anticipated," however, implies subjectivity and "actual" implies objectivity. The proposed model uses more neutral terms so that potential and encountered discriminations may be viewed from both subjective and objective perspectives.

Potential and encountered discriminations also correspond to Chung's (1998) suggestions of indirect and direct discriminations, respectively. Potential and indirect discriminations, however, are somewhat different because indirect discrimination is only one, albeit major, source of information for assessing potential discrimination. For example, a lack of homoprejudice expressed in the workplace (indirect discrimination) does not necessarily imply freedom from the risk of discrimination (potential discrimination). Workers may form their opinion of potential discrimination based on other sources of information.

The distinction between potential and encountered discrimination bears significant implications for the vocational behavior of lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons. People cope with potential and encountered discrimination differently. Furthermore, the intersection of these first two dimensions of the current model suggests that potential and encountered discrimination may be practiced in formal and informal ways. For example, in institutions that include sexual orientation in their equal employment opportunity policies, potential formal discrimination may be reduced significantly, and encountered formal and informal discrimination may be addressed more openly and effectively. Yet, the potential risk of informal discrimination is not totally regulated by formal antidiscrimination policies. For institutions without nondiscrimination policies addressing sexual orientation, potential formal and informal discrimination remain major considerations in workers' decision making, especially considering the fact that a f ormal channel is not present to address encountered discrimination.

Perceived Versus Real

The third dimension of the conceptual model is based on Griffith's (1980) three types of occupational opportunity structures: ideal, real, and perceived. An ideal occupational structure provides equal access and opportunity to all people. It is undeniable, however, that the real structure is far from ideal because of various kinds of work discrimination. Furthermore, individuals form a personal opinion of the opportunity structure based on their perceptions. A person's subjective learning experiences and the uncertainty of the real opportunity structure may contribute to perceptions that are different from reality, resulting in overly optimistic or pessimistic perceptions.

Because the ideal occupational opportunity structure has no discrimination, only categories of perceived and real discrimination are included as the third dimension of the model. By crossing the first and third dimensions, one may compare perceived discrimination with real discrimination in both formal and informal domains. The relation between the second and third dimensions may also have interesting implications. Perceived potential discrimination is equivalent to what Levine and Leonard (1984) described as "anticipated discrimination" (p. 705), which has been suggested to be a major factor in people's decision about coming out in the workplace. The effectiveness of such decisions depends on the difference between perceived and real potential discriminations. An overestimate of potential discrimination may prevent the individual from coming out, whereas an underestimate of potential discrimination may result in facing consequences for which the individual is not prepared. Similarly, one should compare perce ived encountered discrimination with real encountered discrimination. It is possible that a person may misinterpret a neutral situation as a discriminatory practice, and another person may be ignorant about being a victim of discrimination.


The proposed work discrimination model has important implications for conceptualizing coping strategies. People can only react according to their perceptions, so perceived discrimination (as opposed to real discrimination) is the principal factor operating in a person's decisions regarding coping strategies. The dimension of potential versus encountered discrimination further provides a structure to differentiate between major categories of coping strategies because people deal with potential and encountered discrimination quite differently. Some strategies are used specifically to avoid potential discrimination, whereas others are used to deal with the occurrence of discrimination. The dimension of formal versus informal discrimination may be helpful for differentiating between specific coping strategies, but this dimension lacks a theoretical and empirical literature to suggest how people use different strategies to deal with formal and informal discrimination. Therefore, it seems reasonable to propose that the dimension of potential versus encountered discrimination is the primary way in which coping strategies for perceived discrimination are organized.

Coping Strategies

A conceptual model of discrimination coping strategies pertaining to lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons is presented in Figure 2. In this model, coping strategies are conceptualized first under two categories: vocational choice and work adjustment. Vocational choice refers to a person's decision about a job or occupation, and work adjustment refers to a person's coping behaviors when applying for a job or when already employed. This dichotomy is used often in literature to describe vocational behavior in general (Fitzgerald & Rounds, 1989) and for women and lesbian, gay, bisexual persons in particular (Croteau, 1996; Fassinger, 1995). Overlaying the potential or encountered discrimination dimension onto this dichotomy provides the structure of the present coping strategies model. Because encountered discrimination is not possible before entering a job, the present model includes only three components--vocational choice strategies that deal with perceptions of potential discrimination and work adjustment strat egies that deal with perceptions of potential and encountered discriminations.

Vocational Choice

In making a vocational choice, lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons may cope with perceptions of potential discrimination through vocational choice strategies. Previously encountered work discrimination is likely to be especially salient to their estimates of subsequent potential discrimination. In the proposed model, three vocational choice strategies are described for dealing with perceptions of potential discrimination: (a) self-employment, (b) job tracking, and (c) risk taking. Levine and Leonard (1984) suggested that self-employment and job tracking are two common strategies that lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons use to avoid discrimination. Self-employment means working independently or as an employer. This option affords a person maximum freedom without the worry of being fired or discriminated against because of one's sexual orientation. Job tracking refers to working in (a) firms that are owned by lesbian, gay, or bisexual persons; (b) firms that employ large numbers of lesbian, gay, or bisexual worke rs; (c) industries that specifically serve the lesbian, gay, or bisexual community; or (d) industries that are known to be affirmative to lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons. Although self-employment and job tracking provide a relatively safe working environment, one should note that these two strategies do not rule out the possibility of discrimination. Those who are self-employed may encounter discrimination from business partners or customers. Although job tracking may significantly reduce potential formal discrimination, informal discrimination is still possible when there are homophobic coworkers.

Not all lesbian, gay, or bisexual persons use self-employment or job-tracking strategies in making career choices. Some people are unable to be self-employed, and others may find job tracking too limiting in terms of career options. Still others consider additional factors (e.g., interests, prestige, earning) more important than sexual orientation in making career choices. Because self-employment and job tracking may not always be viable or desirable options, many lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons risk facing potential discrimination in their career decisions. This risk-taking option involves selecting a job from work environments with various degrees of tolerance for lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons. These environments can range from those with nondiscrimination and domestic partnership policies (e.g., some city governments and universities) to those known to be homophobic and discriminatory (e.g., military and public schools).

Work Adjustment

Lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons may also use various strategies to cope with potential or encountered discrimination when applying for a job or after being employed. The model in Figure 2 outlines two sets of work adjustment strategies--"identity management" strategies may be used for dealing with potential discrimination, and "discrimination management" strategies may be used for dealing with encountered discrimination.

Identity management. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons are called "invisible minorities" because their sexual identities cannot be identified merely from biological or physical appearance (Fassinger, 1991). Such invisibility provides a context in which lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons may deal with potential discrimination through identity management--controlling disclosure of information about one's sexual orientation. Various strategies of identity management have been discussed in the literature, ranging from a simple dichotomy ("closeted" versus "out") to more complex models (e.g., the four categories identified by Pope, 1996).

The five identity management strategies included in Figure 2 are adapted from the work of Griffin (1992), whose model was described by Croteau (1996) as the most comprehensive and systematic. These five strategies are (a) acting, (b) passing, (c) covering, (d) implicitly out, and (e) explicitly out. The first strategy, acting, is a new addition to Griffin's original four strategies. It refers to engaging in a heterosexual relationship for the purpose of making people believe that one is heterosexual. Passing means fabricating information so that one may be perceived as heterosexual. For example, a gay man may use female names or pronouns when describing his date to coworkers, even though there was either no date or the date was with another man. Covering means omitting or censoring information to avoid being identified as homosexual. For instance, a lesbian may choose to never say anything to coworkers about her romantic partner and her membership in a lesbian book club. Implicitly out means being open and ho nest in sharing information about one's personal life and intimate relationships without labeling oneself as lesbian, gay, or bisexual; thus, it allows others to draw their own conclusions. For example, a bisexual man might bring his male partner to a work-related social function and introduce the partner as his roommate. An advantage of being implicitly out is that it provides some safe space to which to retreat if passing or covering strategies become necessary. Finally, explicitly out means openly identifying oneself as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. An example could be that of a bisexual woman telling coworkers that she has dated both men and women and that she is bisexual.

The five identity management strategies follow a progressive order, from being totally closeted to publicly out, from dishonesty to integrity, and from separation of personal and professional lives to integration of both aspects (cf. Griffin, 1992). This progressive order parallels the sexual identity development processes depicted by Cass (1979), Coleman (1982), and Troiden (1989). Because it is illogical for people to be more "out" at work than is consistent with their self-concept about their sexual identity, it is reasonable to assume that people select identity management strategies that are consistent with or below their accomplished level of sexual identity development. Furthermore, it is possible that, at a given time, people may use more than one strategy in dealing with different coworkers or in different situations, depending on their assessment of risk (Griffin, 1992).

One limitation of the modified Griffin (1992) model is that the five identity management strategies are not equally applicable to bisexual persons. Having a heterosexual relationship does not necessarily mean that a bisexual person is using the acting strategy. The acting strategy only applies when the bisexual person's intent is to make other people believe that the person is heterosexual. Passing is not relevant to a bisexual person in a heterosexual relationship because there is no need for fabricating information. The other three strategies (covering, implicitly out, and explicitly out) are applicable to bisexual persons.

Discrimination management. Little has been written about how lesbian, gay, and bisexual people manage encountered discrimination. According to existing research, this paucity of literature may be because most les bian, gay, and bisexual persons try to avoid discrimination by (a) vocational choice strategies such as self-employment and job tracking or (b) remaining mostly closeted in their job by using appropriate identity management strategies (cf. Levine & Leonard, 1984). In studies that addressed encountered discrimination, the focus was often on occurrence of discrimination rather than on coping with discrimination (cf. Croteau, 1996).

On the basis of an integration of strategies discussed in the limited literature, four discrimination management strategies are suggested in the present model of coping strategies: (a) quitting, (b) silence, (c) social support, and (d) confrontation. Quitting means resignation without identifying work discrimination as the reason for such a decision. A person using this strategy may suffer from work discrimination to the extent that staying on the job becomes unbearable, but the person may not want to make a public issue about his or her sexual orientation. Silence refers to a lack of overt reaction. The person tolerates work discrimination and keeps it to himself or herself. Social support refers to sharing the experience of encountering discrimination with selected individuals (e.g., family, friends, coworkers, counselor) in attempts to gain support and cope with discrimination. Finally, confrontation refers to addressing the issue with the perpetrators or their supervisors, or both. Confrontation may take many forms, such as refuting heterosexist comments, demanding cessation of harassment, complaining to the perpetrator, reporting the discrimination to the perpetrator's supervisor, or taking legal actions.

These four discrimination management strategies follow a progressive order from refusing to face the issue to addressing the problem directly. It seems likely that individuals use strategies that are consistent with their level of assertiveness or sexual identity development. Those who have a strong sense of sexual identity may be more likely to use more assertive actions to deal with encountered discrimination than those who are involuntarily "outed." Furthermore, individuals may use more than one strategy at a time in dealing with encountered discrimination (e.g., using both social support and confrontation).

Counseling Implications

The three-dimensional model of work discrimination provides a useful framework for assessing the reality (perceived vs. real) of potential and encountered discriminations in formal and informal domains. The model integrates major conceptualizations of work discrimination in vocational psychology literature. Each dimension has important implications for the vocational behavior, career achievement, and psychological well-being of lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons. Interaction of the three dimensions provides a complex and comprehensive framework for future theoretical and empirical work about discrimination. When providing career counseling to lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients, the model may be used for psychoeducation and exploration purposes.

The dimension of perceived versus real discrimination is the reality factor. As discussed previously, people react according to their perceptions rather than to reality. More realistic perceptions seem necessary for more effective coping strategies. Counselors need to help clients conduct accurate assessments of work discrimination. To assess potential discrimination, clients may examine antidiscrimination policies, domestic partnership benefits, and interpersonal climates of work environments through printed materials, Internet resources, and informational interviews. During such explorations, it is important to examine both formal and informal discrimination. Institutional policies and printed materials are useful for assessing potential formal discrimination, whereas informational interviews with lesbian, gay, or bisexual workers in prospective careers are particularly helpful for assessing potential informal discrimination.

To assess the reality of encountered discrimination, counselors can assist clients in conducting a more objective analysis of their situation by collecting and examining information from all available sources. It is most helpful to gather data about possible differential treatment of workers with similar qualifications and job performance. If possible, clients may interview a few coworkers to gather data from their observations. Again, it is important to attend to both formal and informal encountered discriminations. Counselors may suggest reading materials that address work discrimination issues (e.g., Baker, Strub, & Henning, 1995; Friskopp & Silverstein, 1995; Powers & Ellis, 1995; Woods & Lucas, 1993). The Web site of the Human Rights Campaign ( also provides useful information about sexual orientation issues in the workplace, such as listings of employers with antidiscrimination policies and domestic partnership benefits; resources for dealing with discrimination; and lesbian, gay, or bisexual employee organizations in various professions.

After an exploration of work discrimination, counselors can help their clients develop effective coping strategies. Depending on whether the client is making a new vocational choice or adjusting to a current work environment, counselors can refer to specific portions of the coping strategies model in Figure 2. When assisting clients in making vocational decisions, counselors should help clients explore their options (e.g., the three vocational choice strategies) and the risks involved in each option. The amount of risk a person is willing to take depends on a number of factors, such as potential for discrimination, the person's sexual identity development, the relative importance between sexual orientation and other considerations, and self-efficacy of coping with discrimination. These factors should be explored and integrated fully when making vocational decisions. The application of social cognitive career theory (Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1996) may be helpful in such efforts (Morrow, Gore, & Campbell, 1996) . In this theoretical framework, vocational choice is influenced by previous learning experiences, self-efficacy, outcome expectations, interests, goals, and contextual factors such as perceived potential discrimination. The choice process takes into account the person's self-efficacy for coping with potential work discrimination, as well as outcome expectations for the coping strategies. Further discussion of work adjustment strategies may be helpful in assisting clients who need to assess the amount of risk they are willing to take in their vocational decision making.

For clients who need assistance in dealing with potential discrimination when applying for a job or after being employed, counselors can discuss the pros and cons of each identity management strategy. Clients need to find a strategy that deals with potential discrimination in a manner consistent with their sexual identity development (Fassinger, 1995; Prince, 1995), although clients should consider the possible negative effects of concealing one's sexual identity (Griffin, 1992; Levine & Leonard, 1984) and the positive consequences of coming out in the workplace (Croteau & Hedstrom, 1993; Pope, 1996). It is also critical to consider one's partner when deciding on identity management strategies; this is particularly pertinent for lesbians who often come out in the context of romantic relationships (Fassinger, 1995). Differences between partners in sexual identity development may cause conflicts in identity management.

Bandura's (1986) self-efficacy theory may also be useful in helping clients select identity management strategies. When determining the appropriateness of a particular strategy, clients may want to consider their self-efficacy for implementing the strategy and their outcome expectations for the strategy Ideally, clients should use a strategy for which they have high self-efficacy and positive outcome expectations. Training in implementing identity management strategies may be needed for some clients. For example, when teaching how to be implicitly out at work, counselors may coach a client and model effective ways to be implicitly out without explicitly disclosing one's sexual orientation. As Bandura suggested, performance accomplishment, vicarious learning, social persuasion, and physiological arousal influence self-efficacy, which in turn affect performance. These four learning experiences may be used to facilitate the implementation of identity management strategies.

In addition to identity management, clients need to know their options for managing encountered discrimination. The pros and cons of each discrimination management strategy should be explored, preferably before the occurrence of discrimination so that clients are prepared when situations arise. Psychoeducation may be particularly useful for helping clients learn their rights and what they can do to assert their rights through formal and informal means. The importance of social support should be emphasized, and various confrontation strategies should be discussed. Again, Bandura's (1986) self-efficacy theory may be used to evaluate strategy options by assessing clients' self-efficacy and outcome expectations for managing encountered discrimination. Coaching and modeling of coping strategies can strengthen a client's self-efficacy and effectiveness in implementing coping strategies.

Conclusion and Future Directions

This article proposed comprehensive conceptual models of work discrimination and coping strategies pertaining to lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons. It is hoped that these models will stimulate more theoretical and empirical work and an expanded set of counseling implications. Specifically, the relations of variables within each dimension and among the three dimensions of the work discrimination model need to be explored for their theoretical and practical implications. That is, the eight forms of work discrimination (as defined by the three dimensions) need to be examined for unique influences on vocational behavior, psychological well-being, and coping strategies. More research is needed, as well, to validate whether the three sets of coping strategies adequately represent how lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons cope with perceptions of potential and encountered discrimination. The specific processes by which people select different coping strategies for different situations should also be investigated.

Y. Barry Chung is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Psychological Services at Georgia State University, Atlanta. Correspondence regarding this article should be sent to Y. Barry Chung, Department of Counseling and Psychological Services, College of Education, Georgia State University, University Plaza, Atlanta, GA 30303-3083 (e-mail:


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Author:Chung, Y. Barry
Publication:Career Development Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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