Examining the Workplace Experiences of Sport Employees who are LGBT: A Social Categorisation Theory Perspective

Case studies

Examining the Workplace Experiences of Sport Employees who are LGBT: A Social Categorisation Theory Perspective

American case study, September 2014

What identities do we use at work? And what influences our decision to expose particular parts of our self-identity? This American study focused on the experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender employees in the sports industry and examined how these employees applied various social identities to ‘fit in’ By Juliet Bourke - Consulting, Partner.

All of us want to feel included.  Sport can provide that bridge to other people (spectators and athletes), providing a shared interest and language, and thus provoking a sense of inclusion in a shared universe.   Does the Sport industry also create an environment of inclusion for employees? Aside from being an athlete, what is it like to work in the sports industry? And more specifically, what are the experiences of minority employees, namely Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT), working in an industry which is generally characterised as heterosexist?

A significant amount of research has already been undertaken in relation to how LGBT athletes in the sports industry negotiate their identity.  In this new study, researchers Dr Nicole Melton (PhD from the Department of Health, Exercise and Sport Sciences, Texas tech University) and Professor George B Cunningham (Laboratory for Diversity in Sport at Texas A & M University, College Station, Texas) examined the industry through a different lens, suggesting that other social identities, in addition to sexual orientation, can also influence experiences at work.

Using Tajfel and Turner’s social categorisation (1979) and social identity (1987) theories, the researchers argue that individuals have more than one social identity impacting their personal and professional experiences.  Moreover, these multiple identities help individuals make sense of the multiple environments’ they exist in. The social categorisation framework was used throughout the research. This framework holds that individuals will cycle through multiple identities depending on context to enable them to be seen as part of the ‘in-group’.

In relation to this study, sexual minorities were presented as part of a devalued group, especially in a sports context. In order to fit in with this context, the researchers explored how and what other social identities employees drew on to feel included.


The current study aimed to: 

1. Explore the unique work experiences of LGBT sport employees

2. Understand the reasons why these employees worked in sports environments

3. Examine if and how the sport employee identity influenced toward personal and work outcomes.


This case study focused on LGBT employees of an athletics department at a university in the United States. The researchers used both primary and secondary data in this study. The primary data was interviews conducted with 9 athletic department LGBT employees who all identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual, the majority of whom were female aged between 25-43 and all had disclosed their sexual orientation to at least two other staff members. Secondary data included observations and analysis of secondary document sources (i.e Human Resources policies, emails, university website).


The current study had four key findings related to:

1. Personal and social identification

2. Motivation to work in sport

3. Coping strategies

4. Social change.

Personal and social identification

The researchers discovered a low level of commitment to the participant’s LGBT status. When asked how they would describe themselves, none discussed they were LGBT, rather, they referred characteristics such as their sex, religious status and personality traits.

Conversely, the study found that participants were eager to associate themselves with another identity – that of an employee in the athletics department. The researchers contended that this strong organisational identification led to employees feeling more positive about themselves, as opposed to the outcomes they associated with their LGBT status. This highlighted the characteristics of the social categorisation theory – individuals select and apply different identities in order to feel included and part of the ‘in-group’. One participant stated ‘it’s not a big deal, and I don’t think people should make an issue of it, gay or straight’.

Motivation to work in sport

A secondary finding related to why LGBT employees chose to work in sport. Whilst acknowledging they could all get jobs that paid better in other industries that were not so dominated by heterogeneous characteristics, the interviewees all expressed a desire to work in sport. 

Notably, the authors found a parallel between this finding and the aforementioned lack of commitment to identifying with their sexuality. They posit that that motivation and drive to work in sport bolstered personal self-concept and perceived status among others. By choosing to work in this industry, the authors reported that these LGBT employees’ felt they could affiliate more with others as a result of their chosen job and industry, rather than for their sexual orientation. As one participant disclosed ‘My neighbors knew I was gay…they never talked to me…at a game last year they saw me on the sideline…[now] they are always smiling and waving’. 



A third finding suggested that working in the sport industry was not always a positive experience for minority employees. Participants identified that their experience was made easier by having supportive managers and colleagues who created a safe work place for LGBT employees. LGBT employees also explicitly emphasised other self-identities to achieve in-group status. One participant discussed his love of fishing to blend in with his male colleagues, ‘we all love fishing and go on a big fishing trip once a year … so we always have something to talk about … It makes me seem like I’m just one of the guys ‘.

Social change

The final finding was that the support received by LGBT employees from their colleagues not only provided a coping mechanism but could also act as a way to mobilise change. Whilst the findings suggested the employees found several obstacles in relation to being accepted (i.e. same-sex partners were not invited to social functions), they also made it clear they were not the agents of social change, emphasising that this is a role for non-LGBT employees. The researchers concluded that actions from heterosexual employees lead to the highest degree of change in the work context.


Leaders should take solace in that employees who strongly identify with the work environment report a positive workplace experience. However, the impacts of having employees hide elements of themselves in order to gain ‘in-group’ status is somewhat concerning. It is worth considering whether particular workplaces are encouraging employees to bring all elements of themselves to work, or whether employees only demonstrate selves they perceive to be welcomed.

There is also a need to build support for LGBT employees. Specific actions (both formal and informal) must be taken by managers and co-workers to create an accepting and safe environment. Employers should consider their LGBT strategies and whether a lack of policies visibly including LGBT employees, such as recognition of same-sex partnerships, formal LGBT support networks are leading to their employees feeling excluded and undervalued.

To read the full article, see Melton, N.E. & Cunningham, G.B., (2014), ‘Examining Workplace Experiences of Sport Employees who are LGBT: A Social Categorisation Theory Perspective. Journal of Sport Management (28), 21-33

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