By: Chad Peddie and Tyler Wurtz
This is part 3 of our 8-part blog series, Psychological Safety and Advancing Workforce Equity.
In the previous installment in this series, we discussed how employees, in general, evaluate the risks and potential benefits of using social identity cues in presenting aspects of themselves at work. Employees’ diverse experiences can be a driving factor when determining levels of psychological safety within the workplace (Derickson et al., 2015). Within this blog, we discuss the experience of individuals that have historically been excluded from full acceptance and involvement in societal acknowledgment and involvement (Goffman, 1963). Specifically, we will focus on the processes these individuals engage in when managing their identities at work and how inclusive environments can be critical in creating a better work environment.
Outside of family settings, work experience tends to be the most frequent context for social interaction (Chadsey & Beyer, 2001). Research has clearly demonstrated the value of successfully managing diversity and building inclusion by showing that inclusive environments are generally more productive (e.g., greater task performance, higher sales, more organizational citizenship behaviors), more creative (e.g., greater innovation, higher-quality solutions, better problem-solving processes), and are more gratifying (e.g., higher employee satisfaction, improved employee trust, lower turnover). Thus, it is critical that organizations take appropriate actions to ensure that employees feel a sense of belonging and bring their entire selves to work.
Working to establish psychological safety can be one key method of giving employees the confidence and courage to decide whether, to whom, when, and how to disclose aspects of their identities. In environments with high psychological safety, employees feel safe bringing their full selves to work and are comfortable sharing views and ideas. When workplaces support the authenticity and belonging of all organizational members, we see the benefits referenced previously.
In general, the spectrum of what groups are considered stigmatized and thus suffer from a lack of workplace safety can vary greatly depending on the context and setting. Groups that have been historically marginalized and excluded from positions and roles of power often feel stigmatized in the workplace. Although recent demographic representations have shifted, racial and ethnic minorities and women remain severely underrepresented in higher-level roles across most occupational fields. Additionally, significant challenges impact people from the LGBTQ+ community, individuals from certain age groups, and individuals with disabilities (Hebl et al., 2002, Diekman, et al., 2011, and Wilson-Kovacs et al., 2008; respectively).
Many employees of stigmatized identity groups face challenges and potential barriers in managing their personal identities and this identity management process remains a major workplace issue (Button, 2001; Clair et al., 2005; Griffith & Hebl, 2002). While people may desire to be authentic when interacting with others, concerns about how one is perceived in job situations when trying to make positive impressions on supervisors, coworkers, and subordinates may affect an individual’s authenticity (Roberts, 2005). While not always, the possibility of experiencing discrimination can increase when a stigmatized identity is confirmed (Griffith & Hebl, 2002). Disclosing or openly identifying a potentially stigmatizing identity is not a one-time event that involves a simple yes-or-no decision (Ragins, 2004). Rather, this experience can be an ongoing process that evolves and changes over time with revealing and concealing approaches varying greatly depending on organizational, interactional, and person-level factors (King et al., 2017). Generally, employees tend to naturally develop more comfort over time if the organization can create an environment that is perceived as non-threatening.
While there are challenges in creating this environment, there are several actions employers can take to build inclusion in the organization and work environment. Research demonstrates that the supportiveness of the work environment is critical in the experiences of employees with stigmatized identities (Button, 2001; Griffith & Hebl, 2002; Huffman et al., 2008). How employees share their identities can be driven by numerous factors in the workplace. Some of the most impactful factors that can build psychological and subsequent inclusivity may include the following actions:
- Ensure leaders across organizational levels value and support all diversity dimensions.
- Adopt inclusive policies (e.g., nondiscrimination, harassment) and social norms (e.g., same-sex partners are welcomed at social gatherings).
- Fund and support resources that support stigmatized employees.
- Provide transparent and honest communication from leadership describing the organization’s journey to improvement (challenges, roadmaps, timelines).
- Hold all organizational members and partners accountable for the respectful, fair, and equitable treatment of others.
- Create opportunities for belonging and encourage authenticity
- Assess the organization and provide training where needed (e.g., diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, civility, psychological safety).
- Provide employee flexibility and alternative processes to better manage identities and lives. For example:
- Social disclosures may be more likely in virtual methods (Nguyen, Bin, & Campbell, 2012).
- Build accommodation processes into general workplace activities.
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Derickson, R., Fishman, J., Osatuke, K., Teclaw, R., & Ramsel, D. (2015). Psychological safety and error reporting within Veterans Health Administration Hospitals. Journal of Patient Safety, 11(1), 60–66. https://doi.org/10.1097/pts.0000000000000082
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King, E. B., Mohr, J. J., Peddie, C. I., Jones, K. P., & Kendra, M. (2017). Predictors of Identity Management: An Exploratory Experience-Sampling Study of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Workers. Journal of Management, 43(2), 476–502. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206314539350
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