By: Marcelle Clavette and Jasmine Beecham
This is part 2 of our 8-part blog series, Psychological Safety and Advancing Workforce Equity.
An employee’s perspective on workplace culture plays a particularly important role in self-identification disclosure decisions. An employee’s decision to self-identify is a risk-benefit analysis within the existing workplace environment (Toth & Dewa, 2014). Given this, how can organizations support employees when soliciting self-identification? Inclusive leadership, psychologically safe work environments, and supportive coworkers are critical, as is demonstrating equitable treatment for all individuals. While monitoring their workplace environment, employees will be looking for identity-safety cues or identity-threatening cues.
Social identity threat is the broad concern that a person’s identity or identities will be undervalued in a specific space, such as a majority White workplace (Steele et al., 2002). Cues embedded in the work environment signal whether an employee’s identity may be appreciated and valued, or whether they may be devalued, negatively stereotyped, or discriminated against (Murphy & Taylor, 2012). Identity-safety cues can convey that one’s marginalized status is welcomed and belongs in an environment (Walton et al., 2015). Inversely, cues that signal that one does not belong in an environment are identity-threatening cues. The presence of identity-threatening cues in the workplace can lead employees to feeling unvalued and that they do not belong, less trust and comfort in an organization, deciding to refrain from self-identifying, and may lead to increased impression management behaviors and searching for another job (Purdie-Vaughns et al., 2008; Murphy & Taylor, 2012; Murphy & Steele, 2010).
Impression management is an attempt to influence how others perceive you and attempting to present oneself in a way that receives positive responses from others (Smith, 2006). Employees may engage in impression management behaviors to feel a sense of belonging, to advance their career, or simply to not stand out (Chen & Lin, 2014). Employees manage their workplace impressions based on their own assessment of the current organizational treatment of protected groups in the workplace. This assessment is a motivating factor behind the decision for an employee to self-identify, or not self-identify, as a member of a protected group that is marginalized within the organization.
Social identity threats and impression management behaviors can be impacted by situational cues. Situational cues that are negative can signal to employees that protected groups are not valued. Alternatively, situational cues that emphasize valuing and belonging of protected groups can neutralize social identity threat concerns and drive an employee’s authentic self-impression.
Below are examples of situational cues and workforce inequities that could influence an employee’s decision not to self-identify. Remember, these should be reviewed from a protected group perspective, not organizational intent.
- Not having diverse representation in company marketing, website, or promotional materials (Murphy & Taylor, 2012).
- Passing 5 men's bathrooms when walking to the interview but only 1 women's or accessible bathroom (Purdie-Vaughns et al., 2008).
- Being interviewed only by men (Murphy & Steele, 2010; Murphy & Taylor, 2012).
- Unequal representation within entry-level positions to workforce availability and communities served.
- Not visibly seeing diverse leadership, coworkers, and interviewers.
- Only seeing diverse representation within entry-level positions and not in higher job positions.
- Support of employee and company achievements for certain protected groups but not others
- Protected groups leaving the organization at higher rates.
- Current employees who are part of protected groups feel that they are not valued or are treated differently, even if an applicant is part of a different protected group.
- Lack of supervisor support and understanding.
Chen, C., & Lin, M. (2014). The Effect of Applicant Impression Management Tactics on Hiring Recommendations: Cognitive and Affective Processes. Applied Psychology, 63, 698-724, https://doi.org/10.1111/apps.12013
Murphy, M. C., & Steele, C. M. (2010). The importance of context: Understanding the effects of situational cues on perceived identity contingencies and sense of belonging. Manuscript submitted for review.
Murphy, M. C., & Taylor, V. J. (2012). The role of situational cues in signaling and maintaining stereotype threat. In M. Inzlicht & T. Schmader (Eds.), Stereotype threat: Theory, process, and application (pp. 17–33). Oxford University Press.
Purdie-Vaughns, V., Steele, C. M., Davies, P. G., Ditlmann, R., & Crosby, J. R. (2008). Social identity contingencies: how diversity cues signal threat or safety for African Americans in mainstream institutions. Journal of personality and social psychology, 94, 615 - 630.
Smith, G. (2006). Erving Goffman, Routledge.
Steele, C. M., Spencer, S. J., & Aronson, J. (2002). Contending with group image: The psychology of stereotype and social
Toth, K. E., & Dewa, C. S. (2014). Employee decision-making about disclosure of a mental disorder at work. Journal of occupational rehabilitation, 24, 732-746.
Walton, G. M., Murphy, M. C., & Ryan, A. M. (2015). Stereotype threat in organizations: Implications for equity and performance. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 2, 523–550. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-032414-111322