More than one-third of adults reported experiencing workplace discrimination in 2021, according to a survey capturing data from 2,000 people across the UK.1 Though age-related discrimination was most salient in this report (particularly among older employees), discrimination was nevertheless prevalent across gender, race, disability and sexual orientation. For all the efforts made by organisations nowadays to promote inclusiveness, discrimination at work and the suppression of employee identity remain significant issues.
An individual’s response to this may unfold in a number of ways. And broadly speaking, these responses can fit beneath two primary approaches, both of which seek to reduce exposure to adverse conditions: that employee can either change their environment or they can change themselves. In other words, the employee can leave their current organisation to find a new one that respects and values their identity, or they can adapt and tweak their self-presentation to blend further into their existing organisation. However, with more people than ever before being open to changing jobs,2 and therefore people perhaps being less willing to change themselves in order to fit in, organisations may need to consider the topic of employee identity even more seriously than ever before.
An average employee in Britain will spend about 85,000 hours at work across their lifetime.3 That’s a long time to spend suppressing one’s identity. This means organisations that place effort in creating a truly inclusive and fair culture may be likely to continue to establish themselves ever further as the frontrunners in attracting and retaining the best talent. Indeed, inclusion has already been shown to deliver various benefits such as enhanced creativity and innovation,4 better decision-making,5 and overall performance,6 to name a few.
Thanks to much research, we have a strong idea of how important identity is for the average employee in work. In one study, researchers observed the mental health trajectory across a group of individuals transitioning into retirement.7 They found that, generally, one group of individuals tended to maintain and enhance their wellbeing, while another group suffered a sharp mental health decline right after retirement. The researchers surmised that an individual’s identity and work are tightly interwoven, such that when mechanisms were put in place to preserve one’s identity after retirement (such as continuing similar work on a temporary, part-time scale), that led to better outcomes for their mental health. Alternatively, when retirees were ‘stripped’ of their identity (in this case, if they stopped working suddenly and completely), this often led to a drop.
Considering these findings then, an individual’s identity in work is not only that person’s raw character, but their character when placed in a specific organisational culture. And while we know that fit between an organisation’s cultural values and an employee’s personal values is a predictor for engagement and performance,8 as discussed, it’s also important to allow individuals to mobilise and safely express their unique identity.
Cultivating an environment where organisational and personal values are aligned, and where individuals can feel able to express themselves authentically, is key. A psychologically safe workplace such as this empowers people to share their voice and take interpersonal risks without the shame of making mistakes, leading to more effective problem-solving, better performance and stronger relationships with their colleagues around them.9
So, referring back to the earlier approaches that an individual might employ to avoid discrimination, either the employee can change themselves or they can change their environment. In the former condition, organisations may be at risk of remaining stagnant and exclusive, potentially driving talent away. In the latter condition, however, we have psychologically safe organisations that attract employees by empowering their unique identities and eradicating discrimination. And ultimately, these factors may play a crucial role in driving a more prosperous future for these organisations and their people.
1. CIPHR (2021). Workplace Discrimination Statistics in 2021. Available from: https://www.ciphr.com/workplace-discrimination-statistics/
2. Brignall, M. (1st November, 2021). ‘The Great Resignation’: Almost one in four UK workers planning job change. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/money/2021/nov/01/the-great-resignation-almost-one-in-four-workers-planning-job-change
3. Bailey, G. (2018). British people will work for an average of 3,507 days over a lifetime, survey says. Independent. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/british-people-work-days-lifetime-overtime-quit-job-survey-study-a8556146.html
4. Gassmann, O. (2001). Multicultural teams: Increasing creativity and innovation by diversity. Creativity and Innovation Management, 12(10), 88-95
5. Bang, D., & Frith C. D. (2017). Making better decisions in groups. Royal Society: Open Science, 4, 1-22
6. Shaw, J. B., & Barrett-Power, E. (1998). The effects of diversity on small work group processes and performance. Human Relations, 51(10), 1307-1325
7. Zhan, Y., Wang, M., Liu, S. & Schultz, K. S. (2009). Bridge employment and retiree’s health: A longitudinal investigation. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 14(4), 374-389
8. Elfenbein, H. A., & O’Reilly III, C. A. (2007). Fitting in: The effects of relational demography and person-culture fit on group process and performance. Group ad Organisation Management, 32, 109-142
9. Jha, S. (2019). Team psychological safety and team performance. International Journal of Organisational Analysis, 27(4), 903-924