Phenomena of diversity and inclusion observed in the workplace can be discussed with references to such social psychological perspective as the social identity theory. The reason is that interactions in the workplace are associated with the social nature of a person, and diversity, as well as the idea of inclusion or exclusion from work groups, is explained with references to the social identity of employees. Although relations in the workplace are usually complex, it is possible to discuss them focusing on the principles of the social identity theory because it explains how people perceive each other’s differences and why individuals can be excluded from particular social groups in the workplace.
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Social Identity Theory
As a psychological approach, the social identity theory explains what social structures can influence the person’s identity. According to this theory, people perceive each other as belonging to certain social groups that are meaningful to them because the members of these groups share the same socially important and distinguishing features as race, age, gender, or status (Mor Barak, 2008, p. 245). If people regard their social group as superior, they can focus on excluding the representatives of other social groups. The process of the social identification depends on analyzing what groups are socially significant with references to rather stereotypical visions regarding the racial or gender identity (Escartín, Ullrich, Zapf, Schlüter, & Van Dick, 2013, p. 183). Having analyzed the social status of the certain group, people try to refer themselves to categories with the positive identification that can be based on the individual perception or stereotypical visions.
Connections of the Theory to Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace
In the workplace, the social identity theory is used to explain discriminative relations when persons with certain distinctive features can be excluded from work groups because of their differences and set stereotypes. For instance, there are stereotypes that African Americans are less qualified workers than white Americans (Pearce, 2013, p. 498). This stereotype leads to the situation when employees can focus on their ‘whiteness’ and try to exclude African Americans from the project team to avoid the project failure. In this case, accepting the fact of diversity in the workplace, persons also focus on social comparisons and intend to demonstrate their superiority.
Having a particular social identification, employees can perceive other workers as different from them with the focus on any feature, including race, age, gender, or abilities. As a result, employees with similar features are inclined to demonstrate the greater understanding and ability to cooperate. In this case, these people can also show their superiority over the other groups while excluding or discriminating them (Mor Barak, 2008, p. 245). The results of such approach based on the idea of the social identity theory are observed when female employees collaborate more with each other because they are not included in teams in which male employees work. The problem is in the fact that male professionals are often inclined to perceive themselves as more skilled workers when female workers can be regarded as untrustworthy. This example of exclusion is typical for many companies operating in predominately ‘male’ industries.
The social identity theory is effective to explain the variety of relations in the society when people are inclined to perceive the representatives of the same social groups positively and develop negative relations toward representatives of other groups. In the workplace, this attitude leads to comparisons made by employees against each other and to the following exclusion of individuals belonging to the other social category.
Escartín, J., Ullrich, J., Zapf, D., Schlüter, E., & Van Dick, R. (2013). Individual‐and group‐level effects of social identification on workplace bullying. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 22(2), 182-193.
Mor Barak, M. E. (2008). Social psychological perspectives of workforce diversity and inclusion in national and global contexts. In R. Patti (Ed.), Handbook of human service management (pp. 239-254). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
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Obschonka, M., Goethner, M., Silbereisen, R. K., & Cantner, U. (2012). Social identity and the transition to entrepreneurship: The role of group identification with workplace peers. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 80(1), 137-147.
Pearce, J. A. (2013). Using social identity theory to predict managers’ emphases on ethical and legal values in judging business issues. Journal of Business Ethics, 112(3), 497-514.