Life; Workplace Identity

Theresa M. Welbourne and Ted A. Paterson, Advancing a Richer View of Identity at Work: The Role-Based Identity Scale, Personnel Psychology, 2017, 20, 315-356.

So I have not blogged for a few days. I will avoid getting overly personal except to say that our cat died last Friday. He had been a member of our family for 16 years. He stayed up every night with me while I was studying in law school and library school, and was one of the best friends I have ever had. Anyway, sometimes life gets in the way of blogging.

In addition, sometimes technology also gets in the way of blogging. I started taking notes for today’s article, and then my computer crashed and I lost them. But I think this topic is important, so I pressed ahead.

This article presents research on people’s identities at work, and presents a framework of five identity types:

  • Organization-Based Identity (how someone sees him or herself in relation to “central, distinctive, and enduring characteristics of an organization”)
  • Occupational Identity (how people view themselves from a professional/career standpoint, beyond their current job at their current workplace)
  • Innovator Identity (determined by how people’s sense of innovation and creativity is “incentiviz(ed), manag(ed), and utiliz(ed)” in the workplace)
  • Team Identity (“refers to the degree to which an individual view of self is impacted by membership in a work team.”)
  • Job Identity (how the specific jobs people hold influence their work identities)

That (at least) five different identity types may factor into establishing one’s overall work identity is really interesting to me. The authors based this framework on “identity theory,” which was first developed by sociologist Sheldon Stryker in the 1970s and is based on the idea that “a given individual has a number of identities, any one of which may govern behavior in a specific situation based upon its relative salience and the context.” A person can develop these different identities not only through their interactions with others, but also as influenced by the organization of which they are a part.

The authors also drew on another concept developed by Stryker: that identity is hierarchical, which means that “identities are ranked from greater to lesser relevance based on salience in a specific situation.” I am sure that every single one of us has seen this phenomenon in action, yet not given a lot of thought about how it influences individual thoughts, ideas, and behavior at critical moments, or how stressful it can be for a person to have and manage multiple workplace identities at once.

In order to test their five-identity framework by evaluating and measuring each identity type, the authors developed the Role-Based Identity Scale (RBIS). The authors developed hypotheses about each identity type, and used various work-related activities (participating in an employee stock program, task performance, etc.) and demographic markers (age, tenure, etc.) to determine positive and negative relations. As far as data collection, nearly 900 employees from six companies in the technology, service, and manufacturing provided answers to survey questions furnished by the authors.

As a result of their study, the authors verified the presence of the five identity types at work, and specifically state that theirs is one of the first studies that verifies the existence of the innovator and job identities. The authors hope that their research lays the foundation for further studies of the interplay of these five identities. They also specifically mention that that, as innovation becomes a larger element of the business plan for modern companies, researchers will be compelled to explore this particular identity type in more depth.

The authors’ stated goal for carrying out this research project was to “suggest that improvement in explaining action can come from better linking identity theory with research designs that include multiple identities.” Additionally, according to the authors, this type of research is especially important for improving the design and efficacy of Human Resource Management (HRM) programs so that they take multiple workplace identities into consideration, thereby better predicting and preventing employee dissatisfaction, rather than merely exploring and explaining why employees leave after they are already gone. As the authors note, navigating multiple identities at work can be stressful and difficult, and management who understand this can put systems into place to help employees better cope with it.

I am glad to have read this article. I did not know a lot about the topic or about human resource management beforehand. However, our library has been looking at workplace culture over the last 18 months or so, and I am on the culture task force. I will be keeping this multi-identity framework in mind during the work I am doing with that group.

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