Donna Chrobot Mason University of Colorado at Denver

Companies evaluate potential employees' education and experiences in order to make sound predictions regarding who will perform best in their organization. Yet employees do not enter the organization with only their knowledge, skill, ability, and experience. Employees, new and old, enter organizations daily with a group or social identity and a personal identity. Often our social identities motivate how others will respond to us both inside and outside of the workplace. Differences in social identity predispose us to be biased toward people similar to ourselves and biased against those who we identify as being somehow different. This chapter focuses on the salience of group identity, especially resulting from race, gender, and sexuality, and how multiple group identities can create opportunities for discrimination and conflict in the workplace. We also discuss the impact of group representation on workgroup dynamics and outcomes and the consequence of group identity on both individual and organizational behavior. Finally, the chapter concludes with a discussion of avoiding group-based discrimination in the workplace.


Organizations select employees based upon applicants' knowledge, skill, and ability, so why should your group identity, such as your race, gender, or your sexuality impact how you are treated by your peers or your leaders at work? There are a variety of ways in which to explain why such arbitrary characteristics and differences seem to matter in organizations. Both social identity theory and social categorization theory illustrate how group membership differences can create opportunities for discrimination. Social marking explanations of group-based discrimination in organizations aid in conveying the importance of social power in the determination of which differences matter and the consequences of those differences for the dominant group's identities and self worth. Social marking also explains how mere differences can serve as a justification for mistreatment and discrimination. Finally, we examine the relevance of privilege to discussions of group-based discrimination in organizations and how privilege and social dominance helps to further illustrate social identity, social categorization, and social marking explanations of group-based discrimination.

Social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1986) suggests that as individuals we are motivated to feel positively about ourselves. To acquire a positive sense of self, we view other people as either members of our ingroup or outgroup, and we compare ourselves favorably relative to outgroup members. Members of our ingroup are those with whom we presume to share common characteristics. Despite our sense of kinship with ingroup members, we also appreciate the diversity within our ingroup (the ingroup differentiation effect). That is, a female executive may identify other women in her organization as part of her ingroup, yet still appreciate that these women differ in regard to their talents, racial background, and age.

In contrast, members of our outgroups are those with whom we presume we share little in common. We also lack an appreciation of our outgroups' diversity (the outgroup homogeneity effect). If we refer back to the female executive, she may identify men, as members of the outgroup, as all being the same, and therefore she may not be able to as easily appreciate the significance of their differences in regards to their talents, race, and age.

It is not at all uncommon for race, gender, and even sexuality to be used as determinants of who is (or is not) a member of our ingroup. Tajfel (1982) argued that the need to divide the world into ingroups and outgroups is a cognitive process that enables the mind to simplify an increasingly complex world. Certainly diversity is part of that complexity. Numerous studies using the "minimal group paradigm," (a technique in which researchers divide their participant sample into subgroups based upon an arbitrary criteria), demonstrate that the mere division of a group by some arbitrary characteristic is enough to ignite discrimination (Bourhis, Sachdev, & Gagnon, 1994). Categorization is a normal activity that likely initiates the "us vs. them" mentality that often precedes prejudice and discrimination.

The simplistic division of the world into ingroups and outgroups satisfies our own needs for identity and for a sense of worth. Ingroups provide a sense of identity in that they enable us to learn from others similar to ourselves, even if what we learn is stereotypical. According to the similarity-attraction effect (Byrne, 1971), we are attracted to those people we presume to be like ourselves. In addition, surrounding ourselves with members of our identified ingroup provides consensual validation (Bochner, 1994). That is, by surrounding ourselves with people we perceive to be similar to ourselves, we avoid challenges to our beliefs, values, and worldview. The similarity in beliefs, values, and worldviews offered by members of our ingroup is validating and helps us to feel secure. The ingroup becomes a source of reinforcement as well as pride. Outgroups help cement identity through the contrast they present; they inform us of who we are not. Likewise, they facilitate our sense of worth through comparison because in essence we typically see ourselves as superior or better than members of our outgroups.

Self-categorization theory (SCT; Tajfel, 1982), an extension of social identity theory, stresses the cognitive function that drives social identity theory. SCT's contribution to our understanding of group membership and discrimination is that individuals enact a personal or social identity at different times. In fact, SCT suggests that we each have different group memberships that we may call on and that these group memberships differ in their level of inclusiveness. For example, employees within an organization may see themselves as (a) members of humanity (the superordinate level), (b) members of their organization (the intermediate level), or (c) simply as unique individuals (the subordinate level). We have a choice of which identity to enact at any given time, but our environment, including the workplace, may drive which identity is most salient. Some identities, such as a racial group identity, are more noticeable and accessible than other group identities, such as one's professional identity. Therefore, being a numeric minority because of some noticeable characteristics such as race or gender may facilitate the choice of one's group identity over any other identity available.

In organizations, social identity has consequences for members of organizations through its effects on issues such as organizational socialization and intergroup relations (Ashforth & Mael, 1989). For example, Mehra, Kilduff, and Brass (1998) examined networking and friendship patterns within an MBA program. Both women and racial minorities were underrepresented in the program. Yet despite both groups having a minority status, only ethnic minorities were motivated to form ingroup friendships. Women established relationships more broadly than their ethnic minority counterparts. The researchers suggest that differences in the friendship formation patterns between women and minorities in this study may be in part the result of differences in the stereotype and marks attached to each group.

For example, Asian Americans and African Americans may both have low levels of representation within a particular work setting. Yet if the mark (or status) of being Asian within that setting is less negative than the mark (or status) of being Black, Asian Americans will likely have an easier time forming relationships and networks with non-Asian Americans, compared to the opportunities that Blacks may have for building relationships with Whites. Given this example, we may expect that Blacks in this environment may be very motivated to form a strong network with other members of their racial ingroup.

What are the consequences of this natural tendency to divide ourselves into ingroups and outgroups as the world increasingly becomes more complex due to diversity? Do we find new ways in which to construct ingroups and outgroups, for example, turning away from race but instead embracing a national identity due to globalization? Further, how does this "new" identity dimension influence our ability to work globally? Perhaps as diversity increases, instead of embracing new identity dimensions, individuals hold more tightly to the most salient identities. In fact, Maume (1999) found that increasing racial and gender diversity seemed to benefit White men's career mobility (the glass escalator) as compared to the career mobility of women and men of color. Perhaps decision makers embrace the "known" in times of demographic uncertainty and rely upon ingroup favoritism rather than risk promoting an "unknown."

Social Marking

Sampson (1999) discussed the importance of group distinction for social marking. The differences that are most salient in our society and in organizations, such as race and gender, are a result of the emphasis placed by dominant social groups on those categories so that members of the dominant group can distinguish themselves from others. This counters an essentialist model Grillo and Wildman (1996) of difference, which suggests that the major categories by which we organize our world and society are somehow natural and essential to defining others. Marking is a result of a history of social relations between groups; it is not a quick and immediate process. The differences that are important and those that are ignored reflect a choice made by dominant social groups that occupy positions of power. Finally, the differences that become most salient within a particular society provide dominant group members not only a sense of identity, but also a positive sense of self.

For example, West (1993) suggested that without Blacks, European Americans would have no sense of what it means to be White in America today. Instead their identity would be largely shaped by other characteristics that may reflect previous struggles over resources such as national origin. Socially dominant groups achieve a sense of their own identity by highlighting the differences between themselves and others. These differences are also used to justify attitudes and negative behaviors toward disempowered others, thus securing the dominant person's positive sense of self and own self-interests.

In a related vein, Cox (1994) identified macro and micro legacy effects that demonstrate how a history of social marking is embedded in modern personal and professional relationships. Macro legacy effects involve how individuals enact relationships with members of other social groups based upon their shared (likely negative) history. For example, the history of enslavement of Africans by Europeans and European Americans, not only creates tension between modern day Blacks and Whites, but also reinforces the identities of the groups. Whites are seen as powerful and controlling, and Blacks are seen as weak yet needing to be controlled. Micro legacy effects reflect the extent to which one's personal (rather than social group) history with a member of one's outgroup affects other subsequent relationships. For example, if a Latino student has a negative experience with a White teacher, that student may become distrusting and antagonistic toward other White teachers and authority figures. Therefore, both macro and micro legacy effects interfere with employees' abilities to initiate and develop productive relationships with outgroup members.

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