Social Identity Conflict

Organizational responses to the increasingly varied composition of the workplace — including women; racial, ethnic or religious minorities; gays and lesbians — have engendered a complex mix of reactions. While the best of these initiatives address the entire human resources system —recruitment, promotion, compensation, training and support groups — tensions in the society at large can spill over and escalate, even in the most well-intentioned workplace. They can trigger critical economic and social repercussions as well as value-based conflicts among some employees and customers. In 1997, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), in its annual convention in Dallas, implemented a boycott of the Walt Disney Co. The boycott accused Disney of “increasingly promoting immoral ideologies.” Included in these offenses was Disney’s policy of offering insurance benefits to partners of gay and lesbian employees.

Recent developments in social identity theory help explain how social identity conflict manifests itself in and affects the workplace. In the June 2003 issue of Social Psychology Quarterly, Kay Deaux and Daniela Martin argue that individuals who are not content with the status of their identity network may work either to raise the status of that group or seek alternatives with higher status. The authors suggest that individuals seeking alternative networks or social identities may be distressed by organizational efforts such as affirmative action, which place emphasis on bolstering the very categories that the individuals are attempting to replace. Therefore, in an attempt to address the needs of a group of people, organizations may overlook the fact that individuals differ widely in how much they identify with a given race, ethnic background or gender. For every woman or Hispanic or African-American employee who might be delighted by a new leadership program designed specifically for his or her group, another employee of the same group might be offended.

Another stream of research on social identity conflict grapples with the multiple identities that individuals can hold —and the context in which one identity takes precedence over another. In the March 2003 issue of Group and Organizational Management, Karen L. Proudford and Kenwyn K. Smith analyze two business cases of social identity conflict in a large financial institution. The cases illustrate that, in any given organizational interaction, each player will represent multiple identities (relating, for example, to their function, position in the hierarchy, gender or ethnicity).

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