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Social Identity: “Us” vs. “Them”

If you’ve been paying attention, you know the traditional American workplace is dealing with a bit of a crisis. The death of George Floyd in 2020 forced everyone, including corporate America, to reckon with issues of racial injustice that had been pushed to the side for decades. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic bulldozed the working world and changed the way almost everyone in every sector does business. On top of it all, politics, the economy, and international conflict are as divisive as ever. Lines between personal life and work life have been blurred - metaphorically and literally - like never before.

Social identity is a person’s sense of who they are based on their group membership(s). Accordingly, the theory of social identity explains that we divide the world into “them” and “us” based on a process of social categorization. There are many negative and positive aspects of social identity: it can breed prejudice and racism, but it’s also the foundation of the sense of meaning we get from belonging to groups and ideas bigger than ourselves. In the past, the workplace was somewhere where you left most of your social identity at the door. The only “us” was the company, and whatever other groups you belong to were either invisible or at least way in the background. This is changing, and it’s about time. Too often, underrepresented groups have been forced to hide much of who they are the second they arrived at work: women and mothers expected to work like they don’t have family responsibility, LGBTQ+ unable to mention their relationships, black Americans forced to change how they speak or style their hair in order to be seen as “professional”. It’s exhausting, stressful, and leads to burnout and high turnover, especially among women and minorities.

Of course work is work and there is still a line to be drawn between the social identities of personal life and professional life. A political argument at work is probably not a great idea, and religious views that contradict the lifestyle of your coworkers are best kept to yourself. Kindness and decency shouldn’t be forsaken in the name of expressing your social identity, but it’s long past time that we recognize that our coworkers are unique people with unique needs and life situations. Discrimination thinly veiled as “company culture” or “professionalism” needs to end if companies want to survive the great resignation and continue to profit.

Ironically, when a company does have a great culture, they create a space for a shared social identity: part of a work team. Employees that see their company as “us” rather than “them” are much more likely to stay, work hard, and speak highly of their job. A balance is struck between unique individuals from different backgrounds and a shared interest in the success of the company. A great DEI strategy can accomplish this.

If you’re ready to create a great culture, give us a call!


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