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HR’s Guide To Acknowledging Employee Identity in the Workplace

Every employee is a unique individual with their own identity. While you want employees to fit the organizational identity, they shouldn’t feel the need to suppress their identity in the process. HR should take the lead in creating policies, structures, and a culture that supports employee identity in the workplace.

Understanding Employee Identity and Embracing Diversity and Inclusion

Employee identity is often watered down to a personnel number and a profile that includes demographics such as gender, age, nationality and race. What HR may fail to recognize is the person behind the labels and how their identity shows up in the workplace. For example, security staff may subject Muslim employees to extra security checks because they harbor biases of Muslims being a terrorist threat.

Employee identity links closely to employee experience. If employees don’t feel accepted or feel victimized because of their identity, they are likely to have a negative employee experience. When employees can’t be authentic in the workplace, it can affect their job performance.

Fostering a sense of belonging creates a positive employee experience. The benefits include a more engaged workforce, higher productivity levels, less absenteeism and lower employee turnover rates.

Recognizing the Intersectionality of Identity

Most employees don’t carry only one identity. Multiple identities can intersect in a way that places an employee at a disadvantage. For example, a Black woman with a disability has three identities (race, gender and disability). This combination of identities can influence how co-workers perceive her ability to perform her job and restrict her advancement in the organization.

Studies show that employees belonging to two or more underrepresented groups tend to experience more discrimination and fewer opportunities in the workplace.

According to a study by McKinsey & Company, 21% of C-suite leaders in the US are women. Of that, only 4% are women of color, and only 1% are Black women. The 2018 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium indicates that 28.6% of Black Americans with disabilities aged 18-64 had a job, compared to 73.7% of Black people without disabilities.

It’s important for HR to take proactive steps to guard against workplace discrimination and inequality based on biases.

Creating Inclusive Policies and Practices

Organizations should create safe spaces for employees to show their identities without the fear of ridicule, bullying or discrimination. The first step towards building an inclusive workplace culture is creating policies to support it. This may include the following:

  • A recruitment policy that promotes fair hiring practices.
  • A diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policy that allows for all employees to receive fair treatment and access to opportunities for growth in the organization.
  • Non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies that protect employees from harmful behavior with serious consequences to offenders.
  • A policy on workplace accommodations that could include religious accommodations, flexible working arrangements and accommodations for people with disabilities.

HR should provide channels for employees to report discrimination and harassment toward themselves or other employees. The organization should take these reports seriously, investigate them and take corrective action. Depending on the severity of the incident, this could mean terminating the offending party’s employment.  

Implementing DEI Training and Education

We don’t share the workplace with only people who share our race, culture, beliefs and personal views. We cross paths with people from different backgrounds. Negative biases towards these differences can result in conflict and create a toxic workplace environment. HR can address cultural differences with diversity, equity and inclusion training.

Your DEI training program should create awareness and understanding of different cultures and identities. It should educate employees and the leadership on the value of a diverse workforce and help them overcome biases, some of which may be unconscious.

Diversity and inclusion training takes employees out of their comfort zones, challenging their preconceived ideas. Understanding the lived experiences of their co-workers expands employees’ worldviews and can make them more empathetic towards one another.

Fostering a Culture of Belonging

A sense of belonging is a basic human need. When your organization doesn’t meet the need for belonging, employees are unlikely to stick around. According to McKinsey’s Great Attrition Survey, the top three reasons employees cited for quitting their jobs during the Great Resignation of 2021 were:

  • not feeling valued by their employers (54%)
  • not feeling valued by their managers (52%)
  • not feeling a sense of belonging at their companies (51%)

Here’s how HR can bolster a sense of belonging in the organization:

1. Promote open communication around diversity, equity and inclusion. This could be through DEI training, discussion forums and one-on-one communication with employees.

2. Get the leadership to champion DEI initiatives in the organizations. Changing organizational culture starts at the top.

3. Support managers in building inclusive teams and addressing cultural clashes.

4. Conduct regular organizational assessments where employees can provide honest feedback on their workplace experiences.

5. Take employees’ concerns around inclusion and belonging seriously and address any hostile behavior they bring to your attention.

Key Takeaways

Employee identity is closely aligned with the employee experience. If employees don’t feel accepted, they’re likely to seek that acceptance at an organization with a more inclusive culture. HR should create awareness around cultural differences, highlight potential biases and develop DEI policies that support diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB).