New Research from Erin Reid Explores the Boundaries of Work and Non-Work Identities

in Emerging Research, Faculty, News, Organizational Behavior
June 6th, 2013

From Ramarajan, L., & Reid, E. (Forthcoming). Shattering the myth of separate worlds: Negotiating non-work identities at work. Academy of Management Review.

How much of our self is defined by our work?

Assistant Professor Erin Reid

Assistant Professor Erin Reid

Now, with fundamental changes in the social organization of work, this fairly simple question has become surprisingly difficult to answer. Where, for example, do small business owners’ professional and personal identities begin and end? What about those of doctors, oil rig workers, or priests?

A new paper by Erin Reid, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at Boston University School of Management, and Harvard Business School’s Lakshmi Ramarajan, brings the importance of these questions to light. Their article, forthcoming in the Academy of Management Review, departs from a decades-old “myth of separate worlds” about the personal and professional, as well as from the limits of past management research on identity, which has primarily focused on at-work identity.

Based on an extensive review of research on management, gender and work, work-family, and sociology, Reid and Ramarajan develop a new theory of how people manage their non-work identities in the workplace, arguing that exploring the former has become increasingly important to understanding productivity, employee engagement and well-being, and power dynamics in the latter.

A New Focus on the Importance of External Identities

Attributing the blurring of work and non-work life domains to the combined effects of declining job stability, rising workplace diversity, and the growth of communication technologies, the authors argue that many workers—whether an Indian call center employee posing as an American, a priest juggling a parish and a same-sex relationship, or a female engineer modifying her gender expression to increase perceived competence—must renegotiate the boundaries of their identities.

Due to a combination of work and life pressures and personal preferences, workers develop different strategies for negotiating gender, family, nationality, and other “non-work” selves in the workplace, Reid and Ramarajan find. Varying degrees of alignment between one’s preferences and the pressures they face both affects how workers manage their non-work identities and impacts their experience of the power relationship between themselves and their organization or occupation. “The greater the alignment,” the authors write, “the more likely people are to remain unaware of this power relationship or experience it as enabling.” Conversely, “the greater the misalignment, the more likely people are to acutely experience the power relationship as a constraint.”

Different Strategies, Different Selves

Through a literature review of 117 articles and books published between 1990-2012 or cited in research from this period, and using direct commentary from workers about their efforts to negotiate their non-work identities at work, Reid and Ramarajan create a matrix encompassing various pressures, preferences, strategies, and outcomes.

They identify pressures and preferences as either:

  • Inclusionary, wherein people are encouraged to merge their work and non-work identities, or do so by choice; or
  • Exclusionary, wherein workers are encouraged to keep their identities separate, or do so by choice.

The authors then map different worker strategies within varying combinations of pressures, preferences, and outcomes:

  • Assenting strategies (such as luxury resort workers’ preferences for non-committal friendships and romantic relationships, due to a career requirement for frequent relocation), which are likely to improve workers’ well-being in the short term. However, in the long term, well-being may decline.
  • Compliance strategies (exhibited, for instance, by a lesbian female priest who chooses to hide her sexual identity), which may appear positive for the organization, but can negatively impact well-being and may in the long run harm productivity and efficiency.
  • Resistance strategies (found among Israeli Foreign Service employees who responded to employer pressure to curtail boisterous conduct by playing loud music), which may reduce commitment and be problematic in the short term, though offer potential for long-term positive change.
  • Inversion strategies (whereby people neither comply with nor resist pressure but instead try to reinterpret the pressure to align with their personal preferences), which tends to offer positive short-term consequences with more ambiguous long-term effects.

Offering their map of findings as a foundation for future study, Reid and Ramarajan urge continued research on the symbiosis of work and non-work identities, as well as its critical consequences for organizations.

Read more about “Shattering the myth of separate worlds: Negotiating non-work identities at work.”