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date: 26 October 2020

Minority Employees’ Ethnic Identity in the Workplace

Abstract and Keywords

With an increase in the number of diverse groups of individuals (including ethnic minorities) entering organizations, managing diversity in the 21st-century workplace has become imperative. The workplace provides employees with opportunities to work interactively with others in diverse situations and to express their identities, including ethnic identity. Despite Western-based organizations’ adoption of strategies such as affirmative action in an effort to integrate diverse employees into their workplaces, members of ethnic minority groups may still experience great difficulties in obtaining instrumental and social support in these organizations. While some minorities may not outwardly manifest their ethnicity, in the majority of cases, ethnic identity forms a core identity of many individuals and employees do not leave this identity at the doorstep of the organization. In some countries, ethnic minorities have refused to assimilate into the majority workplace culture, and have maintained strong ethnic identities. By outwardly expressing their identities, ethnic minority employees face discrimination, stereotyping and micro-aggressive behaviors within the workplace, and in the majority of cases are relegated to dead-end lower level posts and face barriers to their career advancement. Also, having strong ethnic identities results in a conflict between minorities ethnic identities and the workplace culture. This is especially apparent in terms of religious beliefs and values. Embracing ethnic identity of migrants into organizational cultures is especially challenging for organizations these days, as many immigrants are highly skilled professionals that enter western corporations. They experience discrimination and not receiving support in order to advance their careers.

Keywords: stereotyping, microaggression, discrimination, identity threat, identity importance, migrants, immigrants, identity safety, ethnic identity achievement


Refugees, poverty in motherland, better lifestyles abroad, better job opportunities abroad, an increase in foreign nationals have all resulted in countries and workplaces becoming ethnically diverse (Cornell & Hartmann, 2007). With demographic changes taking place across continents, individuals, including ethnic minorities, are increasingly becoming part of the global workforce. Utsey, Chae, Brown, and Kelly (2002, p. 367) define ethnic identity as:

the set of ideals, values, behaviors, and attitudes one holds regarding one’s identity as a member of a specific social group. Conceptually, ethnic identity serves as a means to understand whether and to what degree a person has explored the meaning of his or her ethnicity (e.g., cultural values) and developed a sense of commitment to his or her ethnic heritage.

Ethnic identity includes a person’s culture, religion, language, and national origin, and it can also include integrating the beliefs and values of the larger culture with the beliefs and traditions of a person’s ethnic group (Utsey et al., 2002). Brah (2000) argues that considering ethnic identity lacks fixed meaning, and that the actual content of ethnic identity depends on the context. According to Proudford and Nkomo (2006), race results from social construction while biological and behavioral explanations are largely abandoned. A group can be both a racial group and an ethnic group. Thus, Pedis from South Africa are black African by race and a distinct ethnic group as well. This gives rise to racio-ethnic identity as groups can be conflated as some groups are both racial and ethnic (Cox & Nkomo, 1993).

According to Cornell and Hartmann (2007), it was expected of race and ethnicity to disappear as forces to be reckoned with in the 21st century. The latter half of the 20th century was supposed to see a weakening of racial and ethnic bonds. These and other seemingly parochial and other premodern connections were expected to decrease as a result of human action and consciousness to be replaced by identities that shape the modern world. In contemporary society and in the 21st-century workplace, ethnic identity is a central organizing concept because of an increase in the number of ethnically diverse individuals (Cornell & Hartmann, 2007). During the 1900s work on ethnic identity focused on ethnic groups of European descent (referred to as white ethnics) such as groups from Ireland and Poland. However, owing to changing global demographics, ethnic identity scholarship has expanded to include various groups such as Asian Indians, Asian Chinese, Hispanics, and Africans (Phinney, 1996).

The increase in ethnic diversity implies a need to have a more sophisticated understanding of ethnicity in the workplace, to recognize the role of ethnic identity, and to know how it manifests and is experienced in the workplace (Kenny & Briner, 2013). The workplace creates opportunities for expressing prejudices and for stereotyping and discriminating against fellow workers, and organizations can be places where societal practices of ethnic bias occur (Plaut, Thomas, & Hebl, 2014). Individuals do not leave their ethnic identities at the door when they step into the workplace, and those with marginalized ethnic identities are often the targets of discriminatory behavior (Carrim, 2012). Research by Reeves, McKinney, and Azam (2012) in U.S. organizations indicate that 62% of the Muslim women who wore the hijab in their sample experienced discrimination.

Ethnic identity is an important construct in the workplace as it influences how individuals interpret their work environment (Kenny & Briner, 2013). Above all, individuals define their ethnic identity internally (i.e., it is of internal importance), but they are also aware that other individuals do the same (i.e., it is of external importance); this suggests that ethnic identity is socially constructed and lacks fixed meaning. It is conceptualized as increasing in importance in reaction to situational cues for individuals (Forehand, Deshpandé, & Reed, 2002). If the importance of ethnic identity is not recognized in the workplace, it can give rise to negative experiences and perceptions (Hebl, Madera, & King, 2007).

Group identity is another important construct in the workplace: individuals who are part of an ethnic group may identify with that group and, in comparing their treatment relative to other groups, may become aware that they are being discriminated against in the organization (Goldman, Gutek, Stein, & Lewis, 2006; Kaiser & Pratt-Hyatt, 2009). Individuals from ethnic minority groups may engage in social identity management to decrease negative experiences. The risk is that in doing so, they suppress their identity (Madera, King, & Hebl, 2012). Hutnik (1991) indicates that ethnic minority groups are members of their own groups as well as the majority group.

In some countries, such as Canada and the United States, there is a greater awareness amongst minority individuals of ethnic identity, and of workplace discrimination, which has resulted in a resistance to cultural assimilation in the workplace (Prasad, Mills, Elmes, & Prasad, 1997). In a country such as South Africa, ethnic minorities are accommodated to a greater extent compared to those in Western countries. For example, Muslim males are allowed a longer lunch break on Fridays to pray in congregation at the local mosque (Carrim, 2015). However, considering that ethnic minorities from different countries vary, workplace assimilation will also vary along a continuum of full assimilation to total resistance.

The ethnic identity of minorities has also been empirically linked to social networks, recruitment, selection, retention, promotion, decision-making, performance, and cohesiveness (Carlsson & Rooth, 2007; Cox, Welch, & Nkomo, 2001; Holcomb-McCoy & Bradley, 2003)—key areas for organizational performance and career advancement.

In this article about ethnic identity, the challenges that ethnic minority employees face in the workplace from a social identity theory perspective will be traced, focusing on workplace discrimination, fluctuations in ethnic identity, and immigration inclusion. First, workplace experiences as aspects that intensely impact the ethnic identity of minority employees will be focused on. More specifically the focus is on minority employees’ lack of career advancement, which is influenced by various strategies that majority managers use to thwart these employees’ upward mobility. Particular attention is also paid to the use of microaggressive behaviors and micro-inequities that make ethnic minorities feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in the workplace. Ethnic minority individuals described as being solos (i.e., people who are alone/without others in a workplace) and who have minority status experience the behaviors of majority workplace groups that accentuate the importance of minority groups’ ethnic identities. Ethnic assignation is described in how it is used by majority group employees to make minority employees become more aware of their ethnic identities. Second, language as a barrier when it is used to discriminate against ethnic minorities in the workplace is explored; for instance, language barriers can disadvantage ethnic minorities during recruitment and selection processes. Even intellectual humor can be used in organizations to exclude ethnic minorities from majority work groups.

Another aspect pointed out in this article is that not all ethnic minority employees have a strong ethnic identity. However, of importance is that those who have, in particular those who uphold strong religious values, may clash with the organizational culture. A few examples to illustrate how religious adherence of ethnic minorities in the workplace has resulted in their dismissal are pointed out. Furthermore, how highly educated and professional immigrants/migrants are devalued in Western firms are pointed out. Many of them who occupy high positions in their organizations have strong ethnic identities, and firms cannot easily dismiss their personal identities. The article concludes by positing that identity safety is one way in which organizations can ensure that ethnic minorities and immigrants/migrants are included in the workplace.

Individual Factors

Ethnic Identity and the Individual

Ethnic identity is a dynamic construct that transforms over time and context, and differs across individuals (Phinney, 1993). Atkinson, Morten, and Sue (1993) emphasize the importance of ethnic minority group members, questioning and examining earlier assumptions and attitudes regarding ethnicity as a vital step toward identity achievement. Adolescents and young adults progress over time from a preexisting view of their ethnicity based on the attitudes of parents, extended family, communities, and society through an exploration phase where they engage in the culture and history of their group, eventually moving to a secure sense of their ethnicity. At this last stage, ethnic identity may or may not be important to them (Phinney, 1993). Ethnic identity achievement plays a role in the workplace. Achieving ethnic identity is a process whereby “individuals come to understand the implications of their ethnicity and make decisions about its role in their lives” (Phinney, 1993, p. 64). Ethnic minorities with high ethnic identity achievement have positive views about subjective norms relating to inclusive behavior, and they understand others and treat them with respect (Linnehan, Chrobot-Mason, & Konrad, 2006). Individuals who have high ethnic identity achievement spend time reflecting on ethnic issues and have come to terms with their own ethnic group membership (Linnehan et al., 2006). The process commences with a lack of awareness of ethnicity, followed by a period of enquiry and heightened awareness of ethnicity, and culminates in an acceptance and internalization of ethnicity (Phinney, 1993).

Within organizations, some minority employees try to maintain their ethnic identities because they are reluctant to give up their roots, culture, and language. However, full incorporation into the workplace is impaired for many ethnic minorities as their ethnic practices and values may be in conflict or incompatible with workplace schedules and standard work practices. For example, various religious groups cannot observe religious holidays or engage in daily required prayer schedules due to workplace policies about working hours and leave (Osipow & Littlejohn, 1995). Some religious practices are irreconcilable with workplace policies and practices. For instance, a sangoma (African traditional healer) from a black African religious group may wear the required traditional beads, white head gear, and a white painted face in accordance with his or her religious rites, yet such an appearance contravenes the norms of a Western workplace dress code (Carrim, 2015; Rycroft, 2011). In another case, five black African male officers working for the South African Department of Correctional Services received a written instruction to comply with the department’s dress code and to remove their dreadlocks. When they refused to do so for religious reasons, they were dismissed (Carrim, 2015; Rycroft, 2011). An example that had a different outcome is of a worker at Nampak South Africa who was dismissed after he had disappeared for 14 days without notifying his employer of his whereabouts. The employee stated that he had gone to a traditional healer in a rural area, intending to stay only for a week, but the healer requested him to stay longer. He had no means of contacting his employer during the 14 days. His drinking problem had since been resolved. The court commissioner found that in a country like South Africa one could not rely solely on Western medicine and one could not deny the employee’s need to seek alternate medical assistance. Based on the commissioner’s advice, the employer reinstated the worker (Rycroft, 2011). Ghumman and Jackson (2010) conducted a study of 219 American Muslim females in the workplace. The results of their study indicated that Muslim women who wore the headscarf had lower expectations of receiving job offers compared to those who did not wear the headscarf. Practicing one’s religious beliefs becomes difficult as evidenced in the Eweida vs British Airway case held in Britain in 2010. Eweida was employed at the check-in counter at British Airways. She was refused permission to wear the cross over her uniform as she was informed by her supervisor that this was in breach of the dress code. British Airways, on the one hand, allowed Sikhs to wear the turban and Muslim women to wear the hijab as the items were required by their respective religions, and these articles could not be concealed under their uniforms. Eweida’s cross, on the other hand, could be concealed under her garment. Also, Eweida did not believe that wearing the cross was “mandatory” in her religion. Eweida’s claims of direct and indirect discrimination were unsuccessful in court (Vickers, 2010).

However, not all ethnic minorities maintain their cultural and religious norms in the workplace. As indicated by Carrim (2017), some Muslim ethnic minorities within corporate South Africa outwardly practice and manifest their religious values whereas others are not concerned about adhering to their religious practices.

In addition, not all ethnic minorities manifest their group social identities in the workplace. When suppressing their group identity, ethnic minority employees may become aware of co-workers’ discriminatory behavior toward those who suppress their identities (Barron et al., 2011) because co-workers may make prejudicial remarks or behave in a discriminatory fashion when they are not aware that members of the targeted groups are present (Madera et al., 2012).

Ethnic minorities may affirm their identity in various ways. For example, Segura (1992) mentions that the aim of some of the actions of ethnic minorities in organizations may be to serve their ethnic communities. For instance, ethnic minorities who work in positions that provide a service to ethnic minority students may have a reward system that affirms their ethnic identity while doing their job. Also, ethnic minority employees may remain in management jobs even when they experience isolation or discomfort as they believe that their success will open up opportunities for others in their ethnic groups.

Ethnic Identity Awareness and Assignation

There are several reasons why minorities become aware of their ethnic identities in the workplace (Wharton, 1992): they perceive discrimination against them; there are only a few individuals from the same ethnic group in a work group; and ethnic identity is distinctive in a particular work setting. Thus, when minorities can be described as being the only individuals representing their ethnic group (i.e., solos) in a particular workplace, they become acutely aware of their ethnic identity (Kenny & Briner, 2013). When the ethnic identity is regarded in an unfavorable manner, for example, having a stigmatized identity, such as being a Muslim employee, this may result in job dissatisfaction for the individual (Kenny & Briner, 2013). The individual employee’s solo status increases the awareness of the social identity of being an ethnic minority, which can lead to this group being stereotyped and feeling pressured to perform at a higher standard than colleagues in majority groups (Niemann & Dovidio, 1998).

Individuals also become aware of their ethnic identities as a result of stereotyping. For example, a study by Calliste (1996) regarding stereotyping of white and black nurses in Canada indicated that black nurses were stereotyped as being less competent, less skilled, and less disciplined compared to white female nurses. This type of stereotyping may result in a greater awareness among ethnic minority employees of their ethnic identities. Awareness of ethnic identity may result in some ethnic minority individuals feeling that their professional identities are under scrutiny and challenged (Roberts, 2005). Thus, when individuals perform in settings in which their ethnic group is negatively stereotyped, they experience a phenomenon called “stereotype threat” or “stigma consciousness,” which may lead to a lack of motivation, trust, and may result in underperformance in the workplace (Brown & Pinel, 2003; Steele, 2010; Walton, Murphy, & Ryan, 2015). Alternatively, as Madera et al. (2012) indicate, when minorities’ ethnic identities are not negatively stereotyped within the workplace, employees experience job satisfaction and their turnover decisions to leave decrease.

Ethnic assignation can also occur in the workplace. Ethnic assignation refers to instances where ethnic minority individuals are made aware of their ethnicity when co-workers refer to their ethnic identity in workplace interactions (Kenny & Briner, 2013). Giving importance to ethnic identity may make ethnic minorities feel uncomfortable (Kenny & Briner, 2013). When ethnic assignation takes place, ethnic minorities feel they are being defined on the basis of one irrelevant element instead of on more relevant elements. Ethnic assignation has two triggers. The first is when individuals appear to be occupationally distinctive, which means that they occupy positions of power that to some may seem unusual. For example, when a female Asian engineer manages white male engineers, this situation may seem unusual to some employees as they cannot comprehend how someone from this particular ethnic background can occupy such a position, considering the norm that males occupy male-dominated positions (Kenny & Briner, 2013). One tenet of social identity theory related to ethnic assignation is that when ethnic minorities feel that their ethnic identities are being devalued, they can either distance themselves from their ethnic background or they can change the way the group is perceived (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Thus, when their ethnic identities are negatively stereotyped, ethnic minorities may tone down their ethnic appearance, for example, by not wearing hair in ethnic styles and not donning ethnic dress (Opie & Phillips, 2015). They may opt to wear business suits instead so as to strategically influence others’ impression of their ethnic identity with the aim of achieving a desired outcome. Such strategic behavior is referred to as “social identity-based impression management” (Kenny & Briner, 2013).

The second trigger for ethnic assignation is when ethnic minorities are the only persons from their ethnic group at a workplace event. Since ethnic minorities feel they are “ambassadors” or “representatives” of their ethnic group, they try to present their group in a positive light. In such situations employees feel their ethnic identity more strongly because they believe they are judged by colleagues based on their ethnicity (Kenny & Briner, 2013).

Ethnic Identity and Well-Being

Ethnic identity is considered an important variable as regards the health of minority individuals (Wexler, DiFluvio, & Burke, 2009). Research findings about the relationship between ethnic identity and well-being have been inconsistent. On the positive side, ethnic identity may act as a compensatory resilience factor and decrease the extent to which minorities experience discrimination. Furthermore, in-group ties protect minorities against the effect of discrimination on self-esteem, socio-emotional conditions, and depression (Bombay, Matheson, & Anisman, 2010). On the negative side, individuals who maintain their ethnic identity may experience ethnic discrimination in the workplace, which is associated with negative health outcomes such as depression, high blood pressure, substance use, and other health problems (De Castro, Gee, Takeuchi, 2008; Gaylord-Harden, Ragsdale, Mandara, Richards, & Petersen, 2007; Schneider et al., 2000). Workplace discrimination experienced by ethnic minorities has been associated with poor mental health, alcohol dependence, coronary calcification, depressive disorders and low birthweight of offspring (De Castro et al., 2008).

Ethnic discrimination and harassment are also related to increased levels of job stress in the workplace, causing ethnic minorities to distance themselves physically from work by being absent or tardy, or psychologically by drinking or taking drugs (Schneider et al., 2000). At a psychological level, discrimination related to one’s ethnic identity results in feelings of anxiety, anger, helplessness, paranoia, hopelessness, resentment, frustration, fear (Utsey et al., 2002), depression, and anxiety (Gaylord-Harden et al., 2007).

Workplace Factors

Career Advancement

Perceptions of discrimination within the workplace are strongly correlated with ethnic identity (Barron, Hebl, & King, 2011). Within the workplace, ethnic identity is reinforced through discrimination (both perceived and objective) and social exclusion by members of the majority group (Nelson & Tienda, 1985). In some instances, discrimination is accentuated because certain ethnic groups are placed in jobs at particular levels only. By implication, organizations structure jobs in a way that reaffirms minority employees’ sense of themselves as members of a particular ethnic group (Segura, 1992). In some industries, ethnic minorities may remain at the lowest rung on the corporate ladder and have minimal prospects of career advancement. For example, research has shown that, within the hospitality environment, ethnic minority women remain invisible at the front reception desk or in customer contact jobs. Ethnic minority women are typically employed in jobs where they are invisible to customers and they are appointed to do dirty tasks (e.g., as cleaners) (Adib & Guerrier, 2003). Carrim (2018) also found that within the public sector in South Africa, black African ethnic groups who were not in power were relegated to lower-level positions compared to those who were in power. Thus, if Zulus, for example, were in power, employees in the public sector indicated that the chances of Zulus being promoted were much higher compared to other black African ethnic groups. In some cases ethnic minorities who are at higher levels in organizations are subject to less discrimination than those at lower levels (Sanchez & Brock, 1996). This implies that they are discriminated against based on their low job status and not their ethnic identity.

The ethnic identity of minority employees may result in their exclusion in the workplace from group membership and important decision-making, resulting in less access to support, all of which can jeopardize their career advancement (Chow & Crawford, 2004; Chrobot-Mason & Thomas, 2002). Additionally, the unequal treatment of ethnic minorities, especially the limited access they are given to informal networks in the workplace, hinder their career advancement (Chow & Crawford, 2004). For example, a study by Carrim (2012) related to the career advancement of Indian women managers in corporate South Africa indicated that during meetings senior white male managers would consult with white male managers regarding the women’s departments as well as other ethnic minority males’ departments, thus excluding them from important decisions.

The formation of in-groups and out-groups may also become a barrier to promotion for ethnic minorities. The subjective uncertainty reduction theory explains that people try to eliminate the unfamiliar from their interactions and are inclined to promote and choose employees they are familiar with (Holder-Winfield, 2014). Thus, intergroup bias, which leads to stereotyping, discrimination, and prejudice, becomes an important component in the career advancement of minorities.

Schneider, Hitlan, and Radhakrishnan (2000) point out that, in some work settings, members of ethnic minority groups may not privy to vital job information: they are not informed about certain important events and are given wrong dates and times of some workplace functions. Within such settings, ethnic minority individuals are targets of ethnic jokes, derogatory ethnic comments, and ethnic slurs. Schneider et al. (2000) further point out that since ethnic minorities experience workplace discrimination, they have a dim view of organizational policies and procedures compared to their white counterparts, and they also have more negative work attitudes and are less satisfied with promotional opportunities. They may find it difficult to make it to the top of the organizational hierarchy as they do not fit the organizational prototypes (Chow & Crawford, 2004).

Microaggressive Behavior and Micro-Inequities

In some instances, ethnic minorities are victims of the microaggressive behavior of colleagues and supervisors. Microaggressive behaviors displayed toward ethnic minorities include, but are not limited to, questioning their qualifications and intelligence, treating them as second-class citizens, pathologizing their culture and values, criticizing the quality of their speech and language, treating them like foreigners and criminals, and not promoting them as a result of these perceptions (Rivera, Forquer, & Rangel, 2010). Microaggression can be harmful as it is a chronic stressor that causes physical and psychological harm (Carter, 2007). Microaggressive behavior toward ethnic minorities makes them feel disrespected, ignored, unrewarded, unrecognized, invalidated, and delegitimized (Torres-Harding, Andrade, Diaz, & Crist, 2012).

Micro-inequities, a notion coined by Mary Rowe (1990), can also influence ethnic minorities. These are defined as “discriminatory . . . damaging characteristics of an environment, as these characteristics affect a person not indigenous to that environment” (Holder-Winfield, 2014, p. xxii). Examples of micro-inequity behavior are a person’s tone of voice and gestures that subtly tell others whether they are accepted and valued or whether they are outsiders and deficient. Micro-inequities that occur can diminish individuals’ self-esteem, causing them to question their capabilities (Holder-Winfield, 2014). Ten micro-inequities in the workplace identified by Holder-Winfield (2014) that affect minorities are: the quality of their work assignments, insensitivity toward their ethnicity, isolation from work groups, exclusion from mentoring, misperceptions about minorities’ performance, bullying and assumptions, which relate to treatment from others in the workplace. While annoyances and slights, first-generation hurdles, dual identity and the ability to recover from mistakes appear to be internal items.

Language Challenges

Another area where ethnic identity becomes pivotal is the role of language in the workplace. Small talk, polite language, humor, and speaking the ethnic language have been used by ethnic minorities to accomplish workplace goals (Friedman & Kuipers, 2013). For instance, humor has been used by ethnic minority managers to create a certain type of workplace culture as well as a particular leadership style (Holmes, Marra, & Schnurr, 2008; Schnurr, Marra, & Holmes, 2007). Humor, on the one hand, creates social cohesion and solidarity in the workteam. On the other hand, inside jokes and sarcasm can exclude ethnic minorities, especially when it is ironic and ambiguous (Kuipers, 2009). Discourse is also used to negotiate different aspects of social identity and can reinforce and highlight boundaries between diverse social groups and create a them and an us situation but in an acceptable manner (Holmes & Marra, 2002; Hyland & Paltridge, 2013). Storytelling enables a socially acceptable and creative strategy for constructing ethnic identities. Within a mainstream “white” organizational cultural context, storytelling can provide a socially acceptable and creative strategy for constructing an ethnic minority identity. For example, Holmes and Marra, and Schnurr (2008) found in their study with Māori employees that despite English being the dominant language of work in the organization, Māori cultural principles were pervasive. For Māori minority employees, ethnicity was pivotal in all their workplace communication; they had well-established culturally-based norms that reinforced the ways in which they interacted, and the ways in which they constructed their ethnic identities (Marra & Holmes, 2008). Thus, in Holmes, Marra, and Schnurr's (2008) study, the stories told at work contributed not only to the construction of the ethnic identity of Māori employees, but also provided a means for co-constructing a distinct Māori identity for the group.

Narratives can also be used positively (or proactively) by ethnic minority individuals to construct their professional identities, for example, as managers (Carrim, 2018; Mullany, 2006). Stories at work are not only used to construct the identity of individual employees, but also to co-construct a distinct professional identity of an ethnic minority group (Marra & Holmes, 2008), for example, to indicate that they are hard-working or passive (Carrim & Nkomo, 2016; Hyland & Paltridge, 2013). Ethnicity acts as a setting for workplace communication because ethnically-based values underlie the way in which ethnic minorities interact and construct their ethnic identities (Holmes, Vine, & Marra, 2009).

A workplace meeting, in the sense that it is a form of communication, is a setting where ethnic identity is manifested. Individuals from different ethnic groups engage in different ways during meetings, and these differences influence workplace meeting norms. When major differences exist between the norms of different ethnic groups relating to meetings, a breakdown in communication can occur, leading to failed business relationships (Spencer-Oatey & Xing, 2003; Sunaoshi, 2005). Due to miscommunication during job and promotional interviews, the career prospects of ethnic minorities may be diminished (Campbell & Roberts, 2007). The problems that migrants experience in communicating can sometimes be attributed to a lack of understanding culturally different communication styles rather than a lack of proficiency in English (Rose, 2005).

Nevertheless, ethnic minorities who are bilingual but whose first language is not English have been negatively affected in the workplace. Court cases indicate that linguistic practices in the workplace are dictated by employers and not by employees (Gibson, 2004). The judicial system disempowers minority employees by upholding the belief that language is not part of ethnic identity, especially in cases where the minority employee is able to speak the majority language. As long as the employer makes a case of business necessity, even when the case is weak, the court does not regard an “English-only” workplace policy as discriminatory (Gibson, 2004).

Research indicates that ethnic minorities’ communication problems can stem from lack of understanding of culturally different communication styles and are also attributed to the biased behavior of native English speakers rather than English proficiency (Rose, 2005). The use of language is vital in securing a job and thereafter maintaining collegial relationships with colleagues (Holmes & Riddiford, 2010). Hosoda, Nguyen, and Stone-Romero (2012) investigated the accents of ethnic minorities in a U.S. workplace. The result of their study indicated that compared to applicants with an American‐English accent, individuals with Mexican‐Spanish accents were disadvantaged when applying for software engineering jobs. Mexican‐Spanish‐accent applicants were rated as less suitable for the job and perceived as less likely to be promoted to management positions. Also, fewer participants decided to hire applicants with Mexican‐Spanish accents than the standard American English‐accented applicants. Similarly, in New Zealand many ethnic minorities are unemployed or underemployed as employers state that lack of communication skills are one of the main barriers to hiring decisions (Holmes & Riddiford, 2010). However, for many ethnic minorities, language forms part of their ethnic identity, and to relinquish their home language is to relinquish a powerful and significant part of their personal and social identities as minority groups (Johnson, 2000).

Immigrant and Migrant Inclusion

It is essential to consider the ethnic identity of immigrants/migrants who enter a new society, in particular if they belong to a minority group in the host country (Pio, 2005). Immigrant refers to ethnic minorities who have permanently immigrated to another country, while migrant refers to individuals who are temporarily in another country (Pio, 2005; Wong, 2006). In countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and South Africa where highly qualified and professional immigrants and migrants are recruited by firms and are successful, immigrant ethnic identity can no longer be regarded as baggage that can be packed and unpacked as minorities retain ethnic social networks and don’t necessarily fully assimilate (Wong, 2006).

Ties with ethnic backgrounds do not just vanish when people enter a foreign country. This is especially relevant where patterns of transnational migration allow recent immigrants to keep abreast of their ethnic and social ties while traversing cultural and national borders (Wong, 2006). However, due to their ethnic identity, highly qualified migrants can also be placed in lower-level positions in organizations or taken on as casual labor (Pio, 2005). In such cases, migrants, even if they were not aware of their ethnic identity in their native land, now become aware of such an identity: their ethnic identities emerge and are reinforced in the workplace as a result of the treatment by the host employers and employees (Pio, 2005). Immigration causes depreciation of skills, human capital, and knowledge as these are not transferable across international borders (Segura, 1992; Shinnar, 2007). Exacerbating these problems is that immigrants often have difficulty in finding mentors in the workplace, and this limits their ability to build social capital. A lack of social capital leads to an inability to build the social networks that facilitate career progression. Therefore, a lack of social capital has detrimental consequences for immigrants’ career progression (Shinnar, 2007). In addition, Shinnar states, the glass ceiling prevents ethnic minorities from progressing in their careers. Al Ariss (2010) also maintains that highly qualified migrants face barriers to their career mobility as they may not have the correct work permits or visas and are placed in positions that do not suit their qualifications.

The number of immigrants in Europe, Australia, South Africa, Canada, and the United States is growing, which means that larger numbers of employees with largely different ethnic identities than the host population enter the workforce. Many migrants benefit from the same opportunities of a globalized economy for mobility as highly specialized professionals and entrepreneurs. Destination countries compete to attract highly skilled professionals through privileged rules of entry and residence, while refugees and manual laborers experience discrimination and exclusion (Castles, de Haas, & Miller, 2014). New forms of mobility are emerging such as mobility in search of better or different lifestyles, retirement migration, circular or repeated movement. Migrants can change the social, economic, and demographic structures and create new cultural and ethnic identities that often result in questioning national identity (Castles et al., 2014). When migrants enter the workforce and the assimilation of these ethnic minorities into the host culture takes place at a slow pace, it results in their feeling alienated within their organizations (Carrim, 2012). Hence, organizations that have an ethnically diverse workforce and have employed new immigrants and migrants may need to introduce diversity initiatives to educate all employees in respecting and embracing minority employees because the ethnic identities of employees have implications for issues of diversity and inclusion in organizations (Prasad et al., 1997). Moreover, organizations’ policies and practices need to be adjusted in order to accommodate ethnically diverse employees who come from various countries of origin so that employees feel motivated and engaged in their respective workplaces. However, new ethnic minority immigrants and migrants need to educate themselves regarding the organizational culture within the host country so that when they are invited for interviews and are recruited into the workplace, they do not inadvertently cause offense, irritation, or transgress workplace norms (Holmes & Riddiford, 2010).

As Pio (2005) indicates, ethnic identity is a useful construct for comprehending the influence of ethnicity on ethnic minorities in the workplace, and is beneficial in explaining individuals’ intentions and perceptions during the recruitment process and in professional careers. Immigrants’ experiences of discrimination and their struggle for recognition of their work qualifications and identity are central to their ethnic identity at work (Pio, 2005).

Identity Safety

Identity safety is proposed as one way in which ethnic minority immigrants and migrants can be included in the workplace (Markus, Steele, & Steele, 2000). Practicing identity safety reduces the potential negative consequences of giving importance to ethnic group identity in the workplace. The goal should be to acknowledge group identity differences and to create a setting in which these differences are accepted and mutually respected so that they do not become a limiting factor. In the context of the current article, identity safety’s role is to rid the workplace of the potential for ethnic downward formation, which involves evaluation on the basis of ethnic group identity. Where ethnic downward constitution occurs, individuals with differing ethnic identities are exposed to a variety of devaluing and limiting representations, possible judgments, historical narratives, treatments, expectations, interactions, and affective reactions (Thomas, 1993). Thus, identity safety becomes a prerequisite for full inclusion.

The issues that ethnic minorities face in the workplace have to be addressed, otherwise these minorities may continue feeling threatened and inclusion may not be achieved (Markus et al., 2000). Various strategies can be used to create an inclusive environment for ethnic minorities in the workplace. For example, human resource personnel and line managers can promote respect for minorities who want to manifest their ethnic identities in the workplace. Human resource personnel can have a zero-tolerance anti-discrimination policy against those who overtly and/or covertly discriminate against ethnic minorities in the workplace. A day in the year can be allocated to learn about ethnic minorities. For instance, a Russian can learn about the Egyptian culture and demonstrate to the rest of the employees in the department about the type of food they eat, their ways of eating, and dance style.

Ethnic identity is a complex phenomenon and one that organizations will need to embrace if they want to be inclusive.

Further Readings

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