Does it pay to be yourself at work? UNT researcher explores the conflicts of differing work identities.

University of North Texas doctoral student in the College of Business Department of Management, Kathryn Ostermeier, is studying how our different identities at work and at home impact us on the job. Ostermeier wanted to better understand whether organizational and professional identities can harm – or help – on-the-job performance.

“When individuals experience identity conflicts between their organizational and professional identities, it’s not good for them or their organization,” said Ostermeier. “You’re more likely to feel emotionally exhausted at work, to feel stressed at home and to potentially even leave your job.”

For her research, “A Foot in Two Worlds: Exploring Organizational and Professional Dual Identification,” Ostermeier looked at more than 400 health professionals and academic employees in the U.S. While in-depth, qualitative research exists on the topic, there is little large-scale, quantitative research that would help experts better understand dual work identities from a broader perspective.

What she found was that multiple identities can hurt work performance if the individual hasn’t reconciled the identities. For example, a female worker who is both a mom and an employee may feel conflicted regarding the two roles.

She added that whereas most employees’ work is defined by the job description, employees often put in discretionary effort, “which includes behavior that you’re not paid for but that support the organization’s environment and are necessary for the organization to function.”

This can include a teacher who stays late to tutor a student or to meet with a parent whose child is struggling academically.

“But when you’re emotionally depleted, because you’re balancing different identities, you’re less likely to engage in those discretionary behaviors.”

However, multiple identities can also be a benefit to individuals if they have found a way to resolve the differences in the identities.

She adds that organizations and managers can help with this by supporting both a strong organizational identity and a strong professional identity.

“Identities can be a resource. Organizations are not passive players. For instance, they can support professional development,” she says, noting that paying for employees to attend professional conferences, to get new certifications or offering reimbursements that support a range of professional identities can all help.

“Instead of multiple identities being a burden, it can actually be a boon that reduces the potential negative outcomes – such as someone leaving the company,” she says. “For organizations and managers, the takeaway is that they really can affect their employees’ happiness at work.”

Ostermeier completed a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Texas A&M University in 2012, and her M.B.A. from the University of Texas at Tyler in 2014. She graduates this May and will begin a new role as an assistant professor of management at Bryant University in Rhode Island in August 2018.