Research Findings

How managers shape racialized employee networks in the workplace

February 4, 2020

Diversity is increasingly recognized as important in the workplace, be it for performance, legitimacy, or social justice reasons, and schools as workplaces are no exception. Three recent trends in education point to the importance of a racially diverse teacher workforce for better student outcomes, especially for racial minority students. 

First, studies in education continually show gains in gifted placement, attendance, and achievement for racial minority students assigned to a racial minority teacher. Second, such “racial matching” is not available to many racial minority students because of racial segregation in schools. While more than 50% of US public school children are nonwhite, only 20% of public school teachers in the US are nonwhite. Third, nonwhite teachers have higher levels of turnover than white teachers.

We need a deeper understanding of not only how schools recruit teachers of color, but also how organizational conditions in schools can better retain teachers of color. These insights can be applied to similar organizational settings where diversity management is consequential for client/customer experiences and outcomes (e.g., hospitals, retail), or to any workplace concerned with racial equity in employees’ access to workplace resources post-hire.

My own research shows how principals strongly affect teachers’ working conditions by influencing race relations in the organization. This study adds to existing evidence that working conditions in schools are not simply a function of who attends, but of the management quality and rigorous leadership practices enacted by school principals. 

To investigate issues pertaining to race among school employees, I conducted a multi-site ethnography of schools as workplaces. I selected schools in one city with differing racial composition of teachers (some majority-white, some majority-black). I interviewed and shadowed about 100 teachers in five traditional public high schools over one year. I also interviewed 20 school personnel, including principals. In the beginning, I thought my research would be about teachers. In part, it was. In the end, it was equally about principals.

While my focus was on employee behavior, my ethnographic observations revealed the central role of the manager (i.e., the principal) in shaping the social climate in which employees could relate to one another. 

I found striking differences in the climates created by principals for different groups of teachers: white-minority teachers (i.e., white teachers working among approximately 60-70% black and other-race colleagues) versus black-minority teachers (i.e., black teachers working among approximately 85-90% white colleagues). Especially in these numerical minority teachers’ in-group relationships (i.e., bonds with fellow white or black colleagues, respectively), I noticed that principals could either facilitate or hamper how quickly, freely, and broadly teachers could build networks of support for themselves. 

Consider the following scenarios. A white teacher in a majority-black school (in both students and faculty) first heard about the job from a white teacher who lives in her neighborhood. Once at the school, she forms relationships quickly with fellow white colleagues. The principal assigns her to a classroom near other white teachers, with whom she feels “united.” These arrangements tell her that hanging out with fellow minority white teachers is okay. 

Conversely, consider a minority black teacher working in a majority-white faculty with a majority of white students. She is not hired via incumbent referral. She does not know anyone there and forming relationships at work takes a very long time. Fellow black teachers’ classrooms are located far away from hers. Furthermore, at faculty meetings, she is told by a principal not to sit with fellow black teachers; she and her black colleagues are told to spread out. 

In the 16 faculty meetings I attended at these schools, such “spreading out” was prevalent. The problems these teachers encountered are shared by teachers across the country. In matters as intimate as their own racial identity and as communal as their teacher-teacher networks, the principal plays a central role.

My close observation of teachers across the five schools tracked not only the climate in which they worked, and what their relationships with in-group members looked like, but also how much work assistance and resources they could leverage through these relationships. Teachers who worked in accommodating social climates (i.e. white minorities) were more likely to establish relationships offering greater instrumental support at a faster pace than teachers who worked in restrictive social climates (i.e., black minorities). Differences in the type and rate of forming new relationships help explain gaps in resource access among employees.

As I spoke with principals, they were largely unaware of the impact of the social dynamics they helped create in their schools. The race of the principals did not match that of the minority group of teachers (in all but one case). They did not think of their informal practices, namely the ways they used incumbent referrals, sorted employees across physical space, or intervened in select employees’ informal socializing, strategically. 

Yet principals’ subconscious actions in terms of sorting and policing teachers had consequences for how well teachers did in the school. The principals set up on-ramps to workplace success for white numerical minorities and a maze lengthening the road to success for black numerical minorities. 

These findings should be of interest to anyone concerned with how race shapes the work lives of semi-professionals, such as teachers, who represent the 6th largest occupational category in the U.S. What’s the next step? We have to recognize that principals, not just teachers, play a key role in both the social and academic dynamics within a school. Accordingly, principals should be evaluated on their roles in both areas.

Read more

Jennifer L. Nelson. “How Organizational Minorities Form and Use Social Ties: Evidence from Teachers in Majority-White and Majority-Black Schools” in American Journal of Sociology 2019.

Image: gdsteam via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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