Correctional officers: support, commitment and ethnicity.
According to a January 2006 interview with the director of Arizona's Department of Corrections, "Turnover has been in the 25 percent range for a long time, and it is higher than that now. ... In fiscal year 2005 it rose to 27.5 percent" (The Arizona Republic, 2006). In Idaho, the 2005 turnover rate for correctional officers was 23.7 percent (Idaho DOC, 2006) and in 2004 the Kentucky DOC "hired 627 new correctional officers and experienced a turnover of 27.8 percent" (Kentucky DOC, 2005). In 2003, Tennessee experienced a 23.6 percent turnover of its correctional officers, with the turnover rate for officers with less than a year of experience being 53.6 percent (Demsky, 2004). Finally, in 2000 and 2001, the turnover rate for all Virginia DOC officers with less than one year of tenure was 30.5 percent. In 2002, 2003 and 2004, the turnover rate for all correctional officers in the agency was 12.6 percent, 13.9 percent and 15.4 percent, respectively (Virginia DOC, 2003). Due to recent changes in the position titles of correctional officers, the Virginia DOC's database can no longer distinguish first-year officers from others.
These figures and the national turnover averages are especially worrisome because the U.S. Department of Labor (2004) predicts that the need for correctional officers will "grow faster than the average for all occupations through 2012, as additional officers are hired to supervise and control a growing inmate population." In addition, facilities that have a shortage of correctional officers often experience overtime demands that result in a host of other related issues such as stress, excessive use of sick time and disability leave, and high turnover for the officers who are available to work (Finn, 1998).
In an effort to investigate factors that contribute to employee turnover, researchers and consultants have conducted numerous studies and issued many reports. A substantial portion of the literature has indicated that organizational commitment, the degree to which an individual identifies with the organization to which he or she belongs (Lester and Bishop, 2000; Meyer and Allen, 1984, 1991), is one such factor (Meyer et al., 2002; Lincoln and Kalleberg, 1990; University of Minnesota, 2003).
Though it might initially appear that all individuals, regardless of ethnicity, would be equally affected by variables that contribute to an employee's commitment to his or her employer, this assumption might not be true. Research has shown that gender and ethnicity moderate various employment attitudes and behaviors, including organizational citizenship behavior (Chattopadhyay, 1999), career optimism (Friedman, Kane and Cornfield, 1998), job satisfaction (Edwards, 1996), co-worker interaction (Schneider, 1999) and employee commitment (Tsui, Egan and O'Reilly, 1992). If the United States continues to experience labor shortages in most industries and the number of minority workers continues to grow, almost all organizations, especially those in high-growth fields such as corrections, will have an increasing need to understand the factors that can help attract and retain a diverse, committed work force.
The objective of this study was to investigate the degree to which social identity, specifically relative ethnicity, plays a role in strengthening or lessening the relationship between co-worker support and employee commitment among correctional officers in the central region of the Virginia DOC. Specifically, this study addressed if individuals who identify themselves as part of an ethnic minority at work show a significant positive correlation between the perceived social support they receive at work and their commitment to the organization. It was hypothesized that individuals who are part of an ethnic minority will on average show a significant correlation between social support and organizational commitment that is greater than that of individuals who are in the ethnic majority in the workplace.
Research Questions And Hypotheses
By concentrating on data obtained from demographically diverse correctional officers, this study illuminated connections among social identity, social support and employee commitment at the individual level. To do that, the following research questions (Q1 through Q3) and research hypotheses (H1 through H3) were addressed:
Q1. Is there a significant relationship between the social support officers receive from their co-workers and their commitment to their organization?
H1. A significant positive correlation exists between social support and organizational commitment.
Q2. If a significant relationship exists between the social support that officers receive from their coworkers and their commitment to their organization, is that support moderated by officers' perception that they are a member of the minority, equal or majority ethnic group at their place of employment?
H2. The social support officers receive from their co-workers will vary significantly according to their perceptions of their ethnic category as the relative minority, equal or majority at their place of employment.
Q3. Is there a significant relationship between the importance of ethnicity to an officer's identity and the ethnicity of the individuals from whom officers seek emotional support?
H3. Officers for whom ethnicity is an important part of their social identity will be significantly more likely to seek emotional support from individuals of the same ethnicity than those officers for whom ethnicity is not an important part of their social identity.
Relevance to The Corrections Field
Among correctional officers, organizational commitment is significantly linked to turnover intention, as supported by Camp's 1991 study, which was published in 1994. In his research, which used a subsample (n=3,608) of data from the Prison Social Climate Survey (administered annually since 1988 to employees of the Federal Bureau of Prisons), Camp investigated the effects of organizational commitment and job satisfaction on turnover intention among correctional officers. As stated by Camp (1994), "... higher levels of organizational commitment are associated with lower levels of turnover. The effects of the measures of organizational commitment are also greater than that of job satisfaction, which actually turns out to be nonsignificant."
From the research that formed the basis of the Organizational Commitment Questionnaire, one of the most well-known instruments for measuring organizational commitment, Mowday, Porter and Seers (1981) found that the extent of an employee's social interaction within an organization is an important factor in developing organizational commitment. The greater the social interaction, the greater the attachment to the firm. Research has also indicated that demographic variables, such as gender and race, can affect social interaction (Harrison et al., 2002; Stewart and Vaux, 1986), but more research is needed to explore how relational demography, which is the degree to which individuals differ from their co-workers in specific demographic categories such as ethnicity, gender and age, impacts behavioral outcomes in organizations. Specifically, an analysis of the effect of the proportional or relational ethnic workplace composition on social support, which in turn affects organizational commitment, is noticeably absent from the empirical literature.
For instance, if an individual believes he or she is part of an ethnic minority in the workplace, is that person more or less likely to perceive that he or she obtains social support from his or her co-workers? Is the level of social support experienced by an individual who is part of an ethnic minority at work correlated with commitment to his or her employer? Is one more likely to discover a correlation between level of organizational commitment and coworker support among individuals for whom ethnicity is an important component of their social identity? All of these are pertinent questions for explorations that are addressed in this study and could lead to practical applications for the field of corrections and other industries seeking to attract and retain employees in an increasingly diverse labor market.
Social Identity Among Correctional Officers
There are two basic foundations of social identity theory. One is that an individual identifies with a certain group of people by perceiving him- or herself as similar in some aspects to others in that group. The second is that the more strongly an individual identifies with a group, the more strongly an individual will mentally distinguish or separate that group from other groups with which he or she does not identify (Stangor, 2003). These two premises have important implications in the field of corrections.
Although data collected in one correctional facility cannot be generalized to all officers in all facilities, Riley's (1998) work illustrates the continued formation of an "us vs. them" mentality between correctional officers and the inmates they supervise. This viewpoint is essential to protecting officers" safety and helping them perform effectively in a high-reliability environment. It also establishes and reinforces social identity and cohesiveness among the officers.
In addition to forming a mental separation from inmates, correctional officers may be psychologically distanced from individuals who work outside of the field due to a lack of understanding of the true nature and importance of correctional work. In a 2004 article, Tracy reported the results of 109 interviews she conducted with officers in a prison and a jail in a western state of the United States. Tracy reported, "Officers deal with denigration not only from the general public but also from street police officers who call them 'the scum of law enforcement' and 'professional babysitters."
Thus, it appears that existing literature (e.g., Goffman, 1961; Riley, 1998; Tracy, 2004) supports the idea that the environment of correctional institutions can greatly distance officers from inmates and society. Though it is understandable why officers should not form close bonds with inmates, the combination of being isolated from both inmates and society at large helps create and enforce a distinct category of social identity among correctional officers.
Social Support And Social Identity
People are social beings who seek to establish ties of identity and friendship with others. In organizational settings, diverse groups of people use these ties for social support and the accomplishment of work. However, the process of identification and friendship formation often develops differently for members of minority groups than for members of majority groups. In addition, not all members of a specific minority group will have the same experiences as others in a different minority category.
As reported by Huckabee (1992), several studies have found that correctional officers of different ethnicities experience dissimilar levels of esteem, stress and tension. Huckabee's article lists three examples: Hispanic correctional officers were found to have lower self-esteem than others, inexperienced and black officers were more likely than others to feel stressed at work, and white correctional officers reported higher levels of tension than nonwhite officers. In the same vein, work by Wright and Saylor (1992) referred to research by Cullen et al. (1985) that found black correctional officers reported greater job dissatisfaction than white officers. Finally, a 2000 study by Camp, Saylor and Wright (2001) adds support that white and minority officers will not always react in the same manner to their work environment.
To investigate the impact of correctional officers" racial diversity on their organizational commitment, teamwork and job effectiveness, Camp et al. (2001) used data from more than 1,000 officers obtained from the 1996 results of the Prison Social Climate Survey. As reported in their article, Camp et al. did not find support that racial dissimilarity influenced teamwork or job efficacy for white or minority correctional officers. Racial diversity did, however, affect white officers' commitment to the organization. According to Camp et al., "... the findings of this study suggest that racial diversity worked to lower white, male respondents' enthusiasm about remaining a part of the organization but not minority, male respondents' enthusiasm."
To conduct the correlational research, a stratified sample of correctional facilities based on security level and geographic location was obtained from among the major institutions in the central region of the Virginia DOC. Rather than obtaining a random sample of officers from each of the five facilities, an attempt was made to survey all non-supervisory correctional officers at each location through the use of a 65-item questionnaire, Participation was voluntary and responses were anonymous. The three areas addressed on the questionnaire were social identity, social support and organizational commitment.
Social identity. Social identity can be summarized as "that part of an individual's self-concept which derives from his knowledge of his membership in a social group together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership" (Tajfel, 1978) and can increase or decrease an individual's sense of being connected to his or her community, place of work and society at large. Age, religion, gender, race and marital status are all examples of characteristics that might typically be used consciously or unconsciously to establish an individual's social identity. For the study outlined in this article, individuals indicated aspects of their social identity by selecting the ethnic group(s) with which they identified and by indicating the perceived relative proportion of their ethnicity in reference to other members of the organization.
Social support. Social support is the process by which an individual feels appreciated, cared for and part of a group of people. In other words, it is "processes of social exchange that contribute to the development of individuals' behavioral patterns, social cognition and values" (Farmer and Farmer, 1996). This study investigated the three interlocking components of social support as defined by Cobb (1976): emotional, structural and informational support. Emotional support is an individual's belief that he or she is cared for, trusted, and well-liked or even loved. Structural support is the willingness for one person to manipulate or advocate within a social or organizational system for another person's well-being or career advancement. Informational support involves the direct or indirect communication of knowledge or intelligence about how a social system or organization operates and how resources are located within that system.
Organizational commitment. Organizational commitment is commonly understood to be the degree to which an individual identifies with an organization to which he or she belongs. Several researchers have stated conflicting opinions regarding the nature and components of organizational commitment. This study investigated the three components defined by Meyer and Allen (1984, 1991): affective, which is an emotional attachment; continuance, which occurs because of lack of alternatives; and normative, which refers to a perceived obligation to remain with a firm.
To measure specific variables of the research constructs, components of three existing validated instruments were used: the Work Environment Inventory, the Three-Component Model of Organizational Commitment, and the Race-Specific Collective Self-Esteem Scale. These instruments were based on Cobb's (1976) definition of social support, Meyer and Allen's (1991) model of organizational commitment, and Luhtanen and Crocker's (1992) assessment of the importance of one's ethnicity to one's self-identity. In addition, several demographic questions and items pertaining to the diversity climate of the organization were included.
Two of the research questions under investigation required a comparison between officers who perceive themselves to be in the ethnic majority at their place of employment and those who perceive themselves to be in the ethnic minority. The item on the questionnaire that enabled this distinction asked participants, "In your opinion, at your facility what percentage of your co-workers are of the same ethnicity as yourself?" Officers had to choose one of six categories: 0 percent to 14 percent, 15 percent to 35 percent, 36 percent to 50 percent, 51 percent to 64 percent, 65 percent to 85 percent or 86 percent to 100 percent. The data were then coded into three groups: majority (65 percent to 100 percent), minority (0 percent to 35 percent) and equal (36 percent to 64 percent), according to Kanter's (1977) seminal work on the effects of diversity in the workplace.
As of September 2004, the total number of correctional officers in the central region of the Virginia DOC was 6,269, with a total of 1,018 employed at the five facilities that participated in the study. Due to such reasons as sick leave, temporary reassignment, annual vacation leave and duties outside of the facility, of those 1,018 correctional officers, 69 percent (n=707) were scheduled for work during the dates selected for data collection, 45 percent (n=455) were present during data collection and 33 percent (n=338) submitted surveys. Thus, although the actual response rate was 74 percent (338 of 455), that response was from 33 percent of the population. Individual institution response ranged from a high of 93 percent to a low of 44 percent. Female participants comprised 39.4 percent of the survey sample; 53.1 percent were male; and 7.5 percent of participants did not indicate their gender. All officers were asked to self-identify their ethnicity, with 60 percent reporting black or African American; 26.3 percent indicating white or European American; 6.8 percent reporting American Indian or Alaska native, Asian, Latino or Hispanic, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, or multiple ethnicities; and 6.9 percent not indicating their ethnicity.
Hypothesis 1, The first hypothesis under investigation proposes that a significant positive correlation exists between social support and organizational commitment. Results of a one-tailed correlation analysis showed a moderately strong correlation at the 0.05 significance level between officers' perceived social support and their commitment to the Virginia DOC (n=320), r=0.49, p < 0.01. Therefore, the first hypothesis was supported. Tables 1 and 2 show the descriptive statistics and results of the correlation analysis.
Hypothesis 2. The second hypothesis states that the social support employees receive from their coworkers will vary significantly according to their perceptions of their ethnic category as the relative minority or majority at their place of employment. A one-way analysis of variance did not indicate that there was a significant difference between majority, equal and minority correctional officers along perceptions of social support, F2, 294 = 1,571, p = 0.21. Thus no support was found for this hypothesis. Tables 3 and 4 show the descriptive statistics and results of the correlation analysis.
Hypothesis 3. The third and final hypothesis under consideration proposes that employees for whom ethnicity is an important part of their social identity will be significantly more likely to seek emotional support from individuals of the same ethnicity than those employees for whom ethnicity is not an important part of their social identity. A one-tailed correlation analysis at the 0.05 significance level indicated a significant but very weak relationship between the two variables (n=264), r=0.12, p=0.023. Thus, there was evidence in support of the proposed hypothesis; the higher an officer's score on the Importance to Identity subscale, the more frequently he or she sought emotional support from a co-worker of the same ethnicity. Tables 5 and 6 show the descriptive statistics and results of the correlation analysis. It should be noted that when performing all of the statistical tests discussed in this section, the assumptions of each of the tests were met.
Discussion And Implications
Findings from this study indicated the following: social support was significantly correlated with organizational commitment: relative ethnicity was significantly related to the frequency with which support was sought from co-workers of the same ethnicity: and importance of ethnicity to identity was significantly correlated with the frequency with which support was sought from co-workers of the same ethnicity. These results strengthen the idea that social support and social identity are relevant concepts and theories that can be applied to the workplace to explain individual perceptions and behavior. Researchers still cannot predict "when an employee in an organization will see and act in terms of the organization as a whole, or in terms of the department or team to which they belong, or as an individual" (Haslam, 2001), but this study helps illuminate conditions under which an employee may choose one of those options instead of another.
Implications for research. Additional notable findings from the research hypotheses were that results of the statistical analyses related to the second hypothesis did not support rejecting the null hypotheses in favor of one that suggested there was a significant difference between minority, equal and majority employees along perceptions of social support. This initially appeared contrary to existing social identity literature such as that by Stewart and Vaux (1986), Smedley,. Myers and Harrell (1993), Haslam (2001) and Hogg (2004). For example, Haslam (2001) posited that perceptions of shared social identity would increase the likelihood that individuals like and trust each other and frequently communicate with one another. Upon closer investigation, the inability to reject the null hypotheses could be interpreted as supporting, not conflicting with, existing theory and empirical research. This could be due to the fact that correctional facilities have a strong socialization process that creates and maintains a role for officers that is so robust as to override other categories of social identity within the work setting.
This conclusion is consistent with existing literature concerning the correctional environment and with the body of literature surrounding applications of social identity theory. In his book, Role Transitions in Organizational Life: An Identity-Based Perspective, Ashforth (2001) defines a role as a position in a social structure as well as the behavioral expectations that are expected of an individual in that position. "Position means a more or less institutionalized or commonly expected and understood designation in a given social structure such as accountant (work organization), mother (family) and church member (religious organization)." Ashforth goes on to define role identity as "the goals, values, beliefs, norms, interaction styles and time horizons that are typically associated with a role." He states, "Although [social identity theory] does not focus on roles per se, roles can be viewed as a specific type of social category."
Building on the theoretical foundations of social identity theory, Ashforth explains and develops identity theory. He proposes that individuals develop a sense of self that is socially constructed and "anchored to the discrete roles that one plays in society ... such as friend, spouse or coworker." The more the goals, values, norms and interaction styles specific to the role "are tightly coupled and widely understood, the stronger the identity is said to be. In addition, the more subjectively important and situationally relevant to the role identity, the greater its salience." A strong role identity is one that is "widely shared (i.e., role occupants and role set members have a similar understanding of the identity) and densely articulated (i.e., the identity has a set of tightly integrated core and peripheral features that leave little ambiguity or equivocality regarding what the role entails)."
In the case of the participants in this study, one of their roles was that of a Virginia DOC correctional officer. That role is purposively ingrained into the socialization processes of employees and begins with an eight-week new-hire orientation session. The first four weeks are spent at the DOC's training headquarters, after which new officers are sent to the individual facilities to which they have been assigned. In addition, officers must participate in several annual in-service training modules designed to enhance their skills and ability to perform their job. This method of training seeks to ensure that all correctional officers are uniformly indoctrinated into the department. As cited in Mueller et al. (1999), "Interacting with others with similar characteristics then reinforces self-identity, increases group integration and increases group cohesiveness, which in turn produces satisfaction and commitment to the group."
According to Riley (1998), the conversational routines of officers also help reinforce the norms of their job. Drawing a sharp distinction between inmates and correctional officers "socializes newcomers, serves to identify strangers, offers opportunities for the expression of loyalty and helps group members make sense of apparent inconsistencies in their own behavior." Riley writes, "These are ritual moments in the life of the group, moments when individuals who work in considerable isolation may join with others to build mutual trust, understanding and respect."
Thus, it is plausible to conclude that such socialization processes, coupled with continual reinforcement of the separation between correctional officers and inmates, results in an extremely strong role identity that is more salient in the workplace than are ethnic identity affiliations.
Implications for practice. Two main practical implications emerged from the research findings. First, within the context of the DOC and possibly similar law enforcement agencies, social interactions should be encouraged among officers in order to establish and develop social support relationships. Social support is vital to ensuring that officers trust and depend on one another, which are key to maintaining order in institutions. In addition, increased social support is positively correlated with an increase in organizational commitment, which has been shown to decrease turnover.
Second, although the extent to which an officer felt he or she was ethnically similar to his or her coworkers did not affect perceptions of social support or organizational commitment, the more important ethnicity was to an officer's identity, the more frequently he or she sought emotional support from a co-worker of the same ethnicity. The key factor is not just that individuals acknowledge their ethnicity but that they have stated it to be an important part of how they define themselves within the context of the correctional facility. Since it cannot be assumed that all members of a specific ethnic group place the same degree of significance on their ethnicity, researchers and practitioners cannot be certain of how great an impact this may have in the work environment. According to Haslam (2001):
Perceptions of shared social identity provide people with multiple motivations for communicating and also with a shared cognitive framework, which allows that communication to be mutually beneficial and productive. Yet as a corollary, it can be seen that where individuals do not perceive themselves to share social category membership they will have fewer reasons to communicate with each other and much greater scope for mutual miscommunication and misunderstanding.
If this is so, then it could be hypothesized that officers with a strong ethnic identity would also communicate more with co-workers of the same identity. This could have tremendous implications for the way in which information, procedures and policies are communicated (or miscommunicated) within a correctional facility, and it presents an interesting area for future exploration, especially given the work environment of correctional facilities. Up-to-date communication is vital to the ability of correctional officers to perform their job well because obtaining knowledge about how the organization operates and how to access resources within the system better enables officers to ensure the safety and security of themselves, the institution and society at large.
It must be noted that the following limitations exist with this research:
* This study is very narrow, analyzing only certain aspects of social identity, social support and organizational commitment.
* One of the important aspects of organizational commitment is that it is developed over time. This study offers a snapshot of commitment only during the period of time during which participants were responding to the survey.
* This study used a correlational approach to investigate statistical connections between several concepts. It is important to note that correlations do not: establish cause-and-effect relationships between variables, identify nonlinear connections between concepts or illuminate additional factors that influence the statistical relationships between the variables being studied.
* Prior to administering the research questionnaire, several calculations were performed to determine the required sample size. Due to the nature of estimating sample size requirements, there is no absolute standard. Therefore, it could be argued that the research sample size (n=320) was sufficient for generalizing the findings to all of the 6,269 officers in the entire central region of the Virginia DOC. However, the case could also be made that the findings can be generalized to the 1,018 officers employed at the five facilities used in this study but cannot be generalized to all officers in the central region. Although the results may be indicative of the perceptions of the officers at five locations, they may not be applicable to all of the officers at all of the locations within the region, or to all of the officers in the DOC.
* This study assessed only four possible antecedents of organizational commitment: social support, emotional support, informational support and relative ethnicity. The four factors used in the study are not exhaustive indicators of organizational commitment. Other attributes may be better mediators than those used in the study.
In summary, the findings suggest both identity and relationships matter in the workplace. If the corrections field is to adequately address its retention concerns, it might be wise to look at ways to increase social support within specific facilities. This research found a significant but modest correlation between social support and organizational commitment, and a significant but weak correlation was found between the importance of ethnicity to identity and emotional support. These outcomes should not be overlooked. As stated by Tsui and Gutek (1999), "an effect size of even modest magnitude could be meaningful if it provides additional information and understanding of factors that may influence the variety of work outcomes that were examined in this set of research." Given the statistical relationships observed in this study, correctional managers and other practitioners might attempt to consciously structure workplace processes and procedures to allow employees to interact with one another in a way that fosters and enhances social support.
Correctional directors and managers might also want to pay close attention to the ethnic composition of their work force, as elements of social identity have been found to influence the type of co-workers officers seek out for support. Therefore, it seems plausible to recommend that correctional institutions seek to balance (as much as possible) their work force so members of diverse ethnic groups are well represented and can find adequate avenues for establishing social support among officers with whom they identify. This is especially important as Tsui and Gutek (1999) wrote, "Whether demographic diversity is a liability or an asset depends, therefore, on the willingness of people in the organizations to develop an understanding of demographic dynamics and on the initiative of people to take actions to capitalize on the cognitive resources that diverse individuals bring to the organization." Also, as stated by Blake-Beard and Roberts (2004), "Relationships are important, and as people come together in the enterprise of work, their success or failure hinges upon their ability to build trust among their colleagues and clients." Therefore, it seems logical to assume that the success or failure of organizations (including correctional facilities) rests in their ability to acknowledge and understand the factors that contribute to attracting and retaining a qualified, diverse and committed work force (e.g., Branham, 2000; University of Minnesota, 2003).
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Rhonda J. Jones, Ed.D., SPHR, IPMA-CP, is an associate professor and program director of the graduate human resources program at the University of Maryland University College. For more information, contact her at email@example.com.
Table 1. Descriptive Statistics Standard Mean Median Deviation n Total Commitment 67.86 69.00 18.765 320 Total Support 74.51 74.50 23.142 320 Table 2. Results of Correlation Analysis Total Total Commitment Support (n=320) Total Commitment Pearson Correlation 1 0.490 * Sig. (1-tailed) 0.000 Table 3. Descriptive of Total Support Relative Std. Std. Ethnicity n Mean Deviation Error 0-35% 83 70.96 22.577 2.478 36-64% 112 76.72 20.848 1.970 65-100% 102 75.34 25.399 2.515 Total 297 74.64 23.020 1.336 95% Confidence Interval for Mean Relative Lower Upper Ethnicity Bound Bound Min. Max. 0-35% 66.03 75.89 29 133 36-64% 72.82 80.63 30 131 65-100% 70.35 80.33 5 135 Total 72.01 77.27 5 135 Table 4. Analysis of Variance for Total Support Sum of Squares df Mean Square F Sig. Between Groups 1658.150 2 829.075 1.571 .210 Within Groups 155200.301 294 527.892 Total 156858.451 296