How White Workers Navigate Racial Difference in the Workplace: Social-Emotional Processes and the Role of Workplace Racial Composition (with Tiffany D. Johnson)

Abstract: Research on racialized emotions and racialized organizations has begun to inform how we understand social interactions in the workplace and their implications for racial inequality. However, most research to date focuses on the experiences and coping strategies of racial minority workers, especially when confronted with instances of racial prejudice and discrimination. We extend research on racialized emotions in the workplace by mapping the stages of belonging/unbelonging white workers go through when they encounter instances of racial discomfort or perceived prejudice in the workplace. This is an important contribution to the study of race and work because existing research suggests the deleterious effects for people of color when white people experience negative emotions such as threat, fear, and anxiety in interracial encounters. Drawing on interview data with 56 white teachers in a metropolitan area in the U.S. Southeast, we document a process of racialized belonging. This is a process whereby white workers experienced varying degrees of surprise, confusion, frustration, and fear resulting from interracial experiences with coworkers as well as students. We note how the process is informed by racialized imprinting prior to workplace entry and followed by racialized emotions and racialized coping. Racial composition of the workplace also played a role, though the process looked similar across contexts. We argue that by accounting for white workers’ prior life experiences as well as organizations’ involvement in accommodating their emotional expectations, the way white workers behave when race becomes salient to them in service-based professional work can be better understood, anticipated, and addressed.

Enacting occupational values in peripheral spaces: Teachers’ work in the hallways (With Beth A. Bechky and Anne-Laure Fayard) (R&R at Organization Science)

Abstract: Today’s occupations face conflicting demands in the workplace, leading to diverse expectations of how to do a good job. While we know that occupational communities shape their members’ development of skills and knowledge, scholars have paid less attention to the spaces in which occupational values are shaped. This study demonstrates how occupational values are shaped within peripheral spaces in organizations. Drawing on a year-long ethnographic study of teachers in two high schools, we show that despite working in organizationally and physically similar environments, teachers in each school attached different meanings to the halls about what was appropriate and normal to do in them, and in turn, enacted different values in those spaces. While teachers in both schools enacted their values through the same three modes of practice – tangible, symbolic and evaluative – the content of these practices differed. In one school, teachers’ practices were oriented towards the occupational value of discipline: they broke up fights, reinforced rules and maintained order in the hallway. In the other, the teacher community is oriented towards academics: they display student work and discuss pedagogy in the hall. These findings uncover a mechanism by which occupational communities shape, enact, and maintain varied occupational values: through shared spaces and the social designations that help communities negotiate values in those spaces. We also show how teacher’s values rested on the different ways occupational membership was constructed in their respective occupational communities. Our findings point to the importance of peripheral spaces for how work gets done and suggest how these overlooked spaces influence the development of occupational communities.

Nelson, Jennifer L., Grissom, Jason A., and Margaux Cameron. 2021. “Performance, Process, and Interpersonal Relationships: Explaining Principals’ Perceptions of the Quality of Principal Evaluation.” Educational Administration Quarterly.

How do principals feel about the process by which they are evaluated? In a new article in EAQ with Jason Grissom and Margaux Cameron, we find that it depends on individual and school characteristics, but also on elements of the process itself. We bring insights from organizational justice theory – which highlights the importance of employees’ perceptions of fairness in distribution of rewards, evaluation processes, and how they are treated by their supervisors – to bear on this question. Using longitudinal survey data from Tennessee principals paired with administrative data about their evaluation ratings and the backgrounds of their evaluators, we find that high school and more experienced principals have more negative attitudes towards their evaluations; observation scores of performance had a positive relationship with attitudes; and working longer with one’s evaluator and perceiving they were evaluated more frequently benefits principal attitudes about evaluation.

Grissom, Jason A., Jennifer D. Timmer, Jennifer L. Nelson, and Richard S.L. Blissett. 2021. “Unequal Pay for Equal Work? The Gender Gap in Principal Compensation.” Economics of Education Review.

In this article, we use longitudinal administrative data from the state of Missouri and SASS/NTPS data to document systematic lower salaries to female principals in each context. We explore different supply-side explanations for this gap – human capital differences, differences in choice of hours work (via “extra duty pay”), differences in mobility across schools over their careers, differences in performance ratings –  and find that while some of these explain a portion of the gap, an outstanding gender pay gap remains, suggesting evidence of demand-side drivers of the wage gap.

How Organizational Minorities Form and Use Social Ties: Evidence from Teachers in Majority-White and Majority-Black Schools (American Journal of Sociology)

Abstract: This paper draws on 11 months of multi-site ethnographic fieldwork and 103 interviews to investigate how teachers in school faculty of varying racial compositions form and use their social ties to secure professional, political, and emotional resources at work. Findings show that in general, white teachers in the numerical minority in their schools secured all resource types through their same-race ties, while black teachers in the numerical minority secured primarily emotional resources from theirs. Given these observed differences, I show how the form and use of the two minority groups’ social ties stem from distinctive organizational practices. In turn, the tie differences can account for differences in social integration and resource-access in the organization. The data allow for comparisons to patterns among majority groups.

Nelson, Jennifer L., Karen A. Hegtvedt, Jennifer L. Hayward. 2019. “Trust and Respect at Work: Justice Antecedents and the Role of Coworker Dynamics.” Work & Occupations 46(3): 307–338.

In this project, with Karen Hegtvedt, Regine Haardoerfer, and Jennifer Hayward, we use survey data from my dissertation to examine how teachers’ reported perceptions of organizational justice in treatment from their managers (i.e., administrators) and colleagues impact their outcomes of relational trust and respect. We seek to answer the research questions: Which type of justice (distributive, procedural, interactional) affects lateral trust and respect the most, and do teacher dynamics mediate these contextual effects?

Puckett, Cassidy, and Jennifer L. Nelson. 2019. “The Geek Instinct: Theorizing Cultural Alignment in Disadvantaged Contexts.” Qualitative Sociology 42(1): 25–48. DOI 10.1007/s11133-019-9408-4

In this project, we build on cultural mismatch literature to address dynamics across home and school spheres among adolescents in an economically disadvantaged school context. Using in-depth ethnographic data from students in a Chicago public middle school, we propose a cultural alignment framework that considers the interaction between organizational routines, cultural practices, and the habits children carry across spheres to produce varying degrees of technological competence.

Nelson, Jennifer L. 2017. “Pathways to Green(er) Pastures: Reward Bundles and Turnover Decisions in a Semi-Profession.” Qualitative Sociology 40(1):23–57. doi:10.1007/s11133-016-9348-1

In this study, my Master’s thesis, I conducted 40 structured interviews with urban school teachers and used Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) to examine how work rewards bundle together and influence these workers’ staying and leaving decisions. This study received the Blyler Graduate Student Research Award from the Department of Sociology at Emory in 2013.

Nelson, Jennifer L., and Amanda E. Lewis. 2016. “‘I’m a Teacher, Not a Babysitter:’ Workers’ Strategies for Managing Identity-Related Denials of Dignity in the Early Childhood Workplace.” Research in the Sociology of Work 29: 37-71.

In this study of how workplace context impacts early childhood educators’ identity strategies, my co-author and I conducted and analyzed ethnographic interviews with a sample of 27 preschool and preK teachers in the metro Atlanta area. We found that teachers navigate and solve identity problems they encounter in the course of doing their jobs by creatively converting these problems into resources with which to protect their occupational identities. However, the problems, resources, and identity strategies vary by work context (sector and school type).

Nelson, Jennifer L., and Anand Swaminathan. “A State-by-State Study of Policy and Program Diffusion in Alternate Certification Programs, 1985-2012.” In progress.

This diffusion study, with Anand Swaminathan, seeks to understand what social-economic-political factors in each U.S. state predict its time of adoption of different forms of alternate route teacher certification laws. We use event history analysis to examine intrastate propensity factors versus interstate contagion factors that facilitate policy spread. Our unique dataset is drawn from annual volumes published by the National Center for Education Information (NCEI) for the years 1990-2010, and NCES, DES, Census, BLS, Statistical Abstracts, and Klarner for various state-level educational, social, economic and political statistics for those years.

Navigating cascades of change across workplace hierarchy: The case of an academic library as an educational organization (in progress)

This study investigates how long reorganization periods in an educational organization affect its internal workplace dynamics, using an academic library within a university setting as an illustrative case. Current research on educational change, the purpose of education, and just learning environments pinpoint that professional and workplace dynamics of educational institutions are key to implementing change as well as reflecting and facilitating an inclusive organizational climate for students (Bryk and Schneider 2002; Labaree 1997; Masterson 2001). I endeavor to show how processes of structural change and systemic issues of equity in the educational workplace are mutually constituted. Drawing on organizational theory about the hazards of long and “cascading” reorganization periods (Hannan, Pólos, and Carroll 2003), I examine how multiple and different organizational changes within one time period affect professionals’ work processes and experiences, especially as they relate to fair working conditions for faculty and staff. The case of librarians and library employees is appropriate for a study of change as it is a university unit subject to many external (state-level or profession-level) and internal (university- or library-level) pressures for change. This study contributes to educational research on change and equity as it highlights how these are related, overlapping, and sometimes conflicting organizational goals.