If you’re ever found yourself adjusting the way you speak or rethinking what you wear to the office, you’re certainly not alone. But while most of would agree that it’s normal to adopt a somewhat different persona while at work, this “code-switching” behavior becomes much more harmful when it’s used to hide our cultural identities or ethnic background.
It’s a practice that’s widely used by people of color and other underrepresented groups to blend in at work or in other professional settings. And if left unchecked, it can have very real ramifications on company culture, psychological safety, and feelings of inclusion and belonging.
In a recent article on this topic, Fast Company notes that “code-switching is a symptom of a larger problem of an exclusionary company culture.” Harvard Business Review takes this a step further, emphasizing that “code-switching is one of the key dilemmas that black employees face around race at work.”
Yet many companies, including those with impressive DE&I commitments, have overlooked this critical driver of an inclusive culture. But as HBR concludes, “If leaders are truly seeking to promote inclusion and address social inequality, they must begin by understanding why a segment of their workforce believes that they cannot truly be themselves in the office.”
So let’s explore what code-switching is, how it affects employees, and what companies can do to address it.
What is code-switching and how does it manifest in the workplace?
The term code-switching has traditionally been defined as shifting from one language or dialect to another, depending on the social context or setting. However, the term has evolved to include more than just the words and grammatical structure we use, but also how we speak (tone, volume, etc.), as well as how we dress, act, and even what name we choose to go by.
Think of a co-worker who changes their hair, clothing, nail style, or jewelry choices to appear more professional. Or a colleague who goes by a “white” name at work rather than their given name. Or a team member who alters their personality to avoid coming across as aggressive or belligerent.
Comedians Key & Peele have done several skits highlighting this practice. Check out their Obama Meet & Greet skit, which shows the former president interacting with supporters in very different ways depending on their race. Their Obama’s Anger Translator skit examines code-switching from a different angle, suggesting that Obama has been masking his true personality to avoid the “angry black man” stereotype.
Regardless of the shape that it takes, code-switching is undeniably happening in workplaces across the globe — including at the highest level of office. However, the problem is that it typically goes unnoticed by the dominant white culture, because the people doing the code-switching (often African Americans or other minorities) are engaging in this behavior to blend in and succeed in an environment that’s largely biased against them. And as I’ll discuss next, this is precisely the problem.
Code-switching: A burden, a superpower, or something in between?
In some ways, code-switching isn’t all bad. One young woman described how “code-switching feels like a superpower,” adding that “it’s great to be able to communicate with different communities and people.” And several studies have found that minorities who are adept at code-switching do enjoy greater career success, confirming that there are real benefits to be had for those who engage in this behavior.
The problem is that code-switching can often feel required in the workplace — and when it’s necessary day in and day out, it becomes exhausting. “The strain I endured as a person of color just trying to fit in was so taxing that it negatively affected every other part of my life,” one young man told HBR. Trying to avoid stereotypes is challenging, the article’s authors emphasize, and it can drain cognitive resources and diminish performance.
Code-switching can also take a huge toll on people’s well-being and their feelings of psychological safety. When you have psychological safety in the workplace, people feel comfortable being themselves. When you don’t have this, people are less likely to speak up and offer ideas and opinions. And perhaps more importantly, there’s little authentic self-expression, which means that the diversity we claim to be celebrating gets hidden away.
Mitigating the effects of code-switching at work
Given all of the ways that code-switching affects employees and the companies they work for, it’s important that organizations take steps to address this. While the following list isn’t comprehensive, it’s a good place to start:
1. Assess your culture
As with most workplace issues, part of addressing the problem involves identifying it. This means examining all aspects of your employee experience, from the hiring process to exit interviews. Start with your company’s job listings — are there references to new hires being a “good fit” with the culture, and if so, what does that really mean? What does your website imply about the types of workers that are welcome at your business?
And what about the day-to-day work experience — are there expectations in place about what people wear that are inherently biased? What do employees themselves report about who gets ahead at work and which behaviors facilitate career advancement? An anonymous employee survey is a great tool to help you delve into these questions and more.
2. Educate your workforce
Even though code-switching happens all the time at work, we don’t always recognize it if we’re part of the dominant culture. So companies need to educate everyone — leaders, managers, and employees — about this practice and how it can affect people.
It’s imperative that this education address implicit or unconscious bias, which is at the root of code-switching. HBR offers a great illustration: “For example, you might like your black coworkers’ hair when it is straightened compared to when it is in a natural style, but why do you feel that way?” A robust learning program can help people examine these perceptions and work to reverse them.
3. Spotlight leaders who are setting the example
Another important way to minimize code-switching is for workers to see examples of this among their company’s leaders. For some organizations, this could mean encouraging their diverse leaders to avoid code-switching. For other companies, an important first step might simply be increasing representation at the highest levels of leadership, where most roles continue to be held by white men.
There are two reasons why leadership examples matter. First, it’s important that employees see that diverse leaders can achieve professional success without hiding any aspects of their cultural or ethnic background. The other reason is because leaders set the example for how everyone else is expected to act at an organization, including what types of behaviors will help people get ahead.
4. Provide resources and support for diverse team members
One point the HBR article emphasizes is that it’s not always advisable for employees to abandon code-switching entirely. Underrepresented workers face very real dilemmas (and potential career consequences) when deciding where, when, and how much to be authentic. They often have to be strategic in their decisions, which isn’t easy.
While organizations may not be able to enact a cultural shift overnight, they can offer workers the support they need to bring more of their true selves to work. Mentoring is a great option, but it’s important to note that for minorities, same-race mentoring provides more support than cross-race mentoring. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) can also benefit workers by offering a safe space for workers to speak up.
5. Continue to build and celebrate a diverse workforce
If your company has achieved or set ambitious diversity targets, the good news is that you’re already well on your way to eliminating code-switching at your workplace. That’s because as a recent BetterUp article aptly stated, “The more diverse your company is, the less oppressive the dominant culture feels.”
So keep your diversity hiring strategy on track, and stay the course with your other efforts around DE&I. That means celebrating all of the different cultures, races, and ethnicities that make up your workforce. Because at the end of the day, having a diverse workforce is one of the key factors driving the success of your business, and creating an inclusive culture is the only way this diversity can truly flourish.
Thanks for reading — be sure to join the conversation on LinkedIn and let me know your thoughts on this topic!