Candidates showing up to interviews with long sleeves to cover tattoos. Employees switching accents to fit in with the company's culture.
The term for behavior like that is “code-switching.” Some do it out of fear of being rejected, while others do it to accommodate exclusive company policies (e.g., no tattoos allowed).
Businesses that ignore this phenomenon may create a potentially toxic workplace that can make workers feel unwelcome, resulting in resentment, infighting, and other issues.
What is code-switching in the workplace?
Employees may change how they talk, dress, act — in other words, switch their codes — to fit in with the dominant culture of their employer. It could be choosing words or phrases that are more common in the dominant culture, or changing your clothes or behavior to match what's expected.
Some people code-switch in the workplace because they feel like they have to change who they are to gain respect and acceptance.
Examples of code-switching in the workplace
Identifying code-switching in your business isn't easy, but here are a few common examples:
- Using different words: A person of color (POC) may use “standard” English (e.g., proper English) when speaking with white colleagues, but revert to their native dialect (e.g., slang from their culture) when talking with family and friends (or colleagues with similar backgrounds).
- Wearing different clothing styles or colors: Someone may choose to wear muted colors or conservative styles when at work, when they usually wear brighter colors and cultural wear (e.g., tunics).
- Adopting the values, beliefs, and customs of the dominant culture: A person of color may downplay their heritage in the workplace. For example, participating in Christmas events at work, when they celebrate Kwanzaa or Hanukkah at home.
- Changing behaviors to conform to expectations: Someone may act reserved and quiet in the workplace, while being expressive and open with family and friends.
- Modifying body language and gestures: An employee may choose to use formal handshakes at work, but return to fist bumps, hugs, and kissing on the cheek at home.
- Applying for a role using a middle name that’s Eurocentric: For example, to hide that he’s Black, Lavon Taylor Jones will put down “Taylor” on his application for a role.
The University of California, Berkeley, sent 83k job applications to 100+ Fortune 500 companies — half were Black-sounding names, and the rest were white-sounding names. The result: Applications with Black names were called 10% less.
Why do people code-switch?
There’s a dominant culture that prevails over others, whether it be in a country or business.
The dominant culture is the set of beliefs, values, and behaviors that are seen as normal or acceptable by the majority of people in a society or organization. It’s often modeled by those with power and privilege, so other people may feel pressured to conform (hence the birth of code-switching).
Here are other reasons people may code-switch:
- To avoid discrimination: By code-switching, people who may have a different race, gender, or sexual orientation than the dominant culture “prove” they’re not stereotypical and are similar to their peers. For instance, a woman in a management role may try to fit in by behaving like “one of the guys.”
- To demonstrate competence: Employees may use professional jargon or terms they wouldn’t use at home to prove competence in a particular field or area of expertise. This is especially true for Blacks and Hispanics who are subjected to stereotypes (e.g., that they are uneducated).
- To feel comfortable: A person of color may code-switch because they’re intimidated by co-workers, or want to appear less intimidating to colleagues (e.g., not talking too loudly because it’s seen as aggressive to do so).
- To get hired or promoted: Speaking “Black” can lead to racial stereotyping, so many Black Americans code-switch to increase their odds of getting work and promotions.
According to a survey by Harvard Business Review, Blacks are more likely to code-switch when working in a company they’re not well-represented in.
Some of the Black employees surveyed noted feeling like they’re always under a microscope at work and must maintain constant vigilance about their mannerisms to avoid negative stereotypes.
Others cope with this by anticipating complaints and negative comments or jokes from white co-workers and adapting their behaviors to keep the peace.
Negative effects of code-switching
The Harvard Business Review survey mentioned above states that code-switching comes with psychological and social consequences.
For instance, code-switching requires employees to downplay their race, which can make others of their race hostile toward them for “acting white.” This can cause friction in the workplace and at home between individuals of the same race.
The constant code-switching can also make employees feel devalued, which can reduce their commitment to your company. Some other negative effects of the practice include:
- Loss of authenticity: Employees may feel like they have to hide their true selves in order to fit in.
- Unfair advantage: Certain individuals may gain an unfair advantage, as those who are more adept at code-switching could be seen as more competent or knowledgeable.
- Alienation: Employees who don’t code-switch may feel isolated and excluded from the workplace.
- Increased stress and burnout: Feeling pressured to adjust your behavior can cause stress, and feeling devalued for long periods of time can lead to burnout.
- Discrimination: Code-switching can promote discrimination against those who refuse to fit into the dominant culture, leading to disrespect against nonconforming employees.
Managing and preventing code-switching in the workplace
As a business owner, you can set the tone for how your workplace operates and what's deemed appropriate.
If you want to make your company more inclusive, consider employing these strategies:
- Analyze your company culture: Review how your employees engage with one another, who gets included in events, how promotions are considered, and how diverse your labor force is. Once you see areas you can improve, you can move on to building better policies.
- Establish clear policies: Develop inclusive hiring policies at all levels of the company to increase diversity. Employees may feel more comfortable when they see people who look like them in their department or in management positions.
- Promote cultural awareness: Encourage employees to learn about different cultures and perspectives. For example, you can host celebrations for a variety of holidays from other countries and cultures.
- Provide training: Offer training sessions on topics, such as cultural sensitivity, communication styles, and language barriers so that employees can communicate effectively without resorting to code-switching.
- Create an inclusive environment: Promote allyship by speaking up against employees who show disrespect to a person of color. You can also host events that center around the culture of other employees (e.g., Bodhi Day, Juneteenth, etc.).
Employees should also do their part to reduce code-switching in the workplace. For example, they can:
- Practice changing your mindset to stop code-switching. For example, if you’re a part of the dominant culture, try to catch yourself thinking things like, “He/she doesn’t behave like other Black/Hispanic people.”
- Those who code-switch should identify when it happens and why, so they’re aware and can prevent it. If self-esteem is an issue, practice affirmations like this: “My authentic self is who I truly am, and it’s more than enough.”