Code-Switching: What It Is, and Why Your Employees Are Doing It

Code-switching is when someone adjusts their style of language, appearance, behavior, and expression to appeal to others. Learn more about the impacts of it here.

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Code-switching–what it is, and why your employees are doing it

Here's what you need to know about code-switching–what it is, and why your employees are doing it:

  • When your employees spend so much time worrying about fitting in, you lose diversity of thought and opinion.
  • Code-switching impacts people across different cultures, religions, and socioeconomic statuses.
  • Companies that want true diversity of thought, opinion, and representation need to humanize their employees.

Have you ever found yourself standing in a crowd, pretending to be someone you’re not, just to fit in?

We all experience scenarios in our personal, professional, and social lives that encourage us to wear a mask and hide our true identity. Not only to fit in but to survive.

At its essence, this is what code-switching is all about. HBR defines code-switching as “adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.”

In this article, we will discuss the concept of code-switching, the cost of code-switching on your employees, and what your organization can do to create an environment where code-switching is not required.

Code-switching – what is it?

To better understand this topic, we interviewed Kandirra Wilson, Learning & Communications Consultant, to share her experiences relating to the code-switching that’s been required throughout her corporate career.

When asked what code-switching really means, Wilson explained that “to code-switch means to act a certain way that deviates from your own culture, and to act in a way that appeases the dominant cultural group–in order not to be discriminated against.”

Code-switching happens when people change the:

  • Way they speak
  • Way they dress
  • Names they use to identify themselves

These personal changes are made for no other reason than that they might have a higher chance of being accepted.

Code-switching impacts people across different cultures, religions, and socioeconomic statuses.

Why do employees in the corporate world do this?

According to research done by NPR, the reason people code-switch can be broken down into 5 main categories. These include:

  1. It happens inadvertently
  2. A desire to fit in
  3. Experiencing some kind of benefit for assimilating
  4. A desire to speak code (and do the opposite of fit in)
  5. To help express themselves properly

NPR has an entire blog dedicated to education and awareness around Code-Switching, which is full of informative resources and stories to learn more.

Most of us code-switch in some way, shape, or form.

The cost of code-switching

There are many reasons why people code-switch, and it’s something that most of us do in some way, shape, or form. And while we all feel the internal tension (for example, the exhaustion we feel when we need to keep our “professional voice” all day), it can cause some minority groups to feel the burden much more than others.

One study by the Pew Research Center found that 50% of Black university graduates under the age of 50 found themselves needing to code-switch and change the way they naturally engage when connecting with people of different backgrounds or ethnicities.

The cost of code-switching on employees

Research conducted by HBR highlights that members of racial minority groups who code-switch are perceived as more:

  • Professional
  • Hirable
  • Likely to get promoted
  • Suited for leadership roles

Wilson explains that she’s been able to navigate the White world in a way that makes people feel comfortable. Flying under the radar and blending in is something she was taught to do at a young age and has helped her advance her career.

HBR also explains the dark side of the above-mentioned research–employees who code-switch and downplay their own culture in favor of professional advancement are unable to bring their whole selves to work, are more at risk for burnout, and may feel they are being devalued by their employer for needing to act differently in order to be successful.

The cost of code-switching at the organizational level

If an organization does not have representation and inclusion across every level, it’s more likely that their employees will feel pressured to code-switch. This can make it difficult for companies to retain their talent and hinder any of the DEI efforts they’ve made.

Loss of diversity comes with a high price tag, as companies with strong diversity enjoy 2.3 higher cash flow per employee.

Wilson explains, “when your employees spend so much time worrying about fitting in, you lose diversity of thought and opinion. This is a manifestation of a larger systemic racial issue that may be alienating your employees who are not part of the dominant group.”

This loss of diversity comes with a high price tag, as companies with strong diversity enjoy “2.3 higher cash flow per employee.

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How can you address the code-switching problem?

While we don’t have all the answers, people and companies can move forward by working towards creating workplaces that:

  • Are accepting of diversity
  • Celebrate culture
  • Treat their employees like humans instead of resources

Create a human-focused approach with your employees

Wilson expresses the need for companies that want true diversity of thought, opinion, and representation to humanize their employees. She explains that when you view them as humans with unique needs, circumstances, and requirements rather than as a cost center, they will not feel the pressures to code-switch.

Evaluate the psychological safety in your organization

Encouraging employees to bring their “whole self” to work and practice authenticity have trendy and buzzwordy concepts. This may seem like a step in the right direction. Still, your organization needs to understand what the outcome of this might mean for employees.

If the upper executive level of an organization encourages authenticity for their employees, but the middle management does not truly live these values, the employees will be put in a lose-lose situation.

They may be penalized for truly being their authentic selves, but they will also lose out by not participating in authentic connections and relationships.

HBR recommends asking your management team the following question: Are you asking your black employees to do something they will be punished for later on?”

Practice inclusivity at every level

Diverse representation is important, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. To be inclusive, companies must acknowledge the difficulties that their employees may be experiencing inside and outside of the workplace.

When you do more to bring your whole self to the table. You will show others that it is safe to do the same.

It also means that leadership goes above and beyond to invite minorities into their formal and informal networks through activities like mentorship and leadership training.

At the most personal level, it also means doing more to bring your whole self to the table and showing others that it is safe to do the same. Check your biases, and get honest with yourself about where you can improve.

Making a difference is everyone’s job

We’re all responsible for the individual impact we have on the people we work with. Whether you take time each day to educate yourself on the issues affecting your minority colleagues, speak up when you see microaggressions happening, or practice allyship with your teammates, there are always actions you can take to improve the world we live in.

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