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  1. Blog
  2. Diversity

Code-Switching: How Marginalized Employees Navigate Oppression at Work

When professionalism is discrimination

code-switching image
Photo courtesy of Augustine Wong

Everyone has altered certain aspects of their personality to fit in at some point in their career—it’s part of maintaining a “professional” image. But for BIPOC and other marginalized employees, changing one’s appearance, behavior, or speech can become an everyday survival tool in order to both fit in and advance at work. It’s called code-switching—when a person detaches themself from aspects of their cultural or racial identity in order to assimilate to a dominant culture and comfort others, in hopes avoiding discrimination. 

For many people of color, code-switching is second nature in majority-white workplaces. And because systemic racism reinforces code-switching in all aspects of a society from daily conversations to our education system, the skill becomes a necessary form of protection. Here, we’ll take a deeper look at how code-switching has evolved, how it manifests in the workplace, how it affects employees and businesses, and ways managers can create workplaces where employees are encouraged to be their most authentic selves. 

Read more: BIPOC: What It Means & When To Use The Term (with Examples)

How has the term “code-switching” evolved?

Whereas now the term “code-switching” includes adapting almost every aspect of cultural identity, including things like clothing and hairstyle, historically, code-switching mainly referred to language. Dr. Jessica R. Berry, an educational consultant who specializes in dialect awareness and linguistics explains traditional code-switching as instances when bilingual or bidialectal speakers switch between multiple languages during conversation in order to fit in with the in-group. 

“BIPOC individuals...are most often expected to code-switch in communicative exchanges with their white counterparts. There is no pressure for those in the white community to switch as their dialect is accepted as the standard. This discrepancy in the expectations for conversational language use have created decades of disadvantage for the BIPOC population in education, employment, and resources,” Berry says.  

Examples of code-switching

The unfortunate truth is that research shows that code-switching at work increases perceptions of professionalism and being a leader, the likelihood of being hired, and the chances of promotions for employees. Many different groups can feel compelled to code-switch, but not all groups code-switch in the same ways in order to effectively navigate professional settings. The more marginalized identities one holds, the more code-switching is required. 

Kothari lays out an example of how Black women employees have felt pressured to code-switch in regards to hairstyle: “We constantly hear of Black hairstyles being policed as unprofessional. Black employees are told to change their hairstyle so that it fits squarely within what white supremacy deems ‘professional.’ Meanwhile, those with non-Black hair can have any haircut, or tie up their long hair loosely in a messy bun and that is deemed okay within the professional culture and certainly would not be punished or banned the way Black hair historically has been.”

Read more: How Microaggressions Affect Identity in the Workplace

What are the effects of code-switching at work?

Code-switching takes a large toll on mental health and wellbeing, and reduces employees’ sense of belonging in the workplace. Kothari says having to code-switch at work reinforces the separation between the individual and the workplace culture. Individuals who don’t have to code-switch have a greater sense of belonging at work—there’s less to explain, and there’s less mental and psychological work to do on top of what is expected of you at work.

Not only does code-switching affect your employees’ sense of belonging, it also causes an innovation and creativity drought. Less diversity inherently leads to less innovation—if everyone in an office is expected to look and speak in the same manner, where do the new perspectives and opinions come from? Employees who feel compelled to code-switch in order to be seen and respected are going to be less likely to voice their opinions when they disagree with the majority or have an opportunity to spark healthy debate. In turn, agreeability leads to a creativity deficit. 

Berry says: “If the work environment is not welcoming to [all] individuals, it can contribute to pressure to code-switch to survive. Often, the race and language experiences in the workplace coincide. The people and their language are one and the workplace attempts to force separation of the two, which causes stress and pressure that is beyond the job duties. This pressure is essentially linguistic racism."

Read more: 8 Incredible Ways Women Impact Your Company

How to build company cultures where people feel comfortable being their whole selves

Minorities who code-switch are likely to face a professional dilemma: to suppress cultural identity for the sake of career success or to sacrifice potential career advancement and security for the sake of bringing their whole selves to work.

The need for code-switching is indicative of larger systemic issues of unconscious bias, sexism, and racism in the workplace. “For people of color, code-switching is a self-defense response rooted in the need to feel safe and protected. But I’ve learned from my own personal journey that there is boundless freedom in understanding that your value isn’t derived from what you look like, but how you perform and what you’re capable of accomplishing. And the cherry on top is when that’s validated by your employer and peers,” writes Davita Galloway, cofounder of Hue House.

Berry says we can start building inclusive company cultures by honoring, acknowledging, welcoming, and celebrating the regional dialect variations and bilingual fluency that exist in each workplace. “Employees should feel comfortable expressing themselves in their most authentic voice without fear of criticism. Employers should encourage open dialogue about employees' spoken language preferences. When employees feel seen and heard it creates a positive environment where they can be comfortable with being their whole selves and not a carbon copy or mainstream culture; because mainstream culture and language is not theirs.”   

Kothari adds that the more inclusive we are at work, and the more accepting we are that other languages, accents, and cultures are also professional, the less code-switching people will feel they have to do to belong or to be accepted by the in-group. 

In addition to having honest conversations about employees’ cultural preferences, leaders need to start acknowledging privilege and who’s part of the in-group. Kothari says, “We have to challenge the dominant cultural setting at work...Once we see that we work within white supremacy culture, one dominant culture, we can start to see the layers of culture that we all bring. In order for us to be our authentic selves at work the dominant culture has to make space for the fact that other cultures exist and are just as professional as the dominant one.” 

About our sources

Dr. Jessica Berry is an educator, advocate, and researcher who is passionate about sharing the living Gullah Geechee history, culture, and language with the world. She currently serves as the acting department chairperson and assistant professor of speech pathology and audiology at South Carolina State University. She completed her B.A. and M.A. in speech language pathology & audiology from Winthrop University and South Carolina State University, respectively. She completed her doctoral studies at Louisiana State University in communication disorders with a minor in linguistics and is the author of The Little Gullah Geechee Book: A Guide for the Come Ya. 

Pooja Kothari is an expert facilitator, trainer, and consultant on equity and inclusion. After witnessing firsthand how deep racism, sexism, and homophobia are ingrained in the criminal justice system as a public defender, Kothari founded Boundless Awareness to address unconscious bias in workplace culture. At Boundless Awareness, she offers tailored workshops and exercises to explore the intersections of identity, language, and bias in a fun, non-judgemental way.

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