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We were also surprised to find that black employees avoided stereotypes about black racial identity when they perceived that their organization either did not embrace diversity (also known as a color-blind ideology) or strongly embraced differences (also known as a multicultural ideology). In other words, a failure to acknowledge differences reduces the ability to recognize discrimination. Black employees might therefore seek to avoid stereotypes in color-blind organizations to avoid differential treatment. In contrast, companies that actively promote a diversity-friendly work environment can make the differences between groups more visible. Conforming to stereotypes in these multicultural environments may encourage the belief that black people have innate and fixed behaviors. Thus, in order to be seen as an individual, a black employee may code-switch.
All of this is, of course, complex and nuanced; indeed, it seems that no diversity environment perfectly eliminates code-switching. But that may be the point. It can be challenging for a black employee to navigate any organization’s racial composition and diversity climate, especially over the span of an entire career. One 32-year-old digital marketing assistant noted that the worst job he had had was at an organization where the culture was not diverse: “The strain I endured as a person of color just trying to fit in was so taxing,” he said, “that it negatively affected every other part of my life.” But even though he’s at an organization now that’s more focused on diversity, he still struggles to find coworkers to bond with because of his previous experience.
ARTWORK FROM LEFT: Oliv Barros, “Altar Particular,” 2018/2019; “Amarelo e Rosa,” 2018/2019
Do Efforts to Code-Switch Really Pay Off?
Our survey revealed the various ways and reasons black employees code-switch, as well as some of the effects. But it was unclear whether code-switching enables black employees to be accepted as “professionals” in the workplace. To answer this question, we designed an online experimental study for almost 350 black and white participants recruited on CloudResearch and living in the U.S. to determine how they evaluated code-switching behaviors.
The participants were instructed to imagine themselves as recently hired employees at a law firm in a large city. They each read an email from a colleague named either Lamar Matthew Jackson or La’Keisha Renee Jackson, both third-year associates at the firm. In the email, Lamar or La’Keisha shared advice on the “unspoken” ways to succeed at the company: whether you should “be yourself” or try to fit in; use standard English or slang; or wear your hair “naturally” or conform to more traditionally “Eurocentric” hairstyles. Participants were randomly assigned into two conditions in which Lamar/La’Keisha code-switched by altering their preferred name (e.g., “My name is Lamar/La’Keisha, but you can call me Matt/Renee at work”), speech patterns, or preferred hairstyle depending on workplace expectations.
Participants then evaluated whether Lamar/La’Keisha’s behavior was appropriate for the workplace and level of professionalism. On average, white participants evaluated code-switching behaviors positively and perceived those who engaged in these behaviors as more professional — particularly when black employees adjusted their hairstyle to better fit the norms of the dominant group. “You should be allowed to keep your name, but slang and nappy hair are unprofessional for the workplace,” said one respondent. Another noted, “Looking and behaving professionally are necessary when working at a place like that. Appearances matter. Her name La’Keisha sounds obviously ‘black’ and some may even think ‘ghetto,’ but Renee is more conservative.”
In contrast, black participants disparaged the fictitious black lawyers who intentionally engaged in code-switching to fit in at work, and evaluated them as less professional. “Nothing is wrong with ‘ethnic’ names. That is a stereotype that I don’t agree with either,” said one respondent. “My name is my name. If they can pronounce every other name they can pronounce mine…. Use of the English language is understandable, especially in her profession. But to pretty much change her whole identity for a job isn’t right.” Another espoused the belief that “when a person is able to be themselves in a professional setting, they are more productive because they are able to focus on work instead of being distracted by keeping up a specific professional façade.”
Ultimately, our research clearly shows that minorities who code-switch are likely to face a professional dilemma: Should they suppress their cultural identity for the sake of career success? Or should they sacrifice potential career advancement for the sake of bringing their whole selves to work?
This dilemma not only poses career and psychological risks for individuals, it also damages organizations, which may miss out on the distinct perspectives and contributions from racial minorities who are uncomfortable being themselves in the workplace.
What Can We Do About It?
In light of our research, we offer the following recommendations for companies and racial-minority professionals about the complexities of code-switching at work. The suggestions aren’t comprehensive, but will give everyone in your organization a way forward in beginning to tackle this behavior.
Evaluate company culture . Organizations must examine how their workplace culture may create pressure for minorities to code-switch. For example, even when a company encourages employees to bring their authentic selves to work, racial-minority professionals may still perceive that doing so risks appearing unprofessional. Companies should consider if they are asking their black employees to do something that they will then be punished for. Specifically, are you asking black employees to bring their whole selves to work only if they also assimilate with dominant cultural norms?
Tackle underrepresentation at all levels. Part of the reason black employees feel pressure to adjust their cultural-identity expression within the workplace is the chronic problem of minority underrepresentation in these environments. This makes even the slightest cultural “difference” more noticeable. Ensuring that people of color are represented at all levels of the organization will make their cultural identities — including hairstyles, interests, and speech patterns — normative and acceptable.
That said, we believe that company diversity efforts that solely seek to increase the number of black employees, without questioning the inclusivity of the environment, are bound to fail. As found in our data, code-switching also occurs when there are roughly equal numbers of black and nonblack employees, which suggests that diversifying organizations is only part of the solution.
Consider inclusion separately from diversity. Research shows that valuing diversity is not enough to reduce discrimination toward minorities. In addition to focusing on diversity, organizations need to create inclusive environments for employees to feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work. This includes collecting information on employees who are segmented by their social identities and collecting qualitative data for underrepresented group members whose experiences may not register in a quantitative survey.
Creating inclusive environments that work for everyone is challenging, however. Our research finds that black employees demonstrate less effort to code-switch when organizations deny or overemphasize cultural differences. One way to strike this balance is for company leaders to address issues outside of their companies that affect black employees’ work experiences. Inviting these conversations demonstrates that the company values black employees beyond their individual contributions to the bottom line.
Additionally, employers can ensure that all of their employees feel included by addressing the presence of differences and need for inclusion while simultaneously valuing fairness and meritocracy. Companies can explicitly state a desire to foster an inclusive workplace that both values differences and also seeks the most qualified individuals to join the company. Taking it a step further, organizations can also create policies and rules that reflect these values, such as criteria for interviewing and hiring candidates that promote differences and meritocracy.
Leaders and coworkers
Practice inclusive behaviors . Inclusiveness is not just a broader organizational imperative; it’s also a daily practice. Leaders can be curious and learn about cultural differences and intentionally invite black employees into their networks and actively listen to their input.
Start with yourself. Is there an identity that is important to you that you may be hiding or downplaying in the workplace? By bringing more of yourself to the table, you may encourage others to do the same. Recognizing your own differences can reveal which parts of you are not welcome at work, deepening your understanding of the professional dilemmas that black employees encounter when they bring their whole selves to the workplace.
Check your biases. It is important to both recognize difference at work and also be wary of pointing it out when it isn’t warranted. If you catch yourself thinking that your black employee or coworker is not “like” other black people, engage in self-inquiry. Where do those thoughts come from? 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? Engaging in this line of questioning promotes being curious about your biases rather than asking black people to explain their differences.
Strategic code-switching. Given that black participants evaluated code-switching negatively compared to white participants in our research, it is important for black employees to strategically code-switch, if necessary, in a way that maximizes professional gains and minimizes psychological and social distress. For example, previous research found that same-race mentoring provides more social and psychological support than cross-race mentoring. Black employees who strive to suppress their racial identity may miss out on these invaluable relationships.
On the other hand, high-profile careers are typically obtained through networking with and being referred by powerful organizational members, who are typically white and male. In this case, code-switching may increase access to important career opportunities. Several participants shared how they code-switch strategically at work. A 29-year-old assistant director positioning herself for advancement said, “I wear my hair naturally and also maintain my accent, but I do not use a lot of slang or do things that are not professional, regardless of race. It has been a journey to find that balance in being my true self as a black woman in a predominately white, elite space.” Another women, a 30-year-old research nurse, emphasized the specific way she thinks about and enacts professionalism. “At work my goal is to be professional — not to assimilate,” she said. “I dress, talk, and behave in a way that I feel instills confidence in my patients and coworkers. I don’t go out of my way to make my white coworkers [more] comfortable with my presence because it’s not my job to make them comfortable.”
Given the range of career experiences racial minorities have, we recommend that they consider the following when deciding whether or not to code-switch:
Assess your environment. During interviews, onboarding, or joining a new team, it is important to assess when and how others are expressing themselves, and whether they believe you will fit their environment. Are employees behaving differently when senior leaders are present compared to their normal behavior? Are you encouraged to adjust your behavior and appearance depending on the context? For example, are you being asked to meet with black clients but are less visible on projects that involve nonblack clients? Use these environmental cues to make strategic code-switching decisions.
Assess your values. Because code-switching can be exhausting, it is important to evaluate your workplace goals and values. Are you ambitious? Do you seek advancement no matter the cost? Or is it more important for you to be your authentic self regardless of the work environment? Are you more willing to code-switch for short-term gains but unwilling to sacrifice your authenticity for an extended time? Knowing what you value for yourself and your career is imperative for deciding if and how to code-switch.
It is important to note that we are not suggesting that racial minorities should necessarily code-switch at work. We are highlighting the dilemmas that code-switching poses for their professional and personal lives — dilemmas that they shouldn’t have to solve on their own. Organizations can and should play a pivotal role in creating environments where code-switching is not necessary for success, particularly by cultivating spaces that value inclusion and differences. We believe that further research could capture evaluations of observable code-switching behaviors in realistic settings, which will continue this conversation.The Big Idea