What is Code-Switching and how does it show up in the Workplace?
- On 27 October 2023
- Posted by Chantal Mariotti
Blog by Lisa M. Sanchez, Founder and CEO, JustDigIn2It LLC
Code-switching is not new; it’s just not talked about often. Many pundits and linguists weigh in on this topic, but this is what code-switching means to me personally and as a Human Resources leader.
Code-switching in the workplace is when BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) adapt more westernized characteristics to “fit” in with the rest of their colleagues.
What it looks like is speaking “proper English” and avoiding slang in meetings and in work social settings. In other words, how one speaks in their own cultural settings with family and friends should never show up at work. There’s a joke in the black community where we say we’re “bilingual,” which means the ability to switch from standard or proper English to “street talk.” As one who identifies as Afro-Latina, using street talk at work is taboo. I was conditioned early on from parents who were from South and Central America to “adapt” or “assimilate.”
Code-switching is also seen in job interviews. For example, coupled with speaking proper English, physical appearance may be altered in order to meet what is perceived to be more normalized behavior. Black women have been conditioned to straighten their hair for interviews and in general in the work environment versus wearing their natural hair. For years, black people were discriminated against for wearing ethnic hairstyles such as cornrows, dreads or braids. Even with the CROWN Act, which prohibits discrimination against people who wear such styles, it is still problematic. Ethnic hairstyles are still seen as unprofessional.
Code-switching may also be seen in clothing. That is, wearing outfits that more closely represent the dominant society versus urban outfits or African clothing or daishikis. An example of this was when Tennessee state representative, Justin Pearson, wore a dashiki to be sworn in earlier this year in February. He received great pushback from some of his colleagues and on social media for just being his authentic self, while also honoring his ancestors. His daishiki was seen as disrespectful.
Growing up as a young, Afro-Latina child the image of beauty was blond hair and blue eyes. I recall vividly putting a towel over my head and swinging from side-to-side to emulate white beauty. This, as well as learning early on that in order to “make it in America” you have to be more white. As a result, my mother sent us to “white” schools via the “busing program” as a way to ensure our future success. That experience came with learning how to dress and speak differently. This was very common in the 60’s and 70’s. And, so, code-switching became a way of survival in a land where you see very little representation. It is the pathway to being accepted into society, the best schools, job promotions and being invited “to the table” at work.
People code-switch to fit in with the rest of the workforce, to feel included, to feel welcomed, to secure a promotion and to not be seen as different. The word “fit” must be removed from organizational vocabulary. Fit is another way of describing exclusion and automatically negates a sense of belonging and inclusion. Fit stifles organic engagement and keeps people from showing up exactly as and who they are.
No one benefits from code-switching. It is detrimental to the workplace. If someone feels compelled to code-switch, it means they are not in a safe space to be their authentic self. It becomes a battle to fit in. And when one is in a constant state of adjusting to fit it, it can become exhausting and have a negative effect on morale, performance, and employee experiences and engagements with others.
I stand for ABIDE or access, belonging, inclusion, diversity and equity. The values of ABIDE must be woven into the fabric of the organization in order to positively impact employee experiences and engagements. This means having policies, practices, programs and services that value diversity, that are intentional about representation, that represent all employees and the value they add to the workplace. It means removing physical and non-physical barriers and obstacles and creating access to job promotions, job opportunities and other workplace experiences. It’s creating safe spaces through Employee Resource Groups so employees can connect with people who look like them and share similar experiences for a sense of inclusion and belonging. It’s providing regular and ongoing learning and professional development opportunities on subjects like microaggressions and unconscious bias and how they show up in the workplace and how they can be avoided. It’s ensuring fair and equitable practices across all employee programs, including compensation and benefits.
Code-switching is a secret society. No one really knows it’s taking place except the person who is doing it. The only way people will stop code-switching is if the organizational culture creates a safe space for people to be their authentic selves. And, therein lies the biggest problem. Culture. Culture is at the root of all organizational dysfunction because it defines the norms, customs and behaviors of the workplace. And, when we don’t correct poor behavior and conduct such as microaggressions and unchecked unconscious bias, organizations give permission for the behavior to continue. And while culture is led from the top, everyone is responsible for culture and treating people with dignity and respect, while recognizing that everyone is different and want to be seen and heard.
Founded in July 2021, JustDigIn2It LLC is a life/career coaching and HR consulting company. The Founder and CEO, Lisa M. Sanchez, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, CPLC, has 28 years of Human Resources (HR) management and executive leadership experience. As a thought leader on organizational culture, Sanchez folds into her practice the values of ABIDE – access, belonging, inclusion, diversity and equity – to ensure that the “whole person” approach is connected to business decisions, HR and organizational strategies, employee experiences and workplace engagements.
To reach Lisa, click here https://executivehrconsulting.com/consultants/justdigintoit and click CONTACT NOW.
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