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Code-Switching in the Workplace: How the Desire to Belong Affects Culture

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    Code-switching is a common occurrence in many workplaces, and understanding it is key to knowing when it's a positive practice or when it's detrimental to your company's DEI initiatives. Recognizing the nuances of code-switching is an important first step, especially when determining whether the code-switching you see in your business is a sign of comfortable employees unafraid of embracing their culture or a harmful power play.

    To better understand code-switching and its effects on your employees, you'll need to understand what code-switching is, why it happens, and how to determine if and when you need to address it. Read on — we've got all the tips and insights you need about code-switching in the workplace, right here.

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    What Is Code-Switching?

    Code-switching is not a new concept. It started as a study in the field of linguistics, in which bilingual and multilingual individuals exhibited shifts between languages depending on their situations, audience, and preferences. However, as awareness of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) in the workplace has risen to the forefront in recent years, experts have noted something referred to as "cultural code-switching."

    In general, the historic concept of code-switching is neither positive nor negative — it is simply a way that those fluent in more than one language communicate (if you know anyone who speaks using a combination of languages like "Spanglish" or "Swenglish," you get the idea).

    Cultural code-switching, or code-switching in the workplace, however, may be a sign of internal struggles. While linguistic code-switching happens often when an individual feels comfortable and secure, cultural code-switching can occur when an individual adapts some part of themselves — their appearance, language, or behavior — to align with the dominant culture.

    When an individual no longer feels threatened, they may implement a sort of reverse code-switch, in which they begin to incorporate language, looks, or behaviors closely aligned with their culture or background. This can be encouraging to colleagues from similar backgrounds in that they feel better represented and safer in embracing their own cultures.

    However, when detrimental code-switching occurs on a large scale, it can be harmful to both the individuals involved and the business as a whole.

    Why Do Employees Code-Switch?

    So, why do some employees feel they need to code-switch to hide parts of their identity? There are many reasons, but most of them come back to the primary issue of feeling or being perceived as the "other." Othering is a serious problem in many workplaces in which DEI is not encouraged or prioritized during the hiring process, and this mostly impacts those from races, ethnicities, or cultures outside the majority.

    To avoid being seen as "others," members of minority groups may turn to code-switching in order to do the following:

    • Avoid stereotypes
    • Have more opportunities for advancement or promotion
    • Maintain the comfort of colleagues or supervisors
    • Gain acceptance and fit in with the team

    While the motivations behind code-switching may seem at first to be considerate and thoughtful on the part of the employee, it places on them an unfair burden, often referred to as the "minority tax."

    Examples of Code-Switching at Work

    Wondering what might be an example of code-switching at work? Some occurrences of code-switching are relatively harmless. Think, for instance, about an employee who changes the way they dress because they're hoping for a promotion or one who adopts a different tone of voice on a customer service call. These are innocuous forms of code-switching that are generally unrelated to culture, race, or background.

    However, there's a darker side to workplace code-switching, which happens when employees — typically minorities — feel they have to change or hide something about their individuality or their culture in order to fit in.

    Dmytro Sokhach, founder of Admix Global, says he sees employees change the way they communicate with people of different races, especially people of color. "Additionally," he says, "my employees have altered their behavior, dress, and appearance to fit into a particular workplace culture. These adjustments can sometimes be stressful, especially for employees who feel that they have to completely shift their identity to fit in."

    But not all code-switching is race-related. It can also happen between people with different levels of experience and education. Jon Morgan, CEO of Venture Smarter, says it's something he sees frequently in the tech industry. "One example of code-switching that we have seen in our small business," he says, "is when our employees switch between using technical jargon and layman's terms while communicating with clients or partners, depending on the audience's expertise level."

    Sometimes, this is just a way to communicate effectively and intuitively. But when code-switching feels forced (as though there will be negative consequences otherwise) or is used to gain or take power from others, it becomes problematic.

    How Code-Switching Alters Culture

    Code-switching undermines the cultural backgrounds of the individuals involved, and it can also harm overall workplace culture. Please note that the issue is not with the employee participating in code-switching but rather in the system that supports a culture where minority team members feel obligated to do so. Here's how code-switching alters workplace culture:

    Loss of Cultural Identity and Belonging

    The biggest reason for code-switching is to fit in, especially in a group where an individual feels automatically excluded. Chad Price, a veteran entrepreneur, says code-switching can impact the way employees, especially minority employees, feel about themselves and where they came from.

    "It can make them feel like they have to sacrifice their cultural identity to fit in," he says. "As a minority small business owner myself, I've experienced that firsthand. That's why I make it a priority to create a workplace culture that celebrates diversity and inclusivity."

    High Turnover and Dissatisfaction

    Code-switching can also be a red flag that employees aren't happy with workplace culture, which can lead to lower retention rates. Jared Weitz, founder of United Capital Source, says this is a major problem and a signal that things are very wrong.

    "Code-switching can affect minority employees," he says, "by making them feel as though they need to change their identity to fit in, resulting in increased stress and decreased job satisfaction."

    Internal Power Struggles

    While code-switching from minority employees is more of a survival tactic, it's often a sign of a power grab when it's coming from the dominant culture.

    "Language should never be used to enforce power dynamics," says Alex Mastin, small business owner and founder of HomeGrounds. "Shifting language to fit in with individuals is one thing; shifting language to ensure others don't fit in is another. The workplace, whether in-person or remote, should be inclusive."

    The Future of Work: Creating an Equitable Environment

    If you feel that negative code-switching is happening in your business and affecting your workplace culture, you're probably wondering what you can do about it. We asked small business owners and experts how they combat harmful code-switching, and here are some of their best practices:

    Open Your Ears and Mind

    "My advice for other small business owners looking to improve their company culture," says Lilian Chen, founder of Bar None Games, "is to start by listening. Ask your employees about their experiences and take the time to really understand their perspectives. From there, you can develop initiatives that are tailored to your company’s unique needs."

    Lead by Example

    Price says, "One of the most important steps I've taken to change the dominant culture at my small business is by leading by example. I always make sure to be open-minded and respectful of different perspectives and cultures, and I encourage my employees to do the same."

    Create a Firm DEI Policy

    "Changing the dominant culture at a small business can be a challenging task," says Sokhach, "but there are a few steps I take to make progress. I start by identifying the aspects of my current culture that I want to change and then develop a plan to address them. This may involve implementing new policies or procedures, providing training to employees, or making changes to my hiring practices. It's also important to lead by example and ensure that you're modeling the behaviors and attitudes that you want to see in your workplace culture. Finally, be patient and persistent, as culture change takes time and effort."

    Learn how you can prioritize DEI in the workplace.

    Focus on Mental Health

    Jonathan Westover, Ph.D., managing partner at Human Capital Innovations, says, "To boost employee mental health, small business owners can offer resources such as mental health days, access to therapy or counseling, and flexible work arrangements. Encouraging work-life balance and promoting a positive workplace culture can also have a positive impact on employee mental health."

    Providing therapy for employees is a fantastic way to address issues with code-switching and a non-inclusive work environment. Online therapy platforms can be a cost-effective option for the employer that still provides significant benefits to the employee and to the team/business as a whole.

    Code-Switching FAQs

    Here are some common questions about code-switching in the workplace:

    What Are Common Examples of Code-Switching?

    Common examples of code-switching include alternating between languages in which the individual is fluent. It can also happen when a person changes their speech or actions based on the person or people with whom they're communicating. But it can also occur when a minority employee alters their appearance, language, or behavior to align with the dominant culture in the workplace.

    This could be a person of color who changes their natural hair to something they feel would be deemed more acceptable by colleagues or a trans person who has not transitioned in the workplace and goes by their previous name and pronouns.

    What Is Code-Switching in the Office?

    Code-switching in the office may happen when an individual or group feels left out or excluded from the dominant culture (typically made up of majority-conforming individuals). Many people who code-switch do so to fit in, receive fair treatment, or have a better chance at advancement.

    What Are Code-Switching Behaviors?

    Code-switching behaviors include any changes to a person's appearance, language, or behavior that masks or hides parts of their identity (including their culture, race, sexuality, or background). This might include different clothing or hairstyles that align with the majority or vocabulary that is carefully chosen and not part of their organic speech patterns.

    What Triggers Code-Switching?

    Triggers for code-switching may include a lack of diversity in the workplace or neglect of DEI initiatives. Often, individuals who code-switch do so because they have been made to feel they need to hide integral parts of who they are in order to fit in, belong, or succeed in their job.

    Switch the Code Toward Inclusion and Equity

    Being a business owner is a tough job, especially when you have a team of employees to manage. You want the best for your business, but you also want the best for those who work for you. 

    If you'd like to share your story of business ownership, especially as it relates to culture, diversity, and inclusion, submit it to Bizee. You might just become an INCspiration for other small business owners.

    From Grind to Shine. Tell Us the Good and the Bad.

    Share You Biz Story With Out Community of 1M That Truly Reflects Entrepreneurship.

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    Wendi WIlliams

    Wendi Williams

    Wendi is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis, IN, with over a decade of experience writing for a variety of industries from healthcare to manufacturing to nonprofit. When she isn't working on solutions for her clients, she can be found spending time with her kids and husband, working in the garden or doing more writing (of the fiction variety).


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