27 September 2023

Blending in: A threat to workplace inclusion

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Dan Schawbel* discusses the problem of ‘code-switching’ at work — adopting a different persona in order to fit in with the majority culture.

If you’ve ever found yourself adjusting the way you speak or rethinking what you wear to the office, you’re certainly not alone.

While most would agree it’s normal to adopt a somewhat different persona while at work, this ‘code-switching’ behaviour becomes much more harmful when it’s used to hide our cultural identities or ethnic background.

It’s a practice that’s widely used by people of colour and other under-represented groups to blend in at work or in other professional settings.

If left unchecked, it can have very real ramifications on corporate culture, psychological safety, and feelings of inclusion and belonging.

The term code-switching has traditionally been defined as shifting from one language or dialect to another, depending on the social context or setting.

However, it has evolved to include more than just the words and grammatical structure we use, but also how we speak, as well as how we dress, act, and even what name we choose to go by.

Think of a co-worker who changes their hair, clothing, nail style, or jewellery choices to appear more professional.

Or a team member who alters their personality to avoid coming across as aggressive or belligerent.

Regardless of the shape that it takes, code-switching is undeniably happening in workplaces across the globe, including at the highest levels.

However, the problem is that it typically goes unnoticed by the dominant white culture, because the people doing the code-switching are engaging in this behaviour to succeed in an environment that’s largely biased against them.

In some ways, code-switching isn’t all bad.

Several studies have found that minorities who are adept at code-switching do enjoy greater career success.

The problem is that code-switching can often feel required in the workplace — and when it’s necessary day in and day out, it becomes exhausting.

Code-switching can also take a huge toll on people’s wellbeing and their feelings of psychological safety.

When you have psychological safety in the workplace, people feel comfortable being themselves.

When you don’t have this, people are less likely to speak up and offer ideas and opinions.

Perhaps more importantly, there’s little authentic self-expression, which means that the diversity we claim to be celebrating gets hidden away.

Given all of the ways that code-switching affects employees and the organisations they work for, it’s important that steps are taken to address this.

While the following list isn’t comprehensive, it’s a good place to start.

Assess your culture

As with most workplace issues, part of addressing the problem involves identifying it.

This means examining all aspects of your employee experience, from the hiring process to exit interviews.

Start with your job listings — are there references to new hires being a ‘good fit’ with the culture, and if so, what does that really mean?

What about the day-to-day work experience — are there expectations in place about what people wear that are inherently biased?

What do employees themselves report about who gets ahead at work and which behaviour facilitates career advancement?

An anonymous employee survey is a great tool to help you delve into these questions and more.

Educate your workforce

Even though code-switching happens all the time at work, we don’t always recognise it if we’re part of the dominant culture.

So organisations need to educate everyone — leaders, managers, and employees — about this practice and how it can affect people.

It’s imperative that this education addresses implicit or unconscious bias, which is at the root of code-switching.

A robust learning program can help people examine these perceptions and work to reverse them.

Spotlight leaders who are setting the example

Another important way to minimise code-switching is for workers to see positive examples among their leaders.

There are two reasons why leadership examples matter.

First, it’s important that employees see that diverse leaders can achieve professional success without hiding any aspects of their cultural or ethnic background.

The other reason is because leaders set the example for how everyone else is expected to act at an organisation, including what types of behaviour help people get ahead.

Provide resources and support for diverse team members

Under-represented workers face potential career consequences when deciding where, when, and how much to be authentic.

They often have to be strategic in their decisions, which isn’t easy.

While organisations may not be able to enact a cultural shift overnight, they can offer workers the support they need to bring more of their true selves to work.

Mentoring is a great option, but it’s important to note that for minorities, same-race mentoring provides more support than cross-race mentoring.

Continue to build and celebrate a diverse workforce

If your organisation has achieved or set ambitious diversity targets, the good news is that you’re already well on your way to eliminating code-switching.

So keep your diversity hiring strategy on track, and stay the course with your other efforts.

That means celebrating all of the different cultures, races, and ethnicities that make up your workforce.

At the end of the day, having a diverse workforce is one of the key factors driving the success of your organisation.

Creating an inclusive culture is the only way this diversity can truly flourish.

*Dan Schawbel is a bestselling author and Managing Partner of Workplace Intelligence, a research and advisory firm helping HR adapt to trends, drive performance and prepare for the future.

This article is part of his Workplace Intelligence Weekly series.

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