What It Means If You’re Code-Switching in the Workplace

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Paulana Lamonier Sep, 07, 2018

In season two, episode 13 of Living Single, Kyle Barker goes through ‘A Hair-Raizing Experience.’ Kyle gives his bosses a stellar presentation on a new project and also persuades them to make him funds manager. Later, one of his colleagues, Lawrence insinuates that the promotion may not happen all because of one thing: Kyle’s hair.

“It’s not corporate enough,” Lawrence blatantly says referring to Kyle’s finger-coil like twists. He ends the conversation by saying, “change the hair.” Throughout the entire episode, Kyle tries on a variety of toupees and wigs and then comes to the realization that he won’t change his hair to get a promotion.

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According to New York City-based therapist Tamara Thompson, Lawrence’s action in Living Single is a prime example being marginalized in the workplace, which often leads to code-switching.

“It becomes problematic when you’re in an environment, where you feel like the only way you can survive is by code-switching. If you show any sign of individuality, that’s going to be frowned upon, penalized or even exclusion if you don’t do it. You feel like you’re being forced to change your personality or you’re not allowed to wear your hair in a certain hairstyle,” Thompson said. “When they’re marginalized in the workplace, sometimes you are punished and penalized in a really subtle way.”

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The definition of code-switching per Dictionary.com means, “the modifying of one’s behavior, appearance, etc., to adapt to different sociocultural norms.” A few more examples of code-switching can be a woman who works at a predominantly male company and feel they have to change their language or jargon to adapt and join the boy’s club, when a person of color has a work voice, which sounds completely different from their regular voice or when they have to change their hairstyle, the style of clothing just to fit into a company’s culture.

In a previous interview with ESSENCE, CNN political commentator Symone Sanders spoke about how she’s against code-switching and why she no longer has a work voice. She went on to talk about a discussion she had with a few student leaders where she was asked, “how can I effectively code-switch at my internship?” Her response: “You’re basically asking me, how can I be more palatable for my coworkers that don’t look like me?”

Therapist and certified yoga instructor, Katiuscia Gray believes the reason why people of color code-switch is to make their white colleagues feel comfortable.

“They don’t want to show their ‘Black side.’ I don’t even know what a Black side is, but that’s what I’ve heard. They code-switch to make white people feel more comfortable and I feel no matter how comfortable you make them feel, at the end of the day, we’re still Black,” Gray said.

Gray says many people of color talk in a different tone of voice to not only conceal their blackness, but also don’t want to be deemed as the ‘angry Black woman’ or the fear of ‘getting in trouble’ when it’s time to voice their opinion. There is a sweet spot where one can be their authentic self at work in regards to style and tone of voice, while still maintaining a sense of respectability, professionalism, and assertiveness.

However, is all code-switching bad? Thompson says we all tend to subconsciously code-switch without even noticing it. Sometimes the person we are changes depending on who we are with. The person we may be with our friends may not be the same person we’ll be with our parents, siblings, or even colleagues.

“All of us have different things we’d like to be and there are some people that bring that out of who we are. Some of us can go out, be 100 percent authentic and then come home and behave completely different. That’s who we are as well,” Thompson said. “As long as you feel like you can be yourself, without fear of being penalized, without fear of not getting a promotion you’re qualified for. In that form, it’s unhealthy when you can’t be yourself.”

So what should one do when they feel like they’re being compromised at work. Both Thompson and Gray believe to use that as a moment to teach their colleagues.

“You want to take the steps to change the views and perspective of other people. When you have upper management support, you’re able to do that sometimes,” Thompson said. It’s important to not write people off right away, but instead elaborate and convey its significance.

Notable companies like Google, Twitter and more have created employee resource groups like Black Googler Network and BlackBirds, to help foster inclusion and diversity in the workplace. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are employee-led groups made up of individuals who join together based on common interests, backgrounds or demographic factors such as gender, race or ethnicity, according to Society to Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Per SHRM, when companies have ERGs, they help foster safe places for their employees to be heard and seen, creates inclusions and builds diversity within the company, help get a better understanding of the customers they’re servicing, and more.

If there’s any indication where the company isn’t willing to compromise or meet you halfway, it’s best to leave the job. Understand that the company culture is not for you and a better opportunity is coming.

In the meantime, it’s vital for you to understand what makes you, you and find your authentic self. So, how does one reach that point? Gray emphasizes by starting with therapy. “Seek therapy, a life coach or go to an assertive class. Journal writing is great,” Gray said. “Don’t be afraid to be who you are and don’t be afraid to have a voice. You will not get fired. I constantly hear young professionals say ‘I don’t want to get in trouble.’ You won’t get in trouble. You’re a professional, be who you are. Show up as who you are. You never know what friendships you could ascertain from being your true self.”

Kyle responds to Lawrence along with his two bosses, “My hair is not just for fashion, it’s part of my heritage. It is a statement of pride. A statement, by the way, which could show our clients that this firm is not only progressive when investing its money, but also progressive when investing in its people… Whether you decide to promote me or not — I will not change my hair.”

In the end, Kyle’s project not only was approved, but he was promoted to funds manager. We all can take a note or two from Kyle’s book about not compromising oneself to fit the mold.