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According To A Recent Poll, Code-Switching In The Workplace Ain’t Went Nowhere

A Harris Poll from December 2023 reveals that the workplace politics of code-switching are both complicated and prevalent, particularly among Black and other employees of color.

A Harris Poll from December 2023 reveals that the workplace politics of code-switching are both complicated and prevalent, particularly among Black and other employees of color. As reported by Indeed, which commissioned the survey from the Harris Poll, code-switching is used by Black employees for a variety of reasons.

Thirty-four percent of respondents in the poll said that they code-switched in the workplace. “Code Switch,” a popular NPR podcast and blog addressing issues relating to race, culture, and ethnicity, refers to code-switching as changing either one’s language or how one expresses themself in conversations. The reasons people code-switch at work, according to the survey, vary, as does the belief in the positive effects of the practice. Thirty-one percent of Black respondents believe that code-switching has had a positive impact, while 39% claim the practice has had no impact. Another 39% believe that if they stopped code-switching, it would hurt their career. 

According to Misty Gaither, Indeed’s vice president of global diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, employers should first understand what code-switching is. “Employers need to be aware of code-switching because you need to recognize when you’re getting the purest, most authentic version of a person that you’re bringing into your workforce,” said Gaither. “If somebody is feeling like they can’t really show all aspects of their identity, you’re missing out on parts of them that are actually going to be better for your business.”

Gaither continued, “A lot of times, we miss opportunities to build those genuine connections because of how we think a person is supposed to be relative to how they show up. If you as a leader model authenticity and openness, that’ll help with the frequency of code-switching and people needing to wear a mask to work.”

According to the study, four groups viewed code-switching as necessary: workers at companies that are scaling back DEI commitments (56%), Black employees (44%), workers between the ages of 18-34 (42%), and employees who have been discriminated against (39%). Black employees are familiar with the term “code-switching” and can recognize when other employees are doing it. Fifty percent of Black respondents say they have seen Black and other people of color engage in code-switching at work. 

Gaither said those numbers indicate the calculus that some Black employees feel needs to be performed in order for them to succeed in their workplaces. “We talk about it as this mask that we wear. It’s so many small pauses that Black people have to take. It’s a calculation that is very taxing and tiring to determine,” Gaither explained. “I think some people use code-switching as a strategy or a tactic.” 

Representation has little bearing on the employment of code-switching in the workplace, a finding that surprised Indeed. Thirty-four percent of workers have code-switched even at companies they think have a good representation of Black or other people of color in leadership positions. Thirty-two percent have code-switched at companies with diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

According to Nicole Dixon, a manager of business operations and the co-chair for Indeed’s Black Inclusion Group, diversity tends to lend itself to the comfort of employees, particularly employees from marginalized backgrounds. “Teams need to be more diverse. You want people to feel comfortable in environments where they don’t see themselves,” said Dixon. “If teams are more inclusive, and if I saw more individuals like myself and from a variety of different backgrounds in a room, I would feel more comfortable, because there are different opinions; there are different thoughts.”

Conversely, most Black people surveyed indicated that code-switching has had no impact on their mental health (56%). In contrast, those who believed it had a negative or positive effect were nearly identical, 23% and 21%, respectively. As NPR indicated in its reasons that people code-switch, the process is often unconscious, meaning many employees don’t actively think about code-switching — they perform it.

According to Yahan Mensah, a UX designer and regional co-chair of Indeed’s Black Inclusion Group, companies need to “harness the insights, questions, and feedback from their team members” to “Recogniz[e] that every individual within an organization contributes diverse perspectives shaped by their unique experiences.” 

To that point, Gaither said that a key for executives is to not impose their expectations for or of white people onto Black workers or workers of color. “It is really understanding the stories of people who are different from you,” Gaither said. “So if you are a C-suite executive and you spend the majority of your time in white-dominant spaces, and all of your closest peers are very similar to you — then that will be your lens. And you’re always going to be surprised when you meet someone who does not meet your bar for how someone should show up.”