Code-Switching at Work Is Taking a Psychological Toll on Black Professionals - Black Enterprise
Black Enterprise magazine Fall 2019 issue

Ask most black professionals what they do to fit in at work, and you’ll get a knowing head nod. Many of us are so used to changing up how we speak, look, and act to make others comfortable that we’re hardly even aware we’re doing it anymore. It’s called code-switching. And even though it often helps us get ahead, it’s taking a toll on our well-being, according to an analysis published recently by Harvard Business Review.

A handful of African-American academics are highlighting the “social and psychological repercussions” of code-switching, noting that previous research has shown it can “deplete cognitive resources and hinder performance” and also “reduces authentic self-expression and contributes to burnout.”

The writers recognize how black professionals are often caught in a dilemma, choosing between their emotional and mental well-being and their career advancement:

“Previous research found that same-race mentoring provides more social and psychological support than cross-race mentoring. Black employees who strive to suppress their racial identity may miss out on these invaluable relationships,” they wrote. “On the other hand, high-profile careers are typically obtained through networking with and being referred by powerful organizational members, who are typically white and male. In this case, code-switching may increase access to important career opportunities.”

The analysis was written by Courtney L. McCluney, a postdoctoral fellow in the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia; Kathrina Robotham, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Michigan; Serenity Lee, a research associate at Harvard Business School; Richard Smith, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Michigan; and Myles Durkee, an assistant professor in psychology at the University of Michigan.

Given that black professionals have expressed a more negative view of code-switching than their white peers, the writers note that it’s important to “strategically code-switch, if necessary, in a way that maximizes professional gains and minimizes psychological and social distress.”

They offer recommendations for how organizations, leaders, and co-workers can make workplaces truly inclusive, lessening the need for employees to change how they express or present themselves to fit in. And they give the following advice for black professionals who are deciding whether code-switching is right for them:

Assess your environment. During interviews, onboarding, or joining a new team, it is important to assess when and how others are expressing themselves, and whether they believe you will fit their environment. Are employees behaving differently when senior leaders are present compared to their normal behavior? Are you encouraged to adjust your behavior and appearance depending on the context? For example, are you being asked to meet with black clients but are less visible on projects that involve non-black clients? Use these environmental cues to make strategic code-switching decisions.

Assess your values. Because code-switching can be exhausting, it is important to evaluate your workplace goals and values. Are you ambitious? Do you seek advancement no matter the cost? Or is it more important for you to be your authentic self regardless of the work environment? Are you more willing to code-switch for short-term gains but unwilling to sacrifice your authenticity for an extended time? Knowing what you value for yourself and your career is imperative for deciding if and how to code-switch.