Understanding Code Switching

By Tonya Sykes-Boyd

When I was a little girl, my mother always encouraged my siblings and I to speak “proper” English, to use language that was free of slang or any other cultural colloquialisms, most notably when speaking with my teachers or non-Black peers. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was my first lesson in how to code-switch.

There are several definitions of code-switching. The term was originally developed in linguistics to refer to individuals who switched between two or more languages. An example of this would be a bilingual person who may use one language at home and another at work. Today, it is used in a much broader sense to describe the ways we adapt our language, behavior, and actions to the dominant culture in the workplace. It could also include altering your appearance to fit the standard of whatever environment you are in. Some may conform to a dress code or change their hair to appear to be more in-line with the societal norms for work.

Examples of code-switching would include:

  • A Black woman removing her braids or changing her natural hairstyle to not appear unprofessional.
  • A White man deciding to go by his middle name as opposed to his full name because he is concerned his full name will make him sound uneducated.
  • People who speak other languages try to reduce their accent or not feel comfortable speaking to one another in the workplace.

By code switching, we protect ourselves and our connections to a certain community. By doing it in places such as school or work, we protect ourselves from judgement and discrimination by sticking to the “norm.” When we switch in our own community, we maintain a special connection to others who share our language and cultural history.

Some say that code-switching is about finding effective ways to communicate with people. It is said that if you speak to people in a language they understand or in a style that puts that person at ease, the likelihood of making a connection with that person increases. In this respect, all code-switching is not bad. Modifying our cultures to one another is a way to form common values and shared communication approaches. To some extent we all do it. Most of us do not use the same expressions with people we work with as we use around family or friends, but it is not equal for everyone. Some of us feel a greater pressure to conform as our own cultural upbringing is vastly different than the standards set by the dominant culture we are trying to assimilate to.

In the workplace, when code-switching becomes inauthentic and forced, it can have a harmful effect on employees. Most employers are not consciously forcing employees to adhere to specific requirements at work. What is not inherently understood is that the dominant culture can be as influential as it is subtle. People don’t need to be explicitly told cultural norms to infer them. There has been a growing push by employers to encourage people to bring their authentic selves to the workplace. But what if the dominant culture undermines an employee doing that? When that occurs, the employee starts to feel there is not a place for them to be themselves.

As company leaders, one of the most important things that can be done is to learn how code-switching affects employees. Being able to understand how the need to fit in at work affects employees requires company leadership to commit to creating a safe and secure work environment for all employees to be their authentic selves.

Company leaders can do this by:

  1. Fostering inclusivity: Create a culture that embraces diversity, values unique perspectives, and ensures all employees feel welcomed and respected.
  2. Educate and train: Provide comprehensive training programs on unconscious bias, cultural competence, and inclusive practices to enhance awareness and understanding.
  3. Review policies: Assess company policies to identify and eliminate any systemic biases, ensuring fairness and equal opportunities for all employees.
  4. Support employee resource groups: Encourage the formation of employee resource groups to empower underrepresented individuals and provide a platform for their voices to be heard.
  5. Lead by example: Set the tone at the top by modeling inclusive behavior, promoting open dialogue, and demonstrating a commitment to creating an equitable and inclusive workplace.

By following these steps, company leaders can gain a deeper understanding of how code-switching affects employees and take proactive measures to create an inclusive and supportive work environment that values the unique identities and experiences of all individuals.