I've been 'code-switching' my entire career, but experts say that shouldn't be a workplace norm—here's why
I started working at age 15 and since then, I've had two personas: workplace me and the real me.
Workplace me is witty yet professional. She's cheerful, high-pitched, and tries to enunciate every word clearly. The real me is way more relaxed — she uses Ebonics, social media references and has a Southern twang that you can't miss.
As a Black woman, I've been indoctrinated to believe that Black vernacular, hairstyles and ways of expression are unacceptable at work. So I entered survival mode. I adjusted and adapted until I fit in.
It wasn't until my freshman year of college that I found out I was code-switching, which involves adjusting one's style of speech, appearance, behavior and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service and employment opportunities, as reported by Harvard Business Review.
According to HBR, code-switching can have some upsides like increased chances of a raise, promotion and perception of professionalism — but it also comes with "social and psychological repercussions."
"Downplaying one's racial group can generate hostility from in-group members, increasing the likelihood that those who code-switch will be accused of 'acting white.'
Seeking to avoid stereotypes is hard work, and can deplete cognitive resources and hinder performance," said HBR. "Feigning commonality with coworkers also reduces authentic self-expression and contributes to burnout."
Here's how code-switching impacts Black professionals, and why experts say it shouldn't be a workplace norm.
'There's an expectation that you must speak standard English in order to navigate this world'
I first witnessed code-switching as a child in the early 2000s, watching my aunt shift from using her normal voice and African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to using a high pitch and standard English when talking on the phone or conducting business.
But this practice of alternating between languages and dialects goes back to the early 20th century.
According to YES! Magazine, a "nonprofit, independent publisher of solutions journalism," the term "code-switching" was created by an established linguist in the mid-1950s.
"Code-switching is an age-old practice that is familiar to many Black people — and people of color — in the United States," says Ida Harris in the article. "Though when sociolinguist Einar Haugen coined the term in 1954, it was to describe language alternation, or the mixing of two or more languages, or dialects. Albeit, the practice had been known since the early 20th century."
There's an expectation that you must speak standard English in order to navigate this world, navigate society, get a job, or get into school. It's the culture and the language of people in power.Morgan Cornellsenior promotions producer at Sinclair Broadcast Group
Morgan Cornell, senior promotions producer at Sinclair Broadcast Group and my former English professor, adds that code-switching stems from America's extensive history of colonization and oppression.
"When I think of code-switching, I think of the words 'standard English.' I think of how the English language has basically been oppressed and pushed onto people," Cornell tells CNBC Make It. "And if it's not a part of your culture, there's an expectation that you must speak standard English in order to navigate this world, navigate society, get a job, or get into school. It's the culture and the language of people in power."
'I finally got to a point where I couldn't run anymore'
Steps have been taken to make Black people feel safer at work, including the passage of the C.R.O.W.N. Act and increased DEI initiatives. However, there is still much work to be done regarding the pressure to code-switch, something Cornell still deals with today.
"I have been running from code-switching for a very, very long time. And I finally got to a point where I couldn't run anymore," Cornell says.
We have to make sure that our tone is appropriate, and that we are speaking in academic language so that we're heard and taken seriously. That's the expectation. And that's heavy to carry.Morgan Cornellsenior promotions producer at Sinclair Broadcast Group
For Black women like herself, Cornell says code-switching is "exhausting because there's already stigma that we have to deal with, especially in the workplace, in terms of communicating. We have to make sure that our tone is appropriate, and that we are speaking in academic language so that we're heard and taken seriously. That's the expectation. And that's heavy to carry."
Some Black women may choose not to code-switch, but Cornell says "there are consequences to showing up as your authentic self in the workplace," like lack of acceptance and self-expression.
As a Black woman and Gen Zer, I've been lucky to witness the profound impact my generation has made on the workplace, from fighting for DEI programming to reimagining business casual attire. Not only has this helped me be a little more authentic at work, but on a larger scale, these changes are slowly making the workplace feel more inviting.
With Gen Zers listing diversity and inclusivity as some of their top workplace preferences, companies that vie to attract and retain young talent will follow suit.
'When people are comfortable in their diversity, that's when we really see strides happen'
Trying to decide where to draw the line between being yourself and being professional is a journey that's unique to every individual. My happy medium lies in my personal style and my ability to converse naturally with my colleagues.
At previous internships, I would dress in suits, blouses, loafers and heels every time I went to work. I'd keep details about my life, interests and hobbies to myself to come off as clean cut — and I tried to hide my "country" accent as much as possible.
Now, I wear my favorite sneakers to the office every week. I wear protective hairstyles like box braids and marley twists, and I joke with my coworkers about the latest TikTok trends saturating my feed.
I even hang out with colleagues outside of the office, allowing them to get to know me a little more personally.
Thankfully, I feel supported by my managers and encouraged to be my unique self at work, but I often wonder how different my life would be had I not spent several years playing a character to get ahead.
When people are comfortable in their diversity, that's when we really see strides happen.Zee Cohen-Sanchezfounder and executive director of Sole Strategies
Though everyone feels the need to code-switch for different reasons, the common denominator is comfortability, says Zee Cohen-Sanchez, founder and executive director of Sole Strategies, a progressive campaigning and DEI strategy firm.
People should ultimately have the choice to present themselves how they see fit.
"Allowing people to code-switch in the way that they feel the most authentic at that moment is really important. When people are comfortable in their diversity, that's when we really see strides happen," Cohen-Sanchez tells CNBC Make It.
"In our company, that's when new ideas come forward, that's when we're doing better campaigning … If we're just going [into our jobs] all buttoned-up and code-switching, it's very, very difficult for us to connect with people on that level."
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