A recent survey by Indeed finds that Black employees are more likely than other workers to feel they need to change their language, behaviors, and physical appearance in the workplace.

By Maggie Mancini

More than one-third (34%) of Black employees have code-switched in the workplace, significantly higher than all other employees (20%), according to a recent survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of Indeed. Put broadly, code-switching involves a person from a marginalized group altering their style of speech, physical appearance, language, and mannerisms in an effort to fit into the dominant culture. The Indeed survey finds that employees at companies with BIPOC representation in leadership and DEI initiatives are more likely to think that code-switching is necessary in the workplace. Jessica Hardeman, global director of DEI and employee lifecycle at Indeed, says that the findings show that representation alone isn’t enough to curb the need to code-switch.  

“What it does tell us is that inclusive behaviors and practices must be embedded in every aspect of company’s hiring, engagement, and retention strategies,” Hardeman says. “Building an environment where employees feel comfortable showing up as their authentic selves takes time. Organizations need to be sure that DEI initiatives are being implemented properly and given appropriate support and attention.”  

Black employees are more likely to say that they’ve seen their coworkers code-switching in the workplace than white employees (50% compared to 26%). People who say they have been discriminated against in the workplace are also more likely to say they’ve seen their coworkers code-switching (52% compared to 33%). Further, younger people are more likely to do it, to believe it’s necessary, and to say they’ve witnessed it.  

Nearly one-third of Black respondents say code-switching has positively impacted their career, while nearly four out of 10 Black respondents say that if they stopped doing it at work, it would negatively impact their career by limiting their opportunities, leading to poor performance reviews, and hindering their career progression.  

Language and word choices are the top code-switching behaviors most often used in the workplace (65%), followed by tone of voice (54%), physical appearance (40%), facial expressions (38%), physical gestures (37%), hairstyles (26%), and food choices (24%). Among those who report altering their language or word choice in the workplace, 66% of respondents report being discriminated against at work.  

Hardeman says that it’s important for HR leaders to find the root causes of code-switching in order to improve trust in the workplace and ensure that employees feel safe coming to work as their most authentic selves. She explains that one way to understand the root cause is to ask employees for insights, questions, and feedback. HR leaders can then use these insights to understand what might be causing people to hide or change parts of themselves at work and what environmental norms need to change to ensure the workplace is psychologically safe for employees.  

“Two-way communication helps employees recognize that every individual within an organization contributes diverse perspectives shaped by their unique experiences, and foster a culture where different perspectives are respected and valued,” Hardeman says.  

She says that employee resource groups (ERGs) can play an important role in creating a positive employee experience by helping colleagues make connections and advocate on behalf of their communities. Still, it’s equally important to acknowledge that the burden of change belongs to leadership—not members of marginalized communities.  

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach,” Hardeman says. “ERGs may look different at different companies, so it’s important to consider what works best for the organization. At Indeed, we call ERGs ‘inclusion business resource groups’ because they are an integral part of our overall business strategy. We want to create spaces that encourage open communication and mutual support, while also empowering and engaging IBRGs to help inform our business strategies.”  

Code-switching is often a result of people not feeling comfortable being their authentic selves at work, says Hardeman. She says there are a few ways that leaders can foster environments where employees feel more comfortable.  

  • Create safe spaces for employees to connect with each other. ERGs are a great resource for people to share similar experiences and find a supportive community where they feel understood and valued. 
  • Increase representation within the workforce. A more diverse company will help employees see themselves represented and therefore feel safer being themselves. This means adopting robust DEI, hiring, engagement, and retention strategies.  
  • Practice inclusive behaviors. Leaders should be curious and learn about cultural differences. Intentionally inviting BIPOC employees into their networks and actively listening to their input establishes a culture of inclusivity.  
  • Distribute responsibility. It’s important to ensure that the burden is not solely placed on BIPOC employees to shift the working environment. Active allyship from those in the majority is critical to lasting change, Hardeman says. 

“Code-switching is something that has been engrained over time, so it’s not going to be magically resolved,” says Hardeman. “Leading by example, listening to the experiences of those on the margins, and acting on feedback are important and impactful places to start.” 

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