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Can You Really Bring Your Whole Self to Work?

December 4, 2019, 8:31 PM UTC

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Code-switching has become a natural part of how underrepresented groups, particularly people of color, operate in a predominantly white workplace. But at what cost?

Five researchers, Courtney L. McCluney, a postdoctoral fellow in the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, Kathrina Robotham, a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Michigan, Serenity Lee, a research associate at Harvard Business School, Richard Smith, a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Michigan, and Myles Durkee, an assistant professor in psychology at the University of Michigan have put together a lengthy analysis that’s a must read and share.

They begin by defining code-switching in a way that helps explain exactly what’s at stake. 

“Code-switching 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.”

Their latest working paper suggests that the perceived need for code-switching exemplifies the complexity faced by Black employees in the workplace.

“While it is frequently seen as crucial for professional advancement, code-switching often comes at a great psychological cost,” they write. “If leaders are truly seeking to promote inclusion and address social inequality, they must begin by understanding why a segment of their workforce believes that they cannot truly be themselves in the office.”

They examine the pros and cons of code-switching at work, and how it can exhaust Black employees as they navigate thorny power dynamics and risk alienating their Black peers.

Through a survey of 300 Black college-educated employees, they identified four times when respondents tended to rely on code-switching as a workplace strategy: When they aspired to leadership and promotion; when they wanted to show that they “fit” within their organizations; when they felt they needed to be vigilant against the potential of discrimination, and ironically, when they were working in “diverse” organizations. 

It gets complicated pretty quickly.

From their research:

“While we know that black employees code-switch when they aren’t well represented in companies, we also uncovered evidence that they downplay their racial identity and promote shared interests with others even when they are equally represented… It is possible that the stigma associated with black racial identity affects how larger groups are perceived, especially if they are seen as (or actually are) low performing. In these situations, black employees may downplay their race and try to reduce the stigma attached to it in the presence of others. Another theory is that non-black coworkers may be more likely to promote shared interests with others outside of their own racial group when black employees are equally represented. This may increase the likelihood of black employees code-switching in return.”

Here’s the rub: Additional research also shows that white executives tend to rate code-switching behavior as “professional,” while Black executives tend to evaluate peers who intentionally use code-switching behaviors as less so.  

“Nothing is wrong with ‘ethnic’ names,” said one respondent when faced with a scenario in which a hypothetical new hire name La’Keisha changed her name and adopted a Eurocentric hairstyle to better fit it. “My name is my name. If they can pronounce every other name they can pronounce mine… But to pretty much change her whole identity for a job isn’t right.” 

Another described the deeper issue. “[W]hen a person is able to be themselves in a professional setting, they are more productive because they are able to focus on work instead of being distracted by keeping up a specific professional façade.”

They end with a set of suggestions for how Black people can think about strategically code-switching, which will offer interesting insights for majority culture executives who may not understand the mental gymnastics that some Black and brown employees go through to manage their careers. 

But there are plenty of people who are consciously opting-out.

At work my goal is to be professional—not to assimilate,” one 30-year-old research nurse says. “I dress, talk, and behave in a way that I feel instills confidence in my patients and coworkers. I don’t go out of my way to make my white coworkers [more] comfortable with my presence because it’s not my job to make them comfortable.”

Ellen McGirt

@ellmcgirt

Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

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Tamara El-Waylly helps write and produce raceAhead.

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Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803), c.1800.
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"I was born a slave, but nature gave me the soul of a free man."

Toussaint Louverture