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Why white managers must take on the work of code-switching now

March 24, 2021, 4:01 PM UTC
Helen Aboah, the CEO of Urban Zen, a luxury lifestyle brand created by Donna Karan. She recounts saying no to certain job opportunities when they didn’t feel right
Courtesy of Helen Aboah

A certain diversity memo is clearly making the rounds: Read books on anti-racism, hire more Black people, check in on your staffers of color. 

But then what? 

Much of the advice in business columns is geared toward white managers trying to make a change, in their companies, hopefully themselves. There’s less focus on the receiving end of their overtures. 

So this one’s for us. 

People of color are exhausted, alienated—and uncertain about what’s ahead. Surveys show that attitudes about the post-pandemic workplace vary by race; about half of Black knowledge workers say they are “treated fairly at work,” compared to three-quarters of white workers. Of those working remotely, 97% of Black workers want a hybrid or full-time remote working model, compared to 79% of whites. Workplace experts explain that telecommuting reduces the need for “code switching.” Harvard Business   Review defines the practice as “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.”

That we are seeing less of it, even if it took a pandemic, is a silver lining. 

White managers are not the only ones who must make behavioral changes right now. The data on code-switching underscore a positive development and could be a baby step in shifting power dynamics: The embrace of ourselves, our full selves, at work. 

And so when a colleague tries to engage you on issues of race, you have more power than you might think. Out: You being asked to “help” on a job search to ensure it’s a diverse pool. In: You asking what conditions have been set up to optimize for a candidate’s success.  

“We are together trying to imagine and live in a new society. In that society, people of color will also be required to show up differently,” said Glenn E. Singleton, founder and CEO of Courageous Conversation, a consultancy devoted to interracial dialogue in the workplace. “This time, it’s not a time of relaxation. This is about people of color really thinking about what we want in this new world. Never in our history have we not had heavy lifts. The heavy lift can’t simply be how we prop up our white brothers and sisters though. How do we actually lead?”

Hiring diversity is not enough

The knee-jerk reaction to last summer’s protests was additive: install a chief diversity officer, hire more people of color, host anti-racism training. 

A few key steps were forgotten. 

It’s kind of like choosing to have guests over, says Brooke Gregory, the recently named president of Courageous Conversation, and a longtime educator. “I prepare my house. I get the bedroom ready. I have allotted time to take you out to dinner. I feel I am in community with you.”

If none of those factors is right, the visit will not be fruitful. “That’s how I think about companies,” said Gregory. “If the culture is not one I can be successful in as a woman of color, it doesn’t matter how many women of color you hire.”

Cultural (ex)change is needed

The work before us is one of cultural transformation. Most companies are undergoing a version anyway, as they strategize office spaces, organizational charts and collaboration in post-pandemic workplaces. 

They need to weave in accommodation of difference, said Marie Han Silloway, a global marketing executive who has held senior positions in the U.S. and abroad for brands such as Subway, Starbucks and Estee Lauder.

“I have been struck by how often I see people pushing their own agendas without attempting to truly understand the other side of the equation. So when it comes to diversity, equality and inclusion,” she said, “it is a culture you have to actively promote. You have to be deliberate in creating teams who have a difference and a range of perspectives.”

Because the brunt of her career was spent in China, for example, Han Silloway talks about how much of her job was “decoding” and helping different cultures understand each other. This work now falls on everyone to prevent diversity, equity and inclusion from being just a few buzzwords.  

Otherwise, “there will be loads of ‘training’ but the concepts will not be embedded within the culture of the company and it will be superficial,” she said. “We’re seeing it right now with all the anti-Asian hate crimes. Diversity and the appreciation of diversity and inclusion is extremely fragile.”

Do only white people get to say no?

If it still sounds like a lot of work on people of color, it is. Singleton suggests employers can support and acknowledge that reality in a few ways. For example, affinity groups for employees of color might hold meetings during work hours instead of making the effort “extra.” Weave DEI into everybody’s job description, and measure effectiveness often and as conditions of bonuses and promotions. 

“When there’s a scarcity of people of color, the navigation for those folks is not individual. It is collective,” said Gregory. For example, saying no to a panel discussion that would otherwise be all white, or saying no to a mentoring program for women, or saying no to an employer looking for help finding diverse candidates might mean a very different outcome without your involvement. And yet that also puts an unfair pressure of representation on you. “My ‘no’ may change that search process and there’s not the luxury of thinking only of myself,” she said. “So I need to be able to navigate the way I say no.”

She describes a balance between “the weight of what it means to show up and surrender who I am and the cost of my soul in these environments. The boundaries we create actually establish what our value is. If all I say is yes, then I look like everyone else in the environment.”

Sometimes, it’s about reframing the question to get to “yes” on your own terms, said Helen Aboah, the CEO of Urban Zen, a luxury lifestyle brand created by Donna Karan. She recounts saying no to certain job opportunities when they didn’t feel right—but being able to steer the conversation to what she actually did want. “That opened bigger yesses,” she said. “And your yesses are as important as your no’s. When opportunity knocks, take it, take it, take it.”