Once, while presenting a DEI and leadership training seminar for a large company, Farzana Nayani deliberately infused her presentation with a few phrases that felt comfortable to her, a multiethnic woman of color. She described taking responsibility as “some leaders would be down to do it that way,” and described the gaslighting nature of bias as “it’s a trip.” 

Afterwards, several attendees told Nayani how happy they were to hear those phrases. “For them, this was the first time seeing someone similar to their own identity, as women of color, being themselves in a larger environment,” said Nayani, a DEI consultant and author of The Power of Employee Resource Groups: How People Create Authentic Change. 

What Is Code Switching?

Code switching happens when a bilingual person switches from one language to another in the course of a conversation. Style shifting, closely related to code switching, happens when a person switches from the dominant language, dialect or other form of expression to another, and back again.

She believes the presentation would have been equally effective had she used more formal language, “but that simple expression of self allowed space for other WOC to feel belonging in an environment where they clearly were minorities,” Nayani said. 

 

What Is Code Switching?

That “simple expression of self” has an official name: Code switching. Strictly speaking, code switching occurs when a bilingual person switches languages in the same conversation, said John Baugh, the Margaret Bush Wilson Professor in Arts and Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Baugh, a linguist and academic, developed the theory of linguistic profiling, or bias prompted by a person’s speech.

Code switching also means changing between different dialects or more informal variations of the same language. Baugh calls that style shifting, and it happens with people who are bi-dialectal, or have a command of two different types of a single language. (Of note: The distinction between language and dialect is so murky that some define language as “a dialect with an army and a navy.”) 

Dialectic dualism is often thought of in terms of race and language variations such as African American English (AAE) or African American Vernacular English (AAVE), but “it might not have anything to do with race,” Baugh said. For example, someone who grew up in rural Appalachia and moved to Charlotte, N.C. to work could be perceived by city-born colleagues as having an accent.

Speaking of accents: Everyone has one. People who think they do not, and say as much, reveal that they live in a position of linguistic privilege, Baugh said. “The manner in which they speak does not call attention to itself with any negative repercussions,” he said. 

Style shifting also extends to attire, mannerisms, physical appearance, body language and other forms of expression that people alter to feel more like themselves, or make others feel more comfortable. It can be as simple as wearing a suit to a meeting with superiors and jeans to a meeting with peers, or altering your hairstyle to fit in with the dominant culture. 

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Why Do Employees Code Switch?

Code switching and style shifting take place at work more than you’d think — from the dominant to the non-dominant form of expression and back again. 

5 Reasons Why Employees Code Switch

  • To fit in with the dominant culture of the workplace
  • To create a safe space for speakers of the same language
  • To communicate easily and efficiently
  • To feel comfortable
  • To make others feel comfortable

“To us, code switching is when a person of color tries to change the way they would normally speak, dress, or interact to fit in with mainly non-POC people in the workplace,” said Jermon Williams, a cofounder of Washington, D.C.-based Broccoli Fest, a Black-owned social enterprise rooted in impact and entertainment. 

For some people, it’s a means of safety; in some environments, “code switching allows people to blend in and appeal to others who might be more close-minded,” Williams said. “We believe in showing up as ourselves and embracing our diverse backgrounds.”

“To us, code switching is when a person of color tries to change the way they would normally speak, dress, or interact to fit in with mainly non-POC people in the workplace.”

More examples: When technologists switch from jargon in a product meeting to lay language at a sales meeting, they’re style shifting. If you’d say “no problem” to a peer but “you’re welcome” to your manager, you’re style shifting. A bilingual person talking with a non-English speaking customer might code switch by using one language to describe broad terms and another when the conversation turns to more technical matters. 

Code switching and style shifting even take place in written communication. “Think about how much people write today, and how many different places communicate through writing,” said Steve Graham, a professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University who studies the development of writing. Each “community of writers” has a different way of communicating, a different goal and different audience.

For example, someone at work might convey the same information in three different styles — one style in an email to a manager, another in a DM to a peer, and a third in a Twitter post. To effectively style shift or code switch, a writer must know the norms and expectations of each community, Graham said. “If we’re not familiar with them, we can create problems for ourselves,” he said. 

“Many words just sound better in my head in Spanish or a modern idiom,” said Rach Richardson, a success coach at process-management app Trainual, who speaks English, Spanglish and urban English. “My writing style is quite conversational, so I’ll often sneak in a ‘gracias’ or ‘yassss’ into written communication,” she said.

Not always, though. Earlier in her career, Richardson literally watched her language, avoiding certain words or expressions. “As a young, curly-haired Hispanic woman, I was often perceived as uneducated and nothing more than a pretty face in corporate America,” she said. “I learned to ‘talk the talk’ and embody the version of me that belonged in certain successful atmospheres.” Now, further along in her career, Richardson intentionally seeks out places where she can be her fullest self, “not the version that is acceptable.” 

Whether they’re changing up language or dialects, employees code switch and style shift for a number of reasons. 

 

Comfort 

“I’d say I code switch in situations where I feel comfortable with the person I’m connecting with,” said Richardson. “‘Code switching’ for me means identifying with the authentic version of people, including their beautiful differences, and encouraging them to let their real selves shine,” she said.

 

Power

“Someone who has partial competence in a second language, who isn’t as comfortable speaking a second language, may welcome the opportunity to switch and speak in their mother tongue,” Baugh said. 

There’s some nuance here, though: Is switching to another language in front of the boss a question of comfort? Or is it a power play, where switching languages creates comfort and a feeling of safety because it enables employees to express themselves freely without fear of being overheard and understood? “You have to look at the context in which it’s occurring and the motivation on the part of the speakers,” Baugh said. 

 

Necessity

Eric Shashoua code switches at work in both oral and written communication because it’s necessary to run a company. Shashoua, CEO at productivity software maker Kiwi for Gmail, said each department has its own lingo: marketing, HR, dev ops, project management, legal and finance.

“As a CEO, I’ve got to code switch across every domain of the company in order to have sufficient depth in each area,” Shashoua said. In college, he studied computer science specifically to gain fluency in tech speaking even though he planned a career in business. If he meets with his CTO, he’ll speak one code; if meeting with the entire management team, he’ll switch to another. 

One example: When interviewing candidates for developer jobs, he’ll ask if they know what “order of n squared” means, and use the answer to gauge the person’s experience. “It’s a test to see how much depth a developer has,” he said. “No one else in the company knows what that means, so we use more general language when talking with others.”

 

Fairness

Stefan Heinrich Henriquez, CEO and co-founder of Los Angeles-based music software company Mayk, speaks English, Spanish, German, French and Portuguese. He’s also conversant in tech speak and said one of his business strengths is the ability to toggle between it and lay-friendly language. 

Which code he chooses depends on the setting. When he was general manager for TikTok in Latin America, he spoke Spanish and English, depending on the comfort level of coworkers. Even when working in a mostly English-speaking office, he spoke Spanish to Spanish-speaking customers.

Conversely, Henriquez once worked for a big tech company where nearly everyone but him was a native English speaker. (His first language is German.) “I was one of the very few people on the global team who was a non-native speaker and I thought I definitely had disadvantages because I wasn’t as fluent,” he said. “I was new to working in English all day.” 

That’s one reason Henriquez keeps others in mind when choosing a language. “It’s better to use the language people can follow, especially in a group setting,” he said. “It’s not fair to speak in a language most people don’t understand.”

 

For the Comfort of Others

While employees might use their native language or preferred dialect to feel comfortable amongst themselves, they can also switch to a second language or dialect to feel included or to make those around them feel more comfortable. 

This is especially true with Black employees who speak African-American Vernacular English, who switch to so-called Standard English “to optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities,” write the authors of The Costs of Code-Switching, a 2019 Harvard Business Review article. While it is frequently seen as crucial for professional advancement, code-switching often comes at a great psychological cost,” the authors continue. 

While people who code switch might reap professional benefits, they also suffer internal harm, including in-group ostracization for “acting white” and fatigue and stress from the continued effort of being inauthentic, write the authors.

“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,” the authors write. “Then they should address what everyone at the company needs to do to change this.”

 

Is Code Switching a DEI Issue?

Switching or shifting to make others comfortable: That’s exactly why code-switching is definitely a diversity, equity and inclusion issue and must be addressed as such, said Farzana Nayani, the DEI consultant.

Avoiding the topic indicates it’s not important, and also establishes the position that communication, behavior and gestures are unacceptable if they aren’t part of the dominant culture. “Employees may feel ashamed if part of their true selves are shared, and this can reinforce covering or hiding of their identities,” she said. 

Too, studies show that employees who use the language in which they’re most comfortable can be negatively judged for using that language. In a 2014 Latino Studies journal article, Talking While Bilingual, linguist Ana Celia Zentella cites examples of bilingual English-Spanish speakers being hired for their bilingualism, then being punished for speaking Spanish to other employees in casual conversation. 

“As long as the communication is clear, it doesn’t matter. I would be very hesitant to say ‘your language is not adequate for the job, you need to change it.’ That’s not a good way to fly, to be quite honest.”

Code switching in written forms of communication can also spark bias. A person who writes in African American English, a dialect equally as sophisticated as other forms of English, could be penalized for writing “wrong,” said Steve Graham, the ASU professor. “As long as the communication is clear, it doesn’t matter,” Graham said. “I would be very hesitant to say, ‘Your language is not adequate for the job, you need to change it.’ That’s not a good way to fly, to be quite honest.” 

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Should Companies Regulate Language Use?

Talking While Bilingual notes that English-only speakers often evoked what they believe is a truism: “this is America, speak English” to support their linguistic bias. That truism is false. The United States has no official language nor does it have a language policy as do some other nations, among them, France, where the law requires French to be spoken in the workplace.

That said, private U.S. companies have every right to establish workplace language policy. “That can and does happen,” said Jonathan Ying, a lecturer in organizational behavior and human resources at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana. 

About 10 years ago, Mickey Mikitani, chair and CEO of Japan-based tech company Rakuten Group, declared English the official language. In a blog post, Mikitani cited global competition, creating a feeling of team unity, and adopting a global perspective through what he calls “Englishnization” as reasons for the change. “Of course, I’m not saying it has to be perfect English,” Mikitani wrote. “I, for one, make many grammatical errors. But that’s fine. I don’t worry about it. As long as we can understand each other, we don’t need ‘native’ English to do great things together.”

Even if a company does declare an “official” language, it should, unofficially, accept different dialects and languages. “Within the context of DEI, workplaces should allow and encourage employees to share their whole identity,” including language and foods, Ying said. “Kimchi, smelly tofu, eggplant parmesan — bring that,” Ying said. “It makes the workplace far more interesting and employees happier.” Maintaining a false front at work wastes energy, “and I can’t imagine companies want their employees to spend energy on things they’re not getting paid to do” he said. 

“Code-switching should be encouraged as a means to maintain and support a healthy sense of identity.”

Language should definitely be part of DEI efforts, Nayani agreed. “Code-switching should be encouraged as a means to maintain and support a healthy sense of identity,” she said. “As organizations move beyond diversity, equity, and inclusion and focus on ‘DEIB’ with the ‘B’ standing for ‘belonging,’ the key question remains: how to create a true sense of belonging in the workplace?” 

Accepting and encouraging code switching, she continued, allows freedom for people, particularly those of marginalized identity, to not conform with the communication norms of the dominant work culture. It allows employees to feel connected and engaged with the workplace, and feel they have a place there. This in turn can increase retention, as it alleviates the stress and fatigue that accompany the constant need to switch modes of communication. 

Communication is also faster and clearer. Nayani once witnessed a manager onboard a new employee using what she calls a “shorthand” frequently found in the two’s common culture. “This creates immediate understanding, camaraderie, and a sense of connection to both the task and one another,” she said. “Employers who can positively encourage this natural sense of connection and belonging will create a winning atmosphere for teamwork, success, retention, and connection.” 

And if that’s not the ultimate workplace goal, then what is?

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