Code switching in the workplace

by Aug 12, 2021

Code switching may not be the answer


Code switching in the workplace is about adapting to fitting in and to “belong” to a dominant culture, but it can create the opposite effect  of isolation and loneliness. 

I came across the phrase “code switching” on LinkedIn. Code-switching was originally coined by linguists to explain the act of mixing languages while in conversation. Living in an international community in Brussels it’s very common to hear people switch from one language to another to communicate more effectively. No one thinks anything of it. Code-switching is not necessarily a bad thing. As with most things, it depends on the context, especially if you are navigating other languages and cultures

Today it has taken on a new element and is used by the Black community to describe the way they feel compelled to speak, act, and interact in the workplace. In many cases, this is as much about basic survival as career progression and is seen as necessary to achieve career goals.

It is about adapting to, fitting in and to “belong” to a dominant culture. For many, refusing to code switch is about feeling they can be authentically themselves. It’s not necessarily the act of code-switching that is the problem within institutions, but the issue is that it is necessary to fit in and thrive in a particular workplace culture.

Covering in organisations

This process is also known as “covering.” According to the report Uncovering Talent, from the Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion, more than 60% of workers in the workforce today participate in identity covering.


Infographic: Uncovering Talent, from the Deloitte University Leadership Center 

Identity Covering

“Identity Covering” is the act of concealing something about one’s self to avoid making other people feel uncomfortable or to lessen attention to a given characteristic. It’s not about hiding something for untoward purposes, but downplaying pieces of your identity, such as race, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation, to fit in. It’s about adapting to a dominant culture so that the person doesn’t stand out for a specific characteristic and in theory should help them avoid feelings of isolation, anxiety, fear, or receiving unwanted attention.

Research suggests that covering actually has the opposite effect of being more effective. It doesn’t increase efficiency and can contribute to greater feelings of isolation and lack of belonging. If an employee doesn’t feel free to be themselves around their colleagues, they also won’t be effective at work.


code switching

Where do we see identity covering

Identity covering manifests itself in a number of ways. A person might change their regional accent to one associated with the dominant group. Another struggling with a mental illness uses vacation days instead of revealing they are going to the doctor. A practicing Muslim goes to their car to pray. A woman doesn’t talk about her kids in case her co-workers think she is not focused on her career.

This can be around issues such as:

  • Appearance: not wearing clothes or accessories with a religious association to blend in better. Strict professional stereotyped dress codes.
  • Speech:  women and people of colour changing their speech patterns to be part of the group.
  • Opting out: gay people not bringing their partner to a company function or not attending themselves; not praying during a working day
  • Staying silent: not speaking up to defend a demographic for fear of being penalised.

Worth sharing: Podcast – How to Cultivate Empathy in the Workplace

Diversity initiatives

Many organisations introduce diversity programmes by recruiting more diverse talent. They seek gender-balanced short lists, source candidates from minority groups, and start training on unconscious bias.

But without creating an inclusive workplace culture, where employees accept and embrace difference, those programmes will not succeed.

Build and hold together inclusive teams with help from our specialist corporate services

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Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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