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Code-Switching in the Workplace: Understanding Cultures of Power

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

“Code-switching” is a term that has joined the mainstream, though many leaders are still struggling to understand what it is, how it impacts diverse employees, and how to address the underlying causes that make it necessary. In this article, we will break down and explain these concepts to get at the heart of how we as leaders can step in and change our work culture to ease the burden of code-switching for our team.

What is “code-switching” exactly?

Originally developed in linguistics, code-switching referred to individuals who switched between two or more languages. Today, we use it much more broadly to describe the many ways we adapt our language, behavior, and actions to the dominant culture.

Code-switching is the act of changing our behaviors, including speech, dress, and mannerisms, to conform to a different cultural norm than what we might authentically do in our own homes. We all do it to some extent. Most of us don’t dress the same, or use the same expressions or speech patterns with colleagues as we do with our family and close friends. But code-switching is not equal for everyone; some of us are expected to make more changes than others to conform to a standard set by the dominant culture.

The Dominant Culture

To understand the inequity and cost of code-switching, we have to understand what dominant culture is. The dominant culture, sometimes referred to as the “culture of power” is the culture that has been able, through economic, social, or political power, to impose its values, language, and ways of behaving on other cultures.

The dominant culture is often so ubiquitous that it is almost invisible; you can hear it when behavior is described as “normal,” “good,” “successful,”or “well-behaved.” The underlying messages are that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things, and the group that determines what the right way is belongs to the dominant culture.

There are multiple dominant cultures at play; each country and region may have their own dominant culture, as well as individual regions, states, cities, or communities. Even your business has a dominant culture. These may or may not align with one another. That said, the effects of colonization, industrialization, and the global economy have reinforced the dominance of certain cultural norms and values (specifically of U.S./European, white, male, cis-gender, heteronormative, English-speaking groups) over others.

People whose identities are not reflected in the dominant culture often change their mannerisms, behaviors, or dress to conform to the customs of the dominant culture.

The less a person needs to code-switch to “fit in”, the closer their identities may align to the culture of power. The notion that you can “just be yourself” and still succeed in the workplace is laden with undertones of power and privilege. Many individuals, whether from

BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, or other marginalized communities, face tremendous social pressure to adapt to the dominant culture.

If you are a manager reading this, thinking “we don’t ask people to change at our workplace,” understand that culture is so deeply entrenched you may not be aware of what you are implicitly asking of your staff. People do not need to be explicitly told cultural norms to infer them. Power dynamics are inherent in every workplace, and are often informed by our lenses of bias that color our perception of reality.