Code-switching at the workplace: Empowering authenticity

Code-switching at the workplace: Empowering authenticity

Have you ever changed your language or dialect to fit into a professional environment?  Have you ever felt you had to hide your authentic voice in the workplace? Do you alter your cultural behaviour, so you are not stereotyped? If so, you may have been code-switching.

Code-switching is the practice of alternating between languages in conversation. This includes switching between languages, accents, and dialects. Organisations value diversity and its positive impact on work culture, so why is code-switching prevalent?

In England, you are taught to conform to speak ‘’Proper English’’ in schools, creating a right and wrong way of speaking. This pressure often leads young people to modify their accents and dialects to match the expected norms. Unfortunately, accent bias is still prominent today with certain regional accents viewed less favourably. To avoid negative judgements, people often shift to ‘’Proper English’’ which often eliminates authenticity and leaves people feeling forced to fit a single standard way of communication. You can read more on accent bias at:

ELBA’S EquiBalance project is designed to equip students from black and minoritised groups with the knowledge, skills and experience required to achieve their ambition. ENABLE communication skills workshops were recently delivered to sixth-form colleges in east London where there is a large population of ethnic minorities. The students explored different forms of code-switching and delved into why we do it. Business volunteers who delivered these sessions spoke about their personal experiences and how they code-switched to succeed in the corporate environment. Reflecting on their career journey, it was great to hear how they experienced imposter syndrome and the negative effects on their sense of identity.

In 2012, a video of Barack Obama entering a locker room went viral, the video highlighted a distinct difference in how he greeted the white coach compared to the black player. Comedians Key & Peele used this moment to create various sketches depicting how Obama’s greetings varied depending on race. Students related to these videos and like many of us they were guilty of doing the same thing. This was driven by a sense of belonging and since many students were not British, they automatically gravitated towards individuals of similar backgrounds. They also identified that their communication style with certain colleagues was formal, while with others, more casual.

The session concluded with a lively debate on whether code-switching in the workplace is appropriate. Both sides highlighted the advantages and disadvantages, ultimately agreeing that it’s important to strike a balance – not being disingenuous about who you are but also not addressing clients and colleagues too informally, being mindful of body language. Students left the session with a newfound self-awareness and a better understanding of the potential implications.

Code-switching is a complex phenomenon, but with ongoing reflection and discussion, we can bring to light how we could create inclusive workspaces where individuals can feel comfortable and embrace their authentic selves to be successful in the workplace.

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