New survey data shows that Black employees are far more likely than many counterparts to have code-switched at work and to see it as a necessity.

Key Takeaways

  • Black employees, Hispanic employees, workers who have felt discrimination and younger workers (ages 18-34) are among the most likely to have code-switched at work.
  • Representation at the top matters, though leadership is ultimately responsible for educating themselves on the realities of other employee experiences.
  • Code-switching can’t be eliminated unless work feels like a safe place for people to be their authentic selves.

More than one-third of Black employees (34%) have code-switched in the workplace — significantly higher than the average rate of 20% among all respondents in a recent Indeed-commissioned survey. Notably, employees who have felt discriminated against (37%) and younger workers aged 18-34 (35%) are also more likely to have code-switched than their counterparts.  

These are just a few findings from a December 2023 Harris Poll survey of more than 2,000 full- and part-time employees in the U.S. that sought to gain insights into the prevalence and impact of code-switching in the workplace. 

Code-switching refers to the changes people make to “fit in” with the dominant culture in a given context, such as changing their physical appearance or speaking mannerisms to make others feel comfortable. Indeed's Employer Resource Library offers answers to many frequently asked questions about code-switching.

For many Black people, code-switching extends far beyond workplace relations to matters of interracial relations, wellbeing and survival

“We talk about it as this mask that we wear. It’s so many small pauses that Black people have to take. It’s a calculation that is very taxing and tiring to determine,” says Misty Gaither, Vice President of Global Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB+) at Indeed. “I think some people use code-switching as a strategy or a tactic.” 

Read on for additional research findings — along with guidance on what employers can do to better support Black employees in the workplace.

Black employees — along with younger workers and employees who have felt discrimination — are among most likely to code-switch in the workplace 

As mentioned earlier, 34% of Black employees have code-switched at work — significantly more than non-Hispanic whites (12%).

As for specific code-switching behaviors, at least half or more of Black employees who have code-switched at work say it’s impacted the way they speak at work, both in language and word choice (65%) and tone of voice (50%). Code-switching also has a significant impact on physical appearance (37%) and facial expressions (37%), with just under a third (32%) of Black employees citing an impact on hairstyle. 

A bar chart. Title: The ways Black employees code-switch at work. Language/word choice 65%. Tone of voice 50%. Physical appearance 37%. Facial expressions 37%. Hairstyles 32%. Physical gestures 27%. Food choices 23%.

Somewhat surprisingly, workers are also more likely to have code-switched at companies they consider to have good representation of Black, indigenous and people of color in leadership (34%) or that have implemented diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives (32%). 

What it means: Representation alone isn’t enough to curb the need to code-switch that Black employees and others from marginalized communities may feel at work. To start, your organization may need more robust DEI, hiring, engagement and retention strategies to build a fully safe environment where people feel they truly belong. 

“​​Teams need to be more diverse. You want people to feel comfortable in environments where they don't see themselves,” says Nicole Dixon, a manager of business operations and the co-chair for Indeed’s Black Inclusion Group. “If teams are more inclusive, and if I saw more individuals like myself and from a variety of different backgrounds in a room, I would feel more comfortable because there are different opinions; there are different thoughts.”

An investment in employee engagement paired with intentional efforts to leverage your employee resource groups (ERGs) can help you learn more about your organization’s specific needs while acknowledging that the burden of change belongs to leadership and not upon members of marginalized communities. 

Black employees are more likely to see code-switching as a necessity — and to recognize the behavior themselves

More than two in five (44%) Black employees view code-switching as necessary at work, compared to less than a quarter of white respondents (22%). Likewise, 42% of young people (ages 18-34) and 39% of people who have felt workplace discrimination agree that it’s necessary. Meanwhile, a majority (56%) of those who say their company is scaling back DEI investments also see code-switching as a necessary behavior. 

Bar chart. Title: How different groups see code-switching at work as necessary. Workers at companies scaling back DEI investments 56%. Black employees 44%. Workers aged 18-34 42%. Employees who have felt discrimination 39%. All survey respondents 29%.

Black employees were also far more likely than their counterparts to already be familiar with the term “code-switching” before the survey, at 42%, compared to 22% of white respondents. Relatedly, more Black survey respondents recognize the behavior in others: half of Black employees say they’ve seen their coworkers who are Black, indigenous or people of color code-switching compared to just 26% of white workers and 33% of all those surveyed.

The stats are also notable among those who belong to marginalized communities or work at companies that may be less supportive of those groups. More than half of those who have been discriminated against (52%) and almost two-thirds of those whose companies are scaling back DEI investments (63%) say they have also seen coworkers who are Black, indigenous or people of color code-switching. 

What it means: Code-switching and discrimination in the workplace are clearly happening, but differences in perspective on just how prevalent it is only underscore the importance of representation in leadership.

“It is really understanding the stories of people who are different from you,” Gaither notes. “So if you are a C-suite executive, and you spend the majority of your time in white-dominant spaces and all of your closest peers are very similar to you — then that will be your lens. And you're always going to be surprised when you meet someone who does not meet your bar for how someone should show up.” 

To Gaither’s point, you should surround yourself with and listen to the experiences of others who aren’t like you. It’s also important to consume information from sources that not only confirm your worldviews but actively challenge and expand them, too.

Opinions are split as to the impact of code-switching upon careers and mental health

Almost a third (31%) of Black respondents say code-switching has had a positive impact1 on their careers. At the same time, slightly more (39%) say it has had no impact. Finally, 39% of Black employees who have code-switched say that it would have a negative impact2 on their careers if they were to stop code-switching at work. 

The majority of Black employees say they have code-switched the same amount (63%) or less (27%) as their careers progressed. This may indicate that some Black employees continue code-switching until they can get to a certain point in their careers where they feel comfortable enough to stop. 

Meanwhile, the majority of Black respondents (56%) say code-switching at work has had no impact on their mental health. A quarter (23%) say it has had a negative impact, while slightly less (21%) say it has actually had a positive impact. 

Pie chart. Title: The impact of code-switching on mental health for Black employees. No impact 56%, positive impact 21%, negative impact 23%.

What it means: Stats on their own can’t fully account for the many nuances and complexities of code-switching that, similar to mental health, don’t exist only within the confines of work. For example, some employees may not even realize they’re code-switching, Gaither says.

Yahan Mensah, a UX designer and regional co-chair of Indeed’s Black Inclusion Group, encourages employers to “harness the insights, questions and feedback from their team members” to establish trust and empower employees to express themselves. “Recogniz[e] that every individual within an organization contributes diverse perspectives shaped by their unique experiences.” 

Your organization also shouldn’t focus on “fighting code-switching” as much as it should explore why employees feel the need to code-switch in the first place: What might be causing people to hide parts of themselves at work? What cultural norms need to change to ensure the workplace is a psychologically safe space for people to bring their authentic selves? 

You can’t build a single program for change

Your organization won’t be able to eliminate code-switching without first addressing the root causes of the behavior. It starts by making the workplace a safe space and building a work culture where all people feel they can bring their truest selves to work. 

“Employers need to be aware of code-switching because you need to recognize when you're getting the purest, most authentic version of a person that you're bringing into your workforce. If somebody is feeling like they can't really show all aspects of their identity, you're missing out on parts of them that are actually going to be better for your business,” Gaither says.

But more important than any potential business benefits is the opportunity to foster human connection in the workplace. “A lot of times we miss opportunities to build those genuine connections because of how we think a person is supposed to be relative to how they show up. If you, as a leader, model authenticity and openness, that'll help with the frequency of code-switching and people needing to wear a mask to work,” says Gaither.

Survey methodology: This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of Indeed from December 4-6, 2023, among 2,078 adults ages 18 and older, of whom 1,154 are employed. The sampling precision of Harris online polls is measured by using a Bayesian credible interval. For this study, the sample data is accurate to within + /- 2.7 percentage points using a 95% confidence level. 

1”Positive impact” defined in the survey as “a promotion, growth opportunities, positive performance reviews, higher pay and/or greater responsibilities.” 

2”Negative impact” defined in the survey as “a lack of growth opportunities, poor performance reviews, lack of career progression.”

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