Black employees who engage in racial codeswitching – adjusting behaviors to optimize the comfort of others in exchange for a desired outcome – are consistently perceived by both Black and white people as more professional than employees who don’t codeswitch, new Cornell research has found.
Codeswitching has long been a strategy of Black people for excelling in white cultural spaces, said Courtney McCluney, assistant professor of organizational behavior in the ILR School and co-author of “To Be, or Not to Be … Black: The Effects of Racial Codeswitching on Perceived Professionalism in the Workplace,” forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
“Our findings suggest that organizations would really benefit from examining how they may inadvertently reward codeswitching behaviors,” McCluney said. “Companies often claim that they want employees to ‘bring their whole selves to work,’ without realizing that they are unintentionally penalizing Black employees who do not fit into the culture.
“To help combat this, I would recommend that companies expand or redefine what constitutes professionalism so that it encompasses a range of cultural norms, behaviors and values,” she said. “They can do this by increasing representation of nonwhite employees in leadership levels, questioning the unspoken cultural norms that exist in their organization, and reducing monitoring behaviors that scrutinize the appearance and behaviors of marginalized employees.”
McCluney and her co-authors shaped two studies – separated by gender – in which they created a fictitious Black lawyer who does, or does not, engage in racial codeswitching in the workplace.
In the first study, participants were instructed to imagine themselves as a recently hired lawyer at a firm in a large metropolitan city, and told to listen to a voicemail from the coworker, a third-year associate named Lamar Matthew Jackson or La’Keisha Renee Jackson. In the voicemail, Lamar/La’Keisha shared advice on “unspoken ways to succeed at the firm.”
For the codeswitching manipulation, the researchers varied the sound of the fictitious coworkers’ voices, as well as a verbal description of their preferred name choice, hairstyle and style of speech in order to demonstrate an overall profile of a coworker who either engaged in codeswitching or did not.
Both Black and white participants similarly viewed the codeswitching coworker as more professional than the non-codeswitching coworker, the researchers found.
Following the study, the researchers considered the idea that the participants may have focused too heavily on the sound of the coworker’s voice and consequently paid less attention to the other codeswitching behaviors described in the voicemail. In a second study, they transcribed the voicemail recordings into a written email.
They then found that Black men and women perceived the non-codeswitching coworker as more professional than white men and women of speech, hairstyle. But both Black and white participants found codeswitching employees more professional in both studies, they found.
The researchers also found that Black and white men did not differ in their evaluations of hair, while Black women expressed more agreement with the natural hairstyle choice than white women.
Contrary to their hypotheses, Black and white participants more strongly agreed that individuals should codeswitch when it pertains to style of speech, but both Black and white participants did not agree that the hypothetical coworker should codeswitch when it pertains to their preferred name.
“Our study demonstrates one of many dilemmas that Black employees face in their everyday work experiences: whether codeswitching or not will elicit perceptions of professionalism,” the authors wrote. “Although all employees may behave more professionally at work compared to more casual settings, individuals from stigmatized racial groups may feel a disproportionate pressure to conceal significant cultural aspects of themselves to minimize stereotyping ascribed to their social identities.
“Our findings suggest that racial codeswitching is a necessary behavior for Black employees to be perceived as professionals. Engaging racial codeswitching might limit how Black people are ‘allowed’ to behave at work if they desire to maintain these perceptions. Further, it places a burden on Black employees to chronically monitor their appearance, speech and behaviors while at work, possibly contributing to burnout and fatigue.”
McCluney’s co-authors included the University of Michigan’s Myles I. Durkee, Richard E. Smith II, and Kathrina J. Robotham, as well as the Wharton School’s Serenity Sai-Lai Lee.
Julie Greco is a communications specialist with the ILR School.