Identity, Covering, Code-Switching, and Inclusion in the Workplace
18 years ago, when I relocated to the U.S., I started a new journey. Like many first-generation immigrants, I wanted to be successful in my new environment, so I did my best to assimilate and blend in. Predictably, change of this magnitude can initiate significant shifts within someone’s identity, and I was not the exception. In retrospect, it took me a few years to find balance between thriving in a new environment while embracing my “transformed” identity.
Our identity is a sense of self, established by our unique characteristics, affiliations, and social roles. Moreover, it has continuity. Despite changes in our circumstances, we feel like we are the same person over a period of time (Yilmaz & Davis). Most common types of identities include cultural (i.e., ethnic, racial, religious, generational, and geographical), socioeconomic (class, education, career), ability/disability, gender and sexual, to name a few. Research shows that a strong sense of identity has a direct correlation to our strong sense of well-being.
When we come to work, we bring our whole identity with us. When individuals are concerned about being judged or discriminated against for their unique identities, they will engage in “covering” behavior, concealing their thoughts, opinions, and feelings in order to “fit in.” In a Deloitte survey of 3,129 people, 61% reported hiding or downplaying an aspect of their individuality at work to adhere to social norms. This behavior was usually reported among historically underrepresented groups, such as African-Americans (79%), Latinos (63%), LGBTQ (83%), and women (66%) (Yoshino & Smith).
Another assimilation strategy is “code switching”, originally a linguistic phenomenon. It is the way in which a member of an underrepresented group consciously or unconsciously adjusts their language, syntax, grammatical structure, behavior, and appearance to fit into the dominant culture (Cooks-Campbell, 2022). Code-switching isn’t specific to race, gender, or socioeconomic status and can jeopardize individuals’ psychological safety. For some groups, it is a trauma response, and a survival mechanism. Inclusive organizational cultures and business practices can reduce these stresses and fears.
While workplaces can be diverse, they are not inclusive if only the perspectives of certain groups are valued or have authority or influence. In my view, inclusive employment practices and culture are the glue that binds identities and gets the mix of diverse individuals to work together. Additionally, in a current labor shortage era, inclusion and belonging in the workplace are critical to retention. When employees don’t feel that their ideas, presence, or contributions are truly valued by their organization, they are more likely to quit “silently” or explicitly, and either way is detrimental to organizations.
Companies that can create high-trust, caring cultures for their employees are 44% more likely to have above-average revenue growth (Hastwell, 2020). When employees have a sense of inclusion and belonging, they are:
9.8 times more likely to look forward to coming to work;
6.3 times more likely to have pride in their work; and
5.4 times more likely to stay with their company (Bush, 2021).
Recognizing the importance of a “whole person approach” in managing talent, organizations can foster an inclusive workplace by taking the following steps:
Develop clear non-discrimination policies and enforce them consistently;
Provide employees with training on various DEI topics;
Equip employees and leadership with the tools to increase their awareness and the impact of their communications and behaviors on their colleagues; and
Offer employees training focused on effective interpersonal communication strategies and conflict resolution.
We are each defined by the many functions we carry out in our lives, and we bring all that knowledge and skill to our workspace. Employers that recognize this fact have proven to have a competitive advantage. When individuals feel seen, heard, and validated, they tend to bring their best selves to work, go the extra mile, are willing to step out of their comfort zone and push their limits to produce tangible results. Ultimately, the DEIB framework and the culture of inclusion and belonging enable achieving human potential in a sustainable way.
If your organization is looking to embark on its DEI journey, Integra HR consultants can assist. Please check out Our Services for more information.