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How Far Should You Go to Fit In at Work?

What sisters say about code-switching and the delicate art of getting ahead.

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aarp, sisters, code-switching, work
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In the movie Sorry to Bother You, the Black main character, telemarketer Cassius Green, changes his telephone voice to sound like a white person’s in order to get ahead. While the movie made for some good laughs, many of us have felt the need to code-switch, or alter our language, appearance or behavior, in order to thrive at work.

Research suggests that we may have good reason. A study by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that more than half of Black people surveyed said that they had personally experienced discrimination in the workplace.

Black women are significantly more likely than other women of color to believe that our actions at work are being scrutinized and reflect positively or negatively on other Black colleagues, according to the 2018 Women in the Workplace study by and McKinsey & Company. In response, many of us adjust our behavior, says Natascha F. Saunders, a career coach in Boston. Not wanting to be perceived in a negative way, such as angry or aggressive, Black women are mindful that certain behaviors can reinforce stereotypes about us, Saunders says.

But how much of ourselves should we change if we want to be authentic and valued for who we are? We asked Black women if and how they change up in the workplace and what lessons they’ve learned along the way.

FeLisa’s take: Don’t confuse professionalism with code-switching.

“I have never been apologetic for being a Black woman,” says FeLisa Albert, 45, a health educator in Boston. She just knows when to be professional, and that has nothing to do with race. “I don't try to talk ‘more white’ because I don't consider ‘talking white’ to be professional,” she says. “Now, if I'm at the beauty salon, I might say, ‘Hey girl, what's going on?’ I'm not going to go to work the next day and say, ‘Hey girl.’ But just because I say, ‘How are you doing today?’, it’s not a negative thing. It just means that I conducted myself in the appropriate way based on the environment.”

Toya’s take: Code-switching is like playing different roles.

“I think we all have different personas depending on the atmosphere that we're in,” says Toya Carter-Williams, 51, a San Diego-based recruiter. For example, when she’s working with nonprofits, Carter-Williams dresses casually. When she’s working with a Fortune 1000 company, she steps her wardrobe up a notch. “In order to land that client, I’ve got to adjust. I have to dress the part and let them know I know where they’re coming from.” Carter-Williams considers code-switching a soft skill that can help us relate to a different audience. “In order for me to reach the younger generation I may text them. But to contact someone my age, I might pick up the phone or send an email. That’s an adjustment. It's the same thing when Black women are going into the workplace.”

Amanda’s take: Size up the environment.

Amanda Lockhart Davis, a 37-year-old accountant in Centreville, Va., wears braids 90 percent of the time. But she doesn’t wear them to interviews or for the first few months that she’s on a new job. “Once I've proven myself, they're not looking at my hair. They're looking at my work,” she explains.

Deciding whether to code-switch or not is a personal decision, but decide with your eyes wide open. Lockhart Davis admits that, at a particular job, she found herself adjusting so much that she felt like she couldn’t be her authentic self. “I felt like most of my day was having to remember, Don’t say that particular word because if you do, you're going to get the eyebrow,” she says. Her solution: She found a new job. “Once I started feeling uncomfortable, I said, ‘let me get out my résumé.’”