Juan Lopez, founder of management consulting firm Amistad Associates, recently joined Alignment Strategies CEO Dr. Vanessa Weaver to discuss the role of code switching in Corporate America. He explained what code switching is, how it’s employed by Latino professionals and the impact it can have on one’s career and self-esteem. The following is an edited excerpt from their conversation.
Dr. Vanessa Weaver: How do you define code switching?
Juan Lopez: It’s very complex psychologically, but simply stated it’s changing who you are to fit in. And the reasons that people do it can be tied to economic survival. It could be tied to career opportunities. There’s a whole host of reasons that people do it, but fundamentally it’s changing who you are to fit in. And what that means is you’re not necessarily being your authentic self, bringing your full self to the organization.
Weaver: Deloitte did on the study of covering. They found that 79% of Blacks admitted to covering and something like 63% of Hispanic/Latinos admitted to covering and the LGBT covering went to like 83%. Women also covered 67%. And guess what, even White males covered at a lower percentage. It was like 45% covered. So when I looked at that stat, I said, “Well, covering is an equal opportunity skill here.” I mean, everybody appears to be covering. So what makes that an issue or a point of concern, particularly when we think about it in the diversity space?
Lopez: In the last five years or so, equity and belonging have picked up more as part of the whole diversity-related work. And so I would say that inclusivity and belonging are two powerful areas where, as human beings, you want to feel that you can be included as part of the organization, as part of the team. And you also want to feel like the organization has a place for you and you belong. So you don’t always feel like you’re a stranger in a strange land there.
If we go back to the thinking around our early days in careers, you couldn’t remember how isolating it felt to be one of the few. Although we have numbers that are increasing, they’re still increasing fairly slowly, but essentially when you’re one of the few and you’re in the organization, you don’t feel like you’re included. In fact, you at times feel like you’re invisible. And you also feel like you’re watching people operate and feel very close to being a part of what’s going on, but you don’t belong to that.
So I think the need to have that, the importance of seeing that when you’re included and you feel belonged, it can have a positive impact on how you’re viewed, and therefore when you start looking at growing in the organization. When that takes place, there’s a need for people to feel like they have to code switch.
Weaver: And interestingly, as you know, in our work, the more you try to conform and be like everybody else, the more the company doesn’t benefit from the diversity that you bring to an organization. So if you really feel that people’s diversity is an enabler to innovation in an organization, to having more understanding of the consumer or the marketplace to create efficiencies, so to the extent I’m trying to be more like somebody else, then the organization doesn’t benefit from the diversity that I bring in. So we use the covering or code switching to solve one problem, but then it takes away the advantages that your diversity brings.
Lopez: Excellent point, Dr. Weaver…. What we were able to bring as you just mentioned, was data that could help people and organizations understand the downside of people code switching, because they’re afraid and reluctant to share their ideas. They’re afraid to step out and lead. And when you’re afraid to be who you are in an organization, then all the talent you bring, all the wisdom you have, all of these sorts of reasons that you were hired are now hidden, and that doesn’t benefit anyone.
Weaver: We know through the research on code switching, as well as covering, is that when people are so focused on trying to fit in and not be their authentic selves, sometimes it could take 30% of their workday just trying to play this game and look a particular way, or act a particular way, or sound a particular way. How much pressure does that place on Latinos in a workplace?
Lopez: I will say it’s not as strong as it used to be, but it is also generationally based. And what I mean by that is that if you’re a recent immigrant, you feel daily pressure to code switch, to be more like whatever the perception of American is supposed to be. And people feel free to tell you, you know, speak English, do this, do that. If you want to be in this country, you got to be like us.
Weaver: They tell you that to your face?
Lopez: Yes, there’s been a number of cases of that over the last couple of years in California, where those comments are being made. And you know, I think it’s pretty clear we’re a divided nation. And sometimes people who are on the conservative side that are against immigration have real strong feelings about why they don’t want Latinx people coming into this country. And so depending on the generation, you have more of it. I’m third generation and sometimes, not as much now, but in the past, I would hear statements about my difference.
Weaver: Well, Juan, answer this question for me. You’re a White supervisor, and you have Latinos in your organization who have career aspirations, who made the investment to get prepared academically. and how would you know, as a White manager, that a person is code switching. What are some of the signs and signals that would cue you into that?
Lopez: That’s a great question. And in some of my workshops where we talk about code switching that’s what I asked White managers to work on in smaller groups during the course of a day-long training. But essentially what I ask is the extent to which they’re aware. So now we’re asking the White manager to use emotional intelligence. And if they’re sensing that something doesn’t feel right, pay close attention to the behaviors. What’s the social impact of your EQ in terms of reading the room, and how comfortable do people feel on the team or in the organization? And that’s one way for you to begin in your one-on-ones to have the courage to ask the individual, hey, how do you think you’re doing in the organization? Do you feel like you belong here? Do you feel like you’re having, you know, opportunities to pursue promotions? How do you engage with others? And when you begin to have that candid conversation and you introduce some of the dimensions of diversity, you get information.
Lopez: And then part of that would be to ask, do you feel like you have to make any changes to who you are to be seen as valuable to our organization?
Weaver: So what I’m hearing you say, Juan, is instead it’s important for that White supervisor to legitimize the conversation. To make it a part of getting to know an individual. So say you would have a Latina supervisor, or Latina direct report, or in my case, a Black supervisor and a Black direct report. Oftentimes we would hear that that person would say it’s harder to work for a Latina supervisor or a Black supervisor than for somebody White. I feel like they make it harder. They require me to address or perform at levels or standards higher than I see they require other Whites to perform for them. How does code switching play into that?
Lopez: That’s a statement I’ve heard quite a bit over the years. When I entered the job market in, it was probably 1979, 1980, we really had, at that time three generations, but what I’m focusing on is what was called the veteran generation and we were the Boomers. So Boomers were some of the first Mexican-origin people or Latinx to come into organizations. And the number of times where I was working in these organizations, and I heard a Latinx people say to me, man, this place is rough. People don’t feel good about their heritage. In fact, you know, you kind of walked through the halls or you go to the cafeteria, you see, you know, we’re only a small number. You see somebody that looks like you and you want to acknowledge them, and you go to look at them and they look down.
Weaver: Or look away, yeah.
Lopez: Or they look away and you’re like, whoa. And it was sad in some ways, how many times people in our generation joked about the Latinx who proceeded us as wanting to ignore us, wanting to downplay their heritage, or we know who were Latinx, but they changed their name and said they weren’t. And so if someone feels like they had to code switch, they don’t feel good about their heritage and their culture and they don’t feel good about being who they are, then naturally, it’s going to make it difficult for them to be a good manager and a good leader for people who are happy being who they are authentically. How do you trust a boss like that? And they’re concerned about are you going to expose them? Well, it gets to be very complex in terms of those psychological dances that take place like that, but it’s less so today. But it hasn’t gone away completely.
Weaver: Well, Juan, you gave some great advice to a supervisor on what to do. So what would be one piece of advice you would give a Latina who’s realizing that they’re code switching. What would you say would be one thing for them to do?
Lopez: Well, I have few. So what I would say is you have to ask yourself, how much do I have to give up and how frequently do I have to do it? And then what is the cost to my self-esteem for doing that behavior? The other is, are you even aware that you code switch?
Lopez: On top of that, do you have to code switch? Is this something in your head or do you feel you have to code switch? I think we know that when you’re authentic, you grow and develop, you become more successful in your career. And so the extent you can get closer to understanding being your full self, I think that’s more valued in organizations.
Let me just end with a story about that, because this happened only about four years ago. I was working with a high-tech group in Silicon Valley, and one of the few participants was Latinx. So during the break, we’re talking, and I said, “You know, you look like you’re Latino, but your name it’s really different, but I still detect the accent.” He looks at me and he goes, “Yeah, I changed in high school. I felt like I had to.” And I go, “Why?” He goes, “I just felt like I had to.” And I said, “Doesn’t that create problems in terms of your culture?” And he goes, “I’ve been so distant from it, it doesn’t.” He goes, “In fact, I’m married to a White woman, and now I’m so afraid about being Latinx that I haven’t even told my two children that they’re half Latino.” And I was just kind of like blown away. And I was like, “How do you live with that?” And he goes, “I’m having a harder and harder time doing so.”