Codeswitching and Masking: What’s the Difference?

The newly hired African American employee decided to interview with her hair straightened. She spoke in her most professional tone and bantered with the interviewer regarding her love of recreationally golfing on the weekends. The voice that she spoke in was not her normal voice, not in tone and not in word choice. She typically wears her hair in braids, and despite being a seasoned golfer, she would rather spend her weekends brunching with friends and painting.

At that moment, she made a behavioral adjustment called code-switching. According to Harvard Business Review, “Broadly, code-switching involves adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.”

Code-switching often occurs in spaces where negative stereotypes of BIPOC individuals stand in opposition to what is considered “appropriate” behaviors and standards for the specific environment. People spend years toggling between who they truly are and who they need to be in the moment to move seamlessly through society.

While code-switching is something that the BIPOC community deals with, people living with neurodiversity, i.e., Autism and ADHD, face a similar task called masking. Masking is camouflaging any behavior that is considered socially unacceptable in neurotypical culture.

Examples of masking are copying a person’s tone or body language, engaging in forced small talk or eye contact, and imitating facial expressions or hand gestures. These behaviors are used to avoid criticism or to fit in due to the stigma associated with neurodiversity. Masking potentially leads to establishing social connections or workplace success, however, there is a cost.

Both code-switching and masking are exhausting tasks that can create stress and anxiety for those individuals. They are a direct byproduct of a systemic lack of inclusivity, creating safety from judgment and microaggressions.

The question is, how can we create safe, inclusive spaces where code-switching and masking are no longer a necessity?

Organizations can assess the current company culture. Do you promote and allow your BIPOC employees to show up as their authentic selves without the risk of being punished? Is your workforce trained on ableism and the appropriate way to treat people with disabilities? It is critical that employees feel comfortable being themselves, even if it is not in line with the dominant culture. This should come without fear of appearing unprofessional or sparking concern that they will face punitive consequences such as not being promoted.

Is your organization diverse enough? This is an opportunity to review and improve diversity efforts. Diversity and inclusion are separate challenges that should be addressed during the recruitment and hiring processes. Be mindful that hiring more employees of color or individuals with disabilities is not enough. Inclusivity must also be at the forefront of these efforts.

Organizations can create a culture centered on welcoming, acknowledging, and honoring the cultural differences and neurodiversity that exists. The workplace culture should be viewed as layered and dynamic, with space for people to be their authentic selves.