A new study suggests that Black employees who adjust their styles of speech, name selection, and hairstyles to mirror White norms are perceived as more professional in the workplace. The findings come from a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
The United States’ deep history of racism and the domination of White people in professional settings has led to a bias against Black individuals in the workplace. With Whiteness being associated with professionalism, Black employees are perceived as less competent when presenting with physical characteristics and speech patterns that are associated with Blackness.
A research study led by Courtney L. McCluney aimed to explore how a Black person’s decision to either adjust their behaviors to mirror White norms or not influences the way they are perceived in professional contexts. This behavior adjustment, referred to as racial codeswitching, is commonly adopted by marginalized groups who feel pressure to conform to the norms of the dominant group to gain respect in professional spaces.
The researchers devised two experimental studies. In a first study, a sample of Black and White men and women in America were told to imagine they were a newly-hired lawyer at a law firm and would be listening to a voicemail from a fictitious Black co-worker at their firm. Male participants listened to a recording from a fictitious Black man named Lamar Matthew Jackson, and female participants heard a recording from a fictitious Black woman called La’Keisha Renee Jackson. In the voicemail, the Black co-worker described ways to succeed at the law firm.
Importantly, the study included two conditions, with researchers manipulating whether or not the employee in the voicemail engaged in racial codeswitching. To do this, the researchers varied the sound of the employee’s voice and manipulated their described name choice, hairstyle, and style of speech. After listening to the voicemail, participants were asked to rate the employee’s professionalism and their likelihood of succeeding at the law firm.
As expected, both the Black and White participants rated the co-workers who codeswitched as more professional than the co-workers who did not. Surprisingly, the participants’ race did not impact their judgments of the codeswitching co-workers.
The researchers next recreated the study using text instead of audio. This time, participants read an email from a fictitious Black co-worker who either codeswitched across name selection, style of speech, and hairstyle or did not. After reading the emails, Black participants rated the non-codeswitching co-worker as more professional than did White participants. The researchers say this is likely because Black people are more likely to see value in displays of their racial identity and are less likely to “penalize” Black co-workers for not codeswitching. Still, both Black and White participants rated the codeswitching co-worker as more professional than the non-codeswitching co-worker.
The second study did reveal certain nuances. Black women were more likely to agree with the Black co-worker’s choice to maintain a natural hairstyle while White women were more likely to agree with the Black co-worker’s choice to straighten their hair. This suggests that Black female participants may have viewed the natural hair choice as a positive and culturally significant choice, while the White female participants defaulted to the stigmatization of natural hairstyles and saw the straight hair as more normative.
“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,” McCluney and her team say. This racial codeswitching requires marginalized groups to “suppress their cultural identity”, a burden that is mentally and emotionally taxing and likely reinforces the association between Whiteness and professionalism.
“In light of our research, we recommend that companies expand or redefine what constitutes professionalism so that it encompasses a range of cultural norms, behaviors, and values,” the authors report. “Similarly, employees who wish to build authentic relationships with their Black colleagues may need to turn inward and examine if they deem behaviors not aligned with White norms to be unprofessional.”
The study, “To be, or not to be…Black: The effects of racial codeswitching on perceived professionalism in the workplace”, was authored by Courtney L. McCluney, Myles I. Durkee, Richard E. Smith II, Kathrina J. Robotham, and Serenity Sai-Lai Lee.