Code switching, covering, masking and social camouflage

Behaviours such as code switching, emotional masking and social camouflage can seem at odds with efforts made by organisations to create inclusive workplaces, where employees feel a high sense of belonging and that they can be their authentic selves at work.

These behaviours and others are when individuals choose to adapt how they speak, talk about themselves, dress or otherwise behave to fit in with perceived cultural norms.

Masking and social camouflage are especially linked to neurodivergent colleagues who adopt what they perceive to be neuro-normative habits to fit in.

They can have significant negative effects on people and their workplace experiences if employees feel they can never relax and feel comfortable being themselves.

Equally, they may be an aspect of how employees feel more comfortable in the workplace. Some people may prefer not to “bring their whole self” to work, and this should not be perceived as an issue.

Prioritising psychological safety will encourage a greater sense of belonging and create a more inclusive work environment where adapting behaviour is no longer necessary for success or career progression. 

Psychological safety refers to the sense of being able to freely express yourself without fear of negative consequences, such as judgment or rejection. This leads to belonging, where employees feel accepted, valued, and included within the organisation.

Businesses experience positive outcomes when employees feel psychologically safe and a sense of belonging and contribute authentically to the workplace. 

A study published in Harvard Business Review showed high belonging was linked to a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days. 

Why do we need to change our behaviour to fit in?

However, data shows that adapting and hiding minority attributes and behaviours is more commonplace based on fear as well as statistical reality:

  • 65% of neurodivergent employees in the UK fear discrimination
  • Only 51.3% of people in the EU with disabilities are employed
  • Estimates show as many as 85% of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed

We often create “profiles” that may or may not reflect our authentic selves. We present a version of ourselves that may help us gain approval, be accepted, or simply reflects the way we’d like to be seen by others. 

Wanting to be socially accepted is normal, but it’s important to recognise that we are not alone in experiencing these concerns. 

The natural tendency to stereotype based on our culture, sexual orientation, race, or even our ideals without truly getting to know us can prompt employees to think they need to camouflage or code switch to fit better in the workplace culture.

How can we help others to feel welcomed while being themselves in our workplace?

Employees may fear that deviating from the norm or expressing unconventional ideas could lead to negative consequences such as being overlooked for opportunities, or facing bias and discrimination. This fear often leads to self-censorship and the suppression of valuable insights.

Creating an environment where everyone feels safe to speak their minds can make a tremendous difference in understanding and reinforcing their unique personalities.

Employers can play a significant role in fostering more inclusive working patterns by actively cultivating an inclusive culture that encourages and values diverse perspectives. This can be achieved through the following initiatives:

  • Education and Awareness: Providing development opportunities to increase employees’ awareness, empathy, and understanding of different identities and perspectives.
  • Open Communication Channels: Encouraging open dialogue and providing safe spaces for employees to express their thoughts, concerns, and ideas can foster a sense of psychological safety and inclusion.
  • Inclusive Leadership: Demonstrating accountability through their own actions and behaviours that promote an inclusive environment and foster psychological safety, setting the standard for the entire team.
  • Policies and Practices: Implementing policies and practices that promote fairness and equity can help create an inclusive working environment where individuals feel comfortable being their authentic selves.

Adopting a proactive approach by creating platforms and opportunities for employees to share their perspectives and experiences voluntarily will build trust and understanding. This can be done through diversity and inclusion surveys, employee resource groups, or open forums that encourage collaboration and exchange of ideas.

Contact Global Diversity Practice for more information on how to foster belonging, creating truly inclusive cultures where people feel they can be themselves at work – and to adapt their behaviours if that is what they are most comfortable doing.

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