The language of the workplace

The norms and culture of the workplace are a language we all have to learn when we start a new job. Working to demystify the implicit can help make tech more inclusive.
Part of
Issue 5 April 2018

Programming Languages

As a kid in New York, my mom would speak to me in Kreyol when she wanted to convey a message meant only for me. She wouldn’t whisper, because that would convey to others an intention to exclude them, and speaking sternly to an errant child in English might reflect poorly on her parenting skills. So Haitian Kreyol, her first language, was her language of choice for letting me know that my behavior was unacceptable and I was close to facing some undesirable consequences. It was our secret language—sometimes used to correct, sometimes used to celebrate and cherish.

Language is a powerful tool. It signals belonging, culture, values, place. In the tech industry, coding languages are worn as a badge of honor, and are used to create hierarchies. They’re indications of longevity, survival, sophistication. Languages are not always spoken or spelled out; sometimes languages are invisible, a puzzle of sorts, a signal of belonging that must be decoded using a complex set of cultural lessons and observations.

For the last six years, Code2040 has focused its work on the experiences of Black and Latinx computer science majors. As our first few cohorts have moved from college to career, we’ve heard much about the challenges they face moving into the industry. Recently, we convened a series of focus groups to gather more formal data about the experiences of early-career Black and Latinx software engineers. What we’ve learned is that there is a language of the workplace, a lexicon that aligns with the culture of a place, and if you know that language and culture, you’re on the inside. If you don’t, you’re either taught it, or you’re forever on the outside, fumbling around, trying to figure out how to not screw up.

The norms and culture of the workplace is a language we all have to learn when we start a new job. Years ago, I was chatting with a group of three middle-school girls. They were all white and from wealthy families. I asked about the racial makeup of their classroom, and they mentioned that there was one Black boy in their grade level, and that he was not a good reader. I inquired more deeply, and one of them looked at me with complete earnestness and said she thought he must be stupid, because “it’s not like anyone taught me how to read, I just learned it.” I asked whether she could remember her parents singing the ABCs with her, or reading to her at night. She could, but she hadn’t attributed that to the process of learning to read. She literally thought she had taught herself.

Adults do a similar type of forgetting when it comes to the process of learning and assimilating knowledge. Many of us in professional jobs grew up around adults who had professional jobs. We saw a parent’s resume on the kitchen table, we learned how to rush in the morning so that we were on time to meetings. We learned these things because someone taught us.

However, for people who are the first in their family to go to college, to write a resume, to interview for a six-figure job, or who simply haven’t worked in the tech industry before, the norms and expectations are largely unlearned. When, by the grace of their devastatingly hard work, their hustle, myriad mentors, the prayers of grandma, and some plain luck, they make it into a tech job, the language of the workplace is a foreign one. Norms like whether being on time for a meeting means five minutes early or five minutes late and whether a business-casual dress code means slacks, a button-up, and a sweater or a cat-print tank top, cargo shorts, and flip-flops are unknown.

Unless we make the implicit explicit, we leave our new hires to wander in the desert of unspoken norms and expectations, internalizing their mistakes as shortcomings rather than as failures of a less than rigorous onboarding process.

Here are some of the common places where companies and managers fail to make the language of the workplace explicit:

  • Drinking on the job. Every Friday at 3 p.m. at Code2040, one of our team members announces “beer o’clock,” a time when we gather in the kitchen and have a drink. Every tech team with three or more people has a little fridge stocked with La Croix, coconut water, and beer. New people, especially those raised in strict hierarchical cultures or families, are often not comfortable drinking alcohol at work. So this time meant for relaxing, building relationships, and chatting with the higher-ups can be alienating. Many of our early-career Black and Latinx community members do not drink at all, and office social cultures that revolve around alcohol are deeply in conflict with their personal boundaries.

  • Working “9 to 5.” Traditional workplace norms dictate that working hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., though tech companies often have a more relaxed on ramp to the day. If some members of the engineering team come in at 11 and work until 7, is everyone expected to do so? If the CEO eats lunch at her desk, is it a statement on dedication to the job or simply a way for her to get home a bit earlier? For young Black and Latinx professionals, it can be challenging to navigate the middle ground between explicitly stated expectations and unspoken norms, especially when stereotype threat applies pressure to demonstrate a strong work ethic in order to be perceived as a valuable.

  • Using tech to communicate. Tech teams are known for choosing electronic communication even when in-person conversation is possible, optimizing for efficiency and convenience, often over relationship-building and interpersonal interaction. However, many Black and Latinx communities optimize for personal engagement and trust-building through interpersonal interaction over efficiency and convenience. The idea of sending an electronic message to someone two seats away might be anathema to someone from a relationship-prioritizing family or community. Unspoken expectations around electronic communication—like assuming that all internal communications happen through Slack and all external communications happen through email, or that the person who calls the meeting sends out notes and next steps afterwards—become a minefield of potential mistakes for a new teammate to navigate.

The downside of these unspoken, implicit norms is not just that they can contribute to a high level of awkwardness during the first few weeks on the job—they’re often a signal to those on the inside that the new person, who is unaware of the norms, doesn’t belong. One of the most frequently shared tidbits of interview advice from Code2040 and other mentors helping Black and/or Latinx individuals looking for their first software engineering internship is to not show up in a suit. Showing up at a tech company in a suit and tie is the death knell for coolness. There is no coming back from it; you have forever indicated that you are not in the know.

When this signaling happens quite early, like during the job interview, the attribution can be damning. When the person on the outside is Black and/or Latinx, or otherwise already standing out (perhaps they’re openly LGBTQ or have a visible disability), their ignorance of the norm is often attributed to their race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, lack of innate intelligence, and so on. As pattern-spotting animals, if we make enough of these attributions, we may begin to think that all Black, Latinx, LGBTQ, etc. folks lack intelligence, professionalism, and the like.

For many young Black and Latinx tech professionals, molding to fit workplace culture ideals means stripping away elements of their identity that the dominant culture rejects as invalid or not meaningful. This involves a trade-off: How much of my identity do I need to perform or give away for validation and recognition from those in power? There are both practical and psychosocial implications to this trade-off. On one hand, identity performance and the pressure to assimilate operationally is draining, and chips away at an individual’s sense of self. On the other hand, if a Black and/or Latinx individual prioritizes self-preservation over performance and claims agency in making decisions around non-disruptive assimilation, they risk not fitting into the ill-defined yet dominant workplace culture.

Those of us who have always understood or have come to understand the language of the workplace can take action to ease the way for others. Firstly, we can work with our internal teams to distill and define the characteristics of our workplace and make them explicit to new folks who join the team. Asking seasoned team members questions like, “What does it take to be successful here?” and asking folks at the six-month mark, “What were the toughest things to learn to navigate?” will give insight into the norms that ought to be defined and taught to newcomers.

Secondly, recognizing where we have informal or formal authority and influence and choosing to extend that to newcomers, or even to longer-term team members who need the cover, is a bold way to include voices that are often unrecognized or devalued. Successfully navigating the workplace as a young professional often involves gaining informal access and support from more experienced or powerful team members. Extending power can look like inviting a more junior staff member to a high-level meeting that they typically wouldn’t attend, advocating that they be extended a stretch project and then mentoring them to success, or giving them extra time to process and talk through information before big meetings where they’re expected to perform on the spot.

We can all remember what it’s like to have a steep learning curve in a new job or a situation in which getting caught up quickly made the difference between success and failure. What we don’t all remember is the support and inside information we received, the preparation done for and with us by mentors or parents, and the breaks we got along the way. Unpacking the things we assume we’ve always known so that we can understand the journeys of those who don’t situates us in a place where we can be invaluable.

About the author

Mimi Fox Melton is the senior director of community at Code2040, a racial justice nonprofit focused on the tech industry. She is an activist facilitator, poet, artist, and rabble-rouser, and lives in the Bay Area with her spouse.

About the author

Naomi Uwaka is the community research and operations associate at Code2040. She enjoys writing and spontaneous adventures, and is always up for a good debate.

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