Best Practices When You Have a Multilingual Workforce

A button spins for different languages on a digital translator.

In a diverse workforce, language is not the only barrier.

Workforces have become more and more diverse, which has led to language barrier and cultural awareness issues launching toward the forefront for HR leaders. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 350 different languages are spoken in homes across the United States. In the New York City metro area alone, 192 languages are spoken in homes. In Atlanta, Georgia, 146 languages are spoken, and in Chicago, that number is 153. The U.S. now ranks second in Spanish-speaking countries, with Mexico holding the number one spot, CNN reports. By 2050, the U.S. will have the highest number of Spanish-speakers in the world.

Language is undoubtedly becoming more diverse in our country, which impacts business operations and results. For many organizations with a global presence, language in the workforce creates additional challenges.

Communicate With Employees in Their Native Language

HR leaders are often looking for ways to improve employee attraction and retention. When language barriers exist in the workplace, achieving these goals becomes difficult. Additionally, achieving every day compliance with employment and labor laws can become onerous when some employees understand such rules and regulations, where others may not because of a language barrier. Organizations with multilingual workforces should adjust internal training programs so that communication effectiveness increases.

For example, Spectrum Interactive reports that organizations should train employees in their native language to avoid possible risks including subpar employee performance from otherwise capable individuals, potential injury from lack of understanding of safety procedures and failing to retain employees because of a lack of satisfaction on the job. Training employees in their native language not only ensures comprehension of organizational policies and procedures, but also shows that the organization cares about the employee's development.

According to IU Group, an interpreter service provider, some organizations hire interpreters for business meetings. Additionally, materials distributed to employees — including all legally required distributions — should be translated into appropriate languages.

Best Practices for Effective Communication With a Multilingual Workforce

To best understand your diverse workforce, you should start with the knowledge that language barriers aren't their only barriers. Cultural differences can play an important part in communication as well. Harvard Business Review (HBR) notes how cultural norms can affect workplace performance. For example, in Thai culture, emphasis is placed upon group decision-making and avoiding errors. Further, it's custom to not speak unless invited. Thus, a financial firm manager explained to HBR that his fellow Thai workers preferred getting agendas for meetings at least a day ahead of time to prepare with full consultation from peers, that American English-speakers at this particular organization spoke too quickly on the phone, thus impairing understanding and that Thai employees rarely spoke on a call unless invited. Whereas to the Americans, it seemed as if they simply agreed, or weren't interested in contributing.

Consider these additional tips for effective employee interaction with a multilingual workforce:

  • Use more than one form of communication, such as verbal and written
  • Slow down your communication with a group, so issues like the above example can be avoided
  • Offer English courses to employees for those who want to learn or strengthen their English language skill
  • Include everyone — don't isolate employees with limited English proficiency. IU Group notes this can cause trust issues and create an "us versus them" mentality

As workforces change, communication is key. Understanding both language and cultural differences can help HR Leaders take more effective steps in communication techniques. Further, understanding the differences within organizations and embracing these differences through training and education can highlight an organization's cultural awareness. Organizations should embrace the language and cultural differences between employees to achieve not only compliance and retention, but economic success within the organization.

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