Multilingual workplaces can feel like a blessing or a curse depending on a company's structure. It's understandable how an HR professional or diversity equity and inclusion chief could feel overwhelmed at the thought of managing a global employee base. A diverse array of languages spoken in the office — or in a co-working space, or on Slack — can either divide a team or unite it. So, how can an inclusive, multilingual workplace be fostered?
For starters, HR professionals can beef up their tech toolbox. Re-assess tech for time-tracking, recruiting, onboarding and performance management, to see if it's effective for the work the specific company does in other countries. HR pros can also look into their communications software. Take Workplace from Facebook for example. The platform allows users to set their own language preferences for posts. Co-workers have the option to translate them.
Christine Trodella, head of Americas at Workplace, told HR Dive that she's seen companies in the consumer packaging, tech, and food industries adopt the platform — from executive leadership to frontline employees.
"This is a workforce population that tends to be disenfranchised and maybe doesn't have easy access to information from maybe a corporate headquarters," Trodella said to HR Dive. "It really democratizes the distribution of information and the ability to have a two-way dialogue with the frontline employees." However, for many multilingual companies, translating messages can be just one factor in a troop of challenges.
Joanna Blazinska, a London-based former tech professional (Google, Sony DADC, PlayStation) and career coach, has seen her fair share of problems having worked in multilingual workplaces for the past 15 years. A recurring question is that of an agreed-upon workplace language. "This could be the official language, but also languages used within groups working, for example, on community management or customer experience," Blazinska told HR Dive in an email. "Or local languages used by teams in branches, who communicate in another language with the headquarters."
She gets it: speaking in one's own language is often quicker and comfortable. But, she said, "As a consequence, it may lead to sloppy documentation of processes or unusable email trails if the main language to be used for workplace communication is not established."
For context, U.S. employers can run afoul of discrimination laws and other employment requirements if they create English-only workplaces, particularly if there isn't any "business necessity." But there are ways for employers to ensure that everyone is on the same page regarding documentation and communication. HR professionals can help bring employees up to speed on the main language of the office. That improves company efficiency and creates a more equitable and inclusive working environment.
"While it is more common between branches and headquarters, it can be even more difficult when it happens between colleagues on the same team. It may end up in hostile situations between colleagues, due to linguistic skills, or even pace of speaking or an accent," Blazinska said. "This may even end up in stereotypes affecting workplace communication or nationalist tendencies. ‘This is [XYZ country], we speak [XYZ language] here.'"
A note for U.S. employers: There's a precedent against banning languages other than English at work. A resource helpful in preventing culturally hostile work environments is the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's national origin discrimination guidance. Compliance questions aside, an action as simple as providing learning resources can make a lasting, positive impact.
Blazinska, who speaks Polish, English, Spanish, Portuguese, German and French, recalled two instances when a seemingly introverted ex-pat employee joined her team — an Italian peer in the U.K. and a Portuguese colleague in Spain. "No one ever suspected they simply did not follow conversations or training in the official language. Having been called out for underperformance, not enough research when working on projects, and little-to-no contributions, they revealed they did not understand. Both ended up taking language courses," she said. "Both also got encouraged by their leadership to speak since then and opened up not long after."
Similarly, a Brazilian employee — who Trodella felt was fluent in English and therefore confident in her grasp of the language — confided in Trodella that speaking up at meetings conducted in English made her deeply anxious and uncharacteristically timid. "I was thinking, ‘She's got to feel so confident,' because I think she's such a great English speaker," Trodella said. Her solution? Deferring to that team member on how she could best be supported.
"Have an open dialogue about anything to [help them] feel more included in the conversation when English — or a secondary or third language — is being spoken," Trodella said. "You know, ‘How can I make sure that I'm making you feel included and heard?'" In this instance, Trodella touched base with her bilingual employee about whether she preferred to be left alone or gently nudged to speak up in meetings with questions like "What do you think about this?"
A pro-tip from HR software company Factorial, which has teams in Mexico, Spain, England, and the U.S. is to encourage employees to practice languages with each other in a personable, fun way. "We have a program where colleagues can sign up and find a ‘language exchange buddy' to practice a chosen language with," James Fisher, a Barcelona-based U.K. market growth manager for Factorial, told HR Dive in an email. "I have recently signed up and I am offering English in exchange for Spanish lessons, which is a huge benefit to working in an office with such broad diversity."
That's the thing about working on a multinational team: It can actually be a golden learning experience. For multilingual people like Blazinska, learning another language is a chance to get to know the essence of co-workers. "When people speak in their own language, without barriers of what they can actually say, they will show you their true personality and who they are," Blazinska said. "With the language comes a whole set of culture, gestures, sense of humor, body language cues. It is interesting to decode the whole set and distinguish what belongs to a person's personality, and what characterizes a whole collective using the same language… If someone is multilingual, there is a story to it."
Even for the HR professionals and other employees who are still working on their cross-cultural competency, this kind of diversity can still be a learning opportunity. Trodella enjoys and values the range of perspectives that come from working with a team across North and Latin America.
"It's the different perspectives. It's a different way of seeing things and thinking about things, and just learning about the different cultures. I just think it makes us so much richer. It makes us feel like a family," Trodella said. "When you talk about different cultures and the different experiences that people have, it's so salient. We have those types of personal discussions that bring a team together as friends and as colleagues, and it helps build that community that we have as a team."