The Short Guide to Hiring Bilingual Employees

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The demand for bilingual employees has more than doubled in recent years—and not just in the customer-facing roles you’d expect. “We’re seeing this especially with software companies who have a strong multilingual component, such as where the product itself is available in multiple languages,” says Jarett MacLeod, CHRP and talent acquisition specialist.

But finding this talent is a challenge, especially if your hiring manager doesn't speak the language. Bilingual candidates are hard to source, hard to reach, and hard to qualify. We asked Jarett to share his expert insights into hiring bilingual employees at startups and small businesses.

Benefits of Hiring a Bilingual Employee

Traditionally, bilingual positions have been reserved for customer service, sales, and administrative roles. But the benefits of bilingual employees go way further. From product development to marketing to HR and recruitment, bilingual employees can:

  • Tap new markets and introduce you to international networks
  • Help adapt your product or messaging to specific locales (i.e. localization)
  • Make prospective customers feel more comfortable by speaking their native tongue
  • Proofread your website, content, and communications to avoid embarrassing mistakes
  • Multitask more efficiently (according to this study, at least)
  • Bring in new ways of thinking (consider how the Japanese concept of Kaizen has made its way from U.S. car manufacturing to Silicon Valley)

With the growth of multinational markets and higher customer expectations than ever, businesses of all types need to start building multilingual teams who can conceptualize and execute a product that serves all clients equally.

How to recruit and hire bilingual employees

No matter what role you're hiring for, standard recruitment practices apply: a solid applicant process, defined interview funnel, and an easy to use ATS. Nevertheless, there are additional steps for sourcing and attracting this unique talent pool.

Here are a few of Jarett's top recruiting tips.

Be specific about your needs

Somewhat ironically, there's no universal vocabulary for describing bilingualism. Words like 'proficient,'  'intermediate,' and 'business-level' can mean different things to different people. Likewise, candidates may be fluent in one dialect but uncomfortable communicating in another.

Before you even start sourcing, you must decide on the specific requirements of the job. How much will the candidate need to use the language in question? Will the role involve primarily written or spoken communication? Will they be speaking with customers from one specific region or international clients with many dialects and accents? Sit down with the department head and create a detailed list of skill requirements.

You'll also want to consider if you will require ongoing bilingual talent or if you can hire an independent contractor to oversee translations or a short-term partnership. Keep in mind, however, that in-house talent will have a much better understanding of your specific language needs and will likely be able to communicate the nuances of your business.

Write a straightforward job post

“The biggest mistake I see is people not leading with the fact that it’s a bilingual job,” says Jarett. Seems obvious, but it's true. Another common mistake, he adds, is writing a complex job posting filled with industry jargon: "If you’re only posting in one language, make sure it’s something that everyone can understand. Writing in clear and concise language, avoiding idioms and avoiding slang, will make it comprehensible even to a non-native speaker."

Share in the right places

There are better ways to target bilingual candidates than general job boards.“You have to go where people live,” says Jarett. “If you’re looking for a specific language, you have to go to community papers and language schools that target these populations.”

Whether you are actively sourcing leads or passively accepting applications, log every single candidate in your applicant tracking system and make detailed notes on any references, exams, writing samples, or other information they provide.

Ask the right interview questions

Interviewing bilingual candidates is the most challenging step if you don't fluently speak the language if you’re hiring for.

Some good bilingual interview questions to ask are:

  • What languages can you speak, read, and write fluently? (Note:  Under Canadian Human Rights legislation, it is illegal to ask a candidate “what is your native tongue?” or similar questions that may force them to reveal their nationality, origin, or citizenship. Only ask about language skills at the interview stage if it is relevant to the performance of the job.)
  • How do you use this language today? “It only takes five years to lose a language,” says Jarett. “I’d ask a candidate how they’re using their second language in their day-to-day to get a sense of how they’re keeping their skills sharp."
  • Give an example of a situation where you solved a difficult problem for a customer in this language. Or, Describe a time you provided exceptional customer service in a bilingual role.

The best possible practice is to have someone who speaks the language present during the interview, or someone who can proofread a written test afterward. If there’s no one in your organization who speaks the language you're hiring for, consider reaching out to a bilingual recruiter or recruiting agency.

Finally: Be language inclusive

Jarett’s final tip is to make sure your office is welcoming to all languages beyond just the recruitment process. “If you’re positioning yourself as an organization where multilingualism is really valued, it’s important to make sure that other language is built into everything you do,” he says.

“If you’re positioning yourself as an organization where multilingualism is really valued, it’s important to make sure that other language is built into everything you do."

How you do this will depend on your company culture and the extent to which bilingualism is part of your product and workforce. You may consider sending welcome letters and other communications in multiple languages or investing in language courses for employees to improve their skills.

“I talked to a developer who said there was a very large Mandarin-speaking population at his office,” adds Jarett.  “For the technical team, it was much easier for them to communicate in Mandarin, and the company was supportive of that on an official level.”

The bottom line is that linguistic diversity and inclusion is part of your company’s overall diversity and inclusion metrics. (TribalScale even includes language in their employee demographic surveys.)

It may take longer than you want to recruit and hire a bilingual employee with the exact language skills you're looking for. But don't get impatient. True fluency is not a skill that can be faked or taught overnight.


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