Can we stop employees speaking other languages at work?
Jun 8, 2018
Brett Reed is the passionate Talent + People leader at SnapTravel. With years of international and tech recruitment under his belt, Brett is among the best at finding bright, passionate people from around the world and making sure they have everything they need to get their best work done.
Previously, Brett gave us the inside scoop on how he redesigned SnapTravel's career page to more than double their growth. Here, he offers sound advice on speaking other languages at work.
We have a relatively large group of Japanese-speaking employees in our workplace. Lately, they have begun speaking Japanese almost exclusively at the office. They’ve said that it helps them to work together faster, but I’m afraid it’s creating a non-inclusive environment for everyone else. Can I ask them to only speak English only during work hours?
This is a great question, and one that is becoming increasingly relevant in today’s global workforce. Organizations are recruiting more from international markets, and even when recruiting locally the talent pool is much more ethnically diverse. In fact, 46.1% of Toronto residents were born outside of Canada. It's fair to say that many have probably learned English as a second language!
I am bilingual (English/French). I've lived abroad in Europe and have worked for a national organization with fully bilingual communications. The startup that I currently work with, SnapTravel, is an ethnically diverse team. Over 80% of team members were born outside of Canada and ~75% speak a language other than English as their first language. I can safely say this is a very relevant topic, and one all HR managers and recruiters should learn more about.
It's important to first point out that there is nothing wrong with speaking other languages at work. Bilingual employees bring many advantages. You can reach new markets, deepen relationships with clients, and attract strong talent from a much wider pool. Not to mention that, as your team has pointed out, they can work faster and more effectively in the language they’re most comfortable in. Why would you want to slow them down?
Your team can communicate better and solve problems faster in the language they're most comfortable in. Why would you want to slow them down?
In a workplace setting, language is a form of communication, just as email, Slack, conference calls, etc. are methods of communicating. Just as you would do with those tools, the important thing is to choose the right form of communication for different situations. I’ll get to those situations in a second.
First, let’s address the problem at hand. Next, I’ll share examples of when it is and isn’t okay to use a foreign language at work. Finally, we’ll get into workplace language policies and how to deliver them.
Note: Throughout this article, I'll use the term 'foreign language' to mean any language other than English. But 'foreign' is relative to where you are reading this from, so adapt it to your workplace.
Speaking other languages at work
From an HR perspective, there are a few ways employees speaking other languages at work can cause communication breakdowns:
Non-inclusive environment: Your initial concern that the increased use of Japanese is creating a non-inclusive work environment is very legitimate. When we hear people speaking a different language in our presence, it’s easy to assume those people are speaking—probably not very nicely—about us. That big “unknown” leads to hurt feelings, bitterness, and resentment.
Miscommunication: What happens if important information regarding a product, a client, or even a health and safety concern is communicated in one language but not the other?
If your workplace begins to favour or discriminate against employees on the basis of their language, you could face legal consequences. For example in your case, are Japanese-speaking employees more likely to be assigned certain projects so they can work together? Are teams becoming segregated by their preferred language?
When we hear people speaking other languages in our presence, it’s easy to assume they are speaking—probably not very nicely—about us.
All of these are legitimate concerns, but if managed properly by your HR team and company culture, they will in no way outweigh the benefits of having a multilingual workforce. Again, it comes down to picking the right form of communication for the right situation. Let’s tease those out.
When it’s okay to speak a foreign language at work
Speaking a non-native language can be exhausting. Constantly interpreting, translating, and trying to remember the right verbs and expressions takes a toll. It makes sense that when teams use the language they are most comfortable in, they’ll communicate better and solve problems faster. When this happens, I believe it’s best to get out of their way and let them work.
Here are a few examples of when it is probably okay for your team to be speaking a foreign language.
During one-on-one meetings where both the employee and team leader/manager are comfortable communicating in the foreign language
A conference call or meeting where every participant (no exceptions) is comfortable communicating in the foreign language
In conversation with a client where the client has expressed they are more comfortable communicating in the foreign language
In the break room, lunch area, or an offsite event where everyone present and/or participating in the conversation is comfortable speaking and communicating in the foreign language.
If, in a meeting or other situation, two or more foreign language-speaking employees have respectfully asked others in the room if they can step aside something with each other in their preferred language.
When it’s not okay to speak a foreign language at work
The commonality between the above examples is that everyone is linguistically aligned. They can communicate with each other and effectively do their jobs.
On the flip side are situations where some people (or even just one person!) cannot communicate in the foreign language your team is using. Here are some situations where it is not okay:
• A conference call or meeting where one or more people aren’t comfortable communicating in the foreign language • An email or messaging thread (such as in Slack) where one or more participants aren’t comfortable communicating in the foreign language • A social or team-building event where one or more participants aren’t comfortable communicating in the foreign language
In these cases, the best practice is to default to speaking the language that everyone in the room can understand. In other words: default to inclusivity.
If one or more people can't participate in the conversation, default to speaking the language that everyone in the room can understand.
Develop and Deliver a Language at Work Policy
If you’ve followed along so far and we’re on the same page, here’s how I’d approach your situation:
Determine your ‘languages at work’ policy.
Set clear expectations and communicate them to the team.
To determine your policy:
Connect with leadership to figure out what your stance is on the issue. Here are some useful questions to ask as a team:
Have there been specific complaints about employees feeling excluded by this group?
Have there been cases where important information didn’t reach the right parties because it was shared in Japanese (or any language other than English?)
Does your workplace have health or safety information that MUST be communicated in a shared language?
Is there any indication that the foreign language-speaking employees are indeed gossiping or speaking inappropriately with one-another?
How you shape your policy will depend on the answers to these questions, along with your company’s culture, values, and what makes sense for your unique business.
Schedule an open, company-wide conversation to introduce the policy and why it matters. Explain your and your leaders’ concerns about inclusion and miscommunications. Don’t be afraid to give specific examples. People likely know that this is about the Japanese language use in the office, so don’t skirt the issue. Provide clear examples of when it is acceptable and unacceptable to do so and be open to discussion. From there, make sure you provide a plan of action. How will you (and your leaders) encourage the right behaviour and coach against the opposite?
Once you've sorted out this issue, you could go even further. Ask your employees if they'd be comfortable teaching everyone a few words in their native language. Or, find out if they would benefit from multi-lingual handbooks or training. By warmly including all aspects of these employees lives in your workplace, you’re allowing them to bring their whole selves to the office and do their best work
I’d love to hear about how it works out for you. If any readers have different thoughts or ideas, please do share.
Thank you so much, Brett! Readers can get in touch with him on Twitter or read more about his recruitment, HR, and startup experiences on Medium. If you have an HR question you’d like answered by an HR pro, submit it anonymously here.