Can we stop employees speaking other languages at work?
HR Insights


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.

If you have a workplace question you’d like answered by an HR pro, you can submit it anonymously here.

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Q:

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?

A:

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!

Full disclosure:

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.

Speaking other languages at work

Potential problems

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 speakingprobably not very nicelyabout 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?

Discrimination: While there’s no Human Rights Code specifically about language discrimination at work, the OHRC recognizes that “language is a characteristic that is often closely associated with ancestry, ethnic origin or place of origin.”

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 speakingprobably not very nicelyabout 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:

  1. Determine your ‘languages at work’ policy.
  2. Set clear expectations and communicate them to the team.

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.

Once you and your leaders have identified the most important points, draft a short, to-the-point policy. Check out Nora Jenkins-Townson’s blog post for why this needs to be a written policy, not a verbal one.

Onwards and upwards

I really hope this helps. I think it’s great to see that your team is growing and encouraging this aspect of diversity (read here for more on intersectionality in diversity, and how there are so many different pieces to focus on), and even cooler to see that you’re focusing on increasing inclusion in your workplace.

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.

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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.