How to Get the Best Out of Your Multilingual Workforce
The other day I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when I happened to find this tweet by Invest in Holland.
Did you know? The English word for "cookie" comes from "koekje" in Dutch. Thanks to the #multilingual skills of the Dutch #workforce, international companies in the Netherlands can take a snack break without getting lost in translation. 🍪 #InvestinHolland https://t.co/5hHLeKUOi4 pic.twitter.com/K8cOw0DWPL— NFIA North America (@NFIA_USCanada) June 25, 2020
With this tweet, they’ve achieved two things. First, they have given everyone a peek into their positively multilingual work culture. Second, they have caught the attention of businesses looking to expand in the Netherlands – simply by telling them that their Netherlands counterparts are adept at communicating in English.
Having multilingual employees can prove to be a significant advantage for global companies today. They can be the difference between closing a deal and alienating a potential customer or client. However, a global company can enjoy these benefits only if they manage their multilingual workforce well.
Managing a workforce that consists of employees who are linguistically and culturally diverse is easier said than done. But, you can draw confidence from the many international companies which are managing their workforce efficiently.
Let’s see how you, too, can achieve that.
1. Choose an official language for your company
Adopting an official language isn’t easy for any global company. There’s a high chance that the management will receive resistance from the employees, and some stakeholders will raise questions about national pride. However, if the company has set out to expand internationally, this step becomes necessary.
Say, a Japanese company has scheduled a meeting with some potential clients from America. If the former’s employees fail to communicate efficiently in English, what is the chance of them closing the deal with the American clients?
Moreover, one official language optimises many processes within a global company. For instance, you are likely to have people talking in their native or national language at company meetings. Consequently, that leaves those who do not speak the language – out of the conversation. Having an official company language will help you avoid such situations.
Before you decide to change your company policy about language and communication, do ensure that this change is viable as you will need to ensure that all your documentation, electronic systems, and correspondence is in the official language.
Global companies must be supportive when introducing an official language, which means providing their employees with enough time and resources to gain proficiency in the language, over some time.
2. Provide language learning opportunities
Forcing your employees to adopt a new language urgently can negatively impact your company’s culture and discourage your employees. Instead, ask your human resources department to hold workshops and short meetings with small groups that’ll help the employees in understanding the advantages of adopting your company’s official language.
Learning another language will help them highlight this skill on their resume and will help them succeed professionally. Also, encourage your employees to provide suggestions about which languages will help them in closing more deals or solving customers’ queries efficiently.
Provide resources to help your employees gain proficiency in their chosen language – in other words, walk the talk. Provide every employee with a ‘learning and development’ budget which they can use to pay for language classes. Alternatively, you can invite a language teacher to conduct classes on your office’s premises.
3. Provide all essential company information in multiple languages
Although it might seem like you’re defeating the purpose of choosing an official language, providing all company information in multiple languages can be beneficial. Remember, the aim is to adopt ‘inclusive’ communication where everyone feels welcomed and can access all information.
A decade ago, Rakuten’s CEO made English the official language of the global company. Employees of Rakuten, Japan’s largest online marketplace, saw the menus in their cafeteria and elevator’s directories change to English overnight. While this radical approach helped Rakuten become a diverse and international organisation, it did so at the expense of all its Japanese employees. Rakuten’s Japanese employees must have felt excluded from the organisation’s culture.
So, what do you do when you wish to optimise your company’s communication with an official language while ensuring you’re not alienating any members of your workforce? Translate and localise your company information in the languages spoken by most of your workforce. People always grasp and comprehend information better in their native languages. So, this will help you avoid any miscommunication or misinterpretation of the information.
4. Celebrate your differences
As they say, birds of the same feather stick together. In a multilingual workforce, the emergence of small groups where people have common or complementing linguistic and cultural backgrounds is inevitable. These small groups could hinder healthy interactions and professional relationships between employees. And that’s why you must encourage your employees to interact in an out-of-work context and learn more about each other.
Many global companies celebrate Diversity Day. This provides an excellent platform for you to show how your company envisions its diversity and inclusion practices to be in the future. Your human resources department can arrange some fun activities or events like these:
Check out how Nokia’s employees celebrated Diversity Day in their Belgium office.
Global companies across the world are adopting and promoting an inclusive work culture. Gone are the days when employers hired like-minded people from a specific socio-economic and cultural background. Today, companies focus on making everyone feel welcome, irrespective of their gender, race, colour, caste, or sexual orientation. A multilingual workforce helps you create an inclusive culture and build great relationships with your customers and clients.