By Andrew Welch, Executive Director, Global Client Services, Landor & Fitch
With the prominence of diversity and inclusion contributing to the success of big corporates and multinationals, one dimension seems to have attracted little attention: language. English is widely accepted as the lingua franca for communication within global organisations, from town halls to presentations to everyday emails. While any immediate change to this may seem unlikely, a globalised working world that embraces an increasingly diverse workforce will inevitably need to address the issue of language inclusivity.
Of the 1.35bn English speakers around the world, only 37.5% of these are native speakers. It is sobering to take stock that the large majority of employees are operating in a language that isn’t the one they naturally communicate or think in. From appreciating local idiom and nuance to filtering stalling exchanges on Team calls, it can be a difficult and frustrating process for non-native English speakers to have to adapt all day, every day.
Simply put, does a single language mandate align to an inclusive and diverse world that boasts over 7,000 languages in use today?
Day in the life
As the working world rises to a new working day, the morning drill is as habitual as it is predictable – from firing up local news channels and social media feeds to tending to family matters or a partner, a rapid fire of routine exchanges takes place effortlessly in a native tongue with all its local idioms, nuances, and idiosyncrasies.
Then at 9am, as the workday begins, all that has been natural and innate to the non-native English speaker must be stifled for at least the next eight hours and replaced with English. As a native English speaker, if you think this is fair play or ‘just the way it is’, then just for one minute make your next call, write your next email, prepare you next presentation in a language that is non-native to you.
Companies that don’t find ways to better engage with employees in their native language could find their retention rates begin to fall. Not only would this represent a loss of talent, with additional recruitment costs, but it could also damage the company’s brand as a good place to work, with prospective non-native workers put off by the lack of inclusive policies.
Companies ignorant towards language may also be more inclined to choose native speaking candidates over non-natives – regardless of experience and suitability to a role – in turn risking the loss of brilliant talent and a diverse range of thinking on their team.
Alongside this, potential foreign business partners could begin to look elsewhere, while overseas opportunities could be missed if there’s not a culture in place open to other languages.
If these issues go unchecked, bigger problems for businesses can arise that could impact on workplace culture and experience, loss of talent and, ultimately, business success.
In a world where most employees are non-native English speakers, how can businesses better support their workforce so they bring their whole self to work?
First, companies must create a more understanding workplace environment, one that encourages discussion and education around different cultures and languages, with explanations about all the various nuances and idioms that come with them. This could be done through various internal initiatives which focus on interactivity, and social rituals which might educate in a fun but informative way.
At the same time, new policies can be introduced to further help upskill English native employees around linguistic differences. Introducing language lessons and offering secondments or placements to partners or branches in other countries on a regular basis can improve education around languages and encourage teams to embrace new cultures. Experiences like this can be incredibly rewarding, with long-lasting effects on team morale and engagement.
Meanwhile, companies should always display empathy when engaging with non-native English speakers. Small steps such as asking whether employees would like to do tasks in other languages, using subtitles during virtual calls and presentations, and making emails and presentations clearer, can immediately improve accessibility and enhance the working experience in new ways for everyone.
Breaking down barriers
Beyond the more practiced aspects of diversity and inclusion, truly inclusive businesses will be those that pay attention to language inclusivity, and who can genuinely invite every employee around the world to bring their whole self to work, without feeling apprehensive or isolated. A more inclusive approach to language can be easily achieved while bringing an overwhelmingly positive impact on employees and the culture of their workplace.