English is only the third most-spoken language in the world, but it’s increasingly the language of choice for multinational corporations. Companies from Rakuten in Japan to SAP in Germany require employees to communicate primarily in English for official business. But the unintended consequences of such policies can be severe.
Tsedal Neeley, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Harvard Business School, researched the effects of corporate language policies in a forthcoming study for the journal Organizational Science, interviewing numerous employees at a multinational in France that had recently instituted an English only requirement. The results are an eye-opener: employees who felt they had limited to moderate proficiency in English worried far more about job security than their fluent colleagues, and fretted that they would be unable to advance within the organization. They also spoke of feeling “stupid” and “devalued” under the policy.
During meetings, employees hesitated to speak up even if they had legitimate insights to share. “I become red, and I sweat, and I think to myself, Wow, everybody is looking at me, so I should not make any mistakes,” said one employee. Others tried to avoid interactions with their English-speaking colleagues. “If you cannot express your ideas because you lack language skills, the collaboration becomes a nightmare.
You lose interest to continue,” said another. Even worse, they began to distrust the native English speakers within their own company. “We need to be extra cautious, because the Americans’ mastery of the language may lead them to take advantage of us and try to fool us,” said one worker about colleagues in a U.S. branch.
TIPS FOR MANAGING A MULTILINGUAL WORKFORCE
Given the potential damage a language policy can cause, is it even worth instituting one? “For companies that have global aspirations, there’s absolutely no choice,” Neeley says. Global operations often require employees in different countries with diverse backgrounds to work together and communicate via e-mail or video conferencing, and if they can’t easily understand one another, they’re going to have a very hard time getting anything accomplished.
The key to making it work, according to Neeley, is ensuring that non-native speakers aren’t alienated. From the very start, managers need to explain why a single language policy is necessary and to encourage and support non-native speakers through free language courses during work hours, and provide ongoing opportunities for them to upgrade their skills. Fostering that kind of supportive environment will help eliminate the anxiety over job security.
Native speakers have an obligation to change their behaviours, too. Andrea Griggs, principal at consultancy Catalyst Communications, recently worked with a director at a Canadian multinational having difficulty with a team member in Europe. He felt his German colleague was abrupt and rude—but after speaking with the employee, Griggs determined that a language barrier was causing problems.
The German employee felt uncomfortable speaking in a large group, and found it difficult to interject. By the time she had formulated her point, the conversation had moved on. To avoid these problems, the leader of a meeting should create a detailed agenda so non-native speakers can prepare remarks in advance, which Griggs says can help people feel more confident. She also thinks that specifically inviting them to contribute might get more participation.
The good news is that the anxieties experienced by nonnative speakers usually dissipate, provided a company makes the right moves. But instituting an effective language policy takes time, says Neeley: “It is probably the most dramatic change a company can introduce.”