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When Workers Have Their Own Language in the Workplace

by Aug 21, 2018Language and Culture

Sean Hopwood
MBA President and Founder at Day Translations, Inc.

Accepting workers of different backgrounds and nationalities has its advantages. Diversity helps build a dynamic work environment. However, it can also lead to challenges, especially when it comes to language and cultural differences. What if you hired employees who end up creating their own circle wherein they speak their own language and act according to their own culture? What if they outnumber the rest of the employees and unwittingly put up a virtual wall of incomprehensibility and disconnect?

The trouble with employees having their own language and culture

Businesses that hire migrant workers or multinational companies that set up operations in a foreign country are likely to encounter this: the creation of an informal and unintentionally exclusive group of employees who have their own language and culture. This may appear benign, but it can create issues or problems later on.

For example, when a manufacturing company decides to hire dozens of migrant Filipino workers, these new employees are most likely going to bond with each other and form their own clique. In this clique, they tend to speak with each other using their own language (Filipino) and create a workplace dynamic that can be considered exclusive to them. They act according to their own culture, exchanging jokes and setting conventions, for example, to which others may not be able to relate.

This kind of scenario can create issues later on. Employees speaking among themselves a language their managers and fellow employees don’t understand develop a sense of exclusion. While the intention may not be to exclude others, it has that effect. It creates a new language barrier that can cause confusion and misunderstanding. What if other employees feel insulted or offended by the Filipino jokes or expressions? What if the use of certain words unwittingly hurts someone or gets misheard, leading to serious issues?

What makes this a complicated matter is that employees using their own language in the workplace may or may not be a problem. In some companies, it may stir issues, but in others, it may have no adverse consequences at all. It becomes difficult for the company to decide what to do. Should the company wait for the adverse effects to occur before doing something or should they implement something before anything untoward takes place?

What can you do as a manager?

Arguably, it’s better to prevent problems from occurring than to scramble for solutions only when the problems emerge. The following ideas would help.

  1. Implement a (legal) language rule.

It’s not a bad idea imposing a rule requiring everyone to use a particular language that is understandable to everyone to prevent misunderstanding and other problems associated with the use of a specific language by a particular group in the workplace, This language rule may only be for a limited extent, though.

In the United States, companies are allowed to impose English-only rules, provided that they don’t constitute discrimination and are restricted to the fulfillment of employee obligations. Employees have the right to speak the language they prefer in casual conversations. This means that they cannot be forced to speak English while in the cafeteria or while walking in hallways or taking a break.

It’s important to emphasize that the language rule should abide by the legal parameters described by law. In the United States, for example, companies should refer to the guidelines of the United States Department of Labor – Civil Rights Center and pertinent laws. The United States Equal Opportunity  Commission Regulation 29 C.F.R. 1606.7(a) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in particular, make it unlawful for companies to require employees to only use English during casual conversations.

  1. Explain the potential language issue to employees and ask for their cooperation to prevent problems.

Considering that it can be illegal to require employees to speak English or a specific language at all times in the workplace, it would be a good idea to make an informal effort in explaining the possible issues that can ensue by allowing a specific group of people to use a particular language in the workplace.

Conduct a seminar or orientation on cultural sensitivity and assimilation. It greatly helps to make employees understand that their exclusive use of a particular language while they are in the workplace, during working hours or on breaks, can raise issues. Some employees or the management team may be offended as they suspect that employees are saying unpleasant or uncomely things about others during their casual conversations. Others may perceive lively and loud conversations that come with boisterous laughter as taunts veiled by the incomprehensibility of a foreign language.

Pamphlets or email/newsletter reminders may be sent to employees to guide them on being sensitive to others as they converse in their preferred languages. Highlight the risks of misinterpretation and overblown rumors. Employees may be urged to speak English or the language everyone understands in the workplace when conversing in the presence of other employees. This is going to be a mere appeal, so it shouldn’t be illegal.

  1. Consider learning the employees’ language.

In some cases, it might be more practical and convenient for the management team to learn the language of their employees. This is something being done by companies that hire numerous migrant workers like those in Saudi Arabia. Many supervisors and managers in the large construction companies of Saudi Arabia know several languages such as Hindi (India), Arabic, Urdu (Pakistan, India), Filipino (Philippines), and Bengali (Bangladesh).

They learn these languages to better communicate with their workers. It allows them not only to train and instruct workers more efficiently but also to resolve issues more effectively. If employees (by the thousands) find it difficult to learn the preferred language in the workplace, it makes sense for the management to be the one to cope.

Being fluent in the language of workers is an advantage for managers not only when it comes to understanding employee concerns. It also makes employees more cautious with their conversations. With this, employees cannot veiledly disrespect the management and would be more careful in what they say. It can establish a strong sense of mutual respect, making both parties (management and workers) more straightforward in what they want to say to each other, instead of making indirect complaints and futile ranting.

  1. Promote unity and harmony in the workplace.

As mentioned, letting employees use their own language in the workplace may or may not create problems. If you are not sure how to handle this dilemma, it would be advisable to just focus on building unity and harmony in the workplace. You don’t have to pay that much attention to the language used. Instead, conduct programs or activities that foster harmony among all employees.

Misunderstanding and mistaken perceptions or impressions generally only take place among people or groups who don’t share a bond. A group of boisterous Indian migrant workers is likely to be perceived as arrogant by other employees if those employees don’t have a personal connection with this “loud” group of migrant workers. If they are given the chance to interact regularly, they get to know each other better that they would understand each other’s quirks and idiosyncrasies. Misunderstanding, misconception, misinterpretation, misimpression, and misperception are easily avoided when people establish personal connections.

The “suspicious” glances and laughs of workers who are having lunch and a loud conversation can easily offend or agitate others, especially when the language used is not understandable to everyone. This “suspiciousness,” however, is neutralized once personal interactions are initiated and maintained. That’s why it’s only sensible to hold team building events or other similar activities that promote unity and harmony among employees.

  1. What not to do?

As pointed out earlier, don’t go beyond what is legally allowed as you set your language rules. It’s acceptable to compel everyone to speak a specific language while in the performance of responsibilities in the workplace, but not during breaks or casual conversations. You cannot fire, demote, or penalize someone for speaking a different language that may have sounded offensive or shady.

It’s not right to prevent workers from speaking in the tongue they find comfortable and efficient. However, it’s possible to make an appeal or to offer guidance to everyone on making sure that the workplace is united and harmonious, concerning language and culture.

Moreover, for managers who want to learn the language of their employees, choosing a language expert or translator should not be a random decision. Make sure you only use the services of a dependable language service provider.

Lastly, never underestimate the ability of language misunderstanding to cause conflict, confusion, and misinformation. Simply requiring employees to be conversant in English, for example, is not enough to break the language barrier. It’s also essential to facilitate personal connections and promote harmony in the workplace.

Do you really have to do something about it?

Again, it’s better to prevent a problem from arising than to come up with a solution to a problem that could have been prevented. Yes, letting employees converse in the language they prefer is an option. You may not do anything about it. However, there’s more to gain and little to lose in doing something about this potential source of issues or conflict. In contrast, there’s so much to lose in ignoring the possible problem.

Image Copyright: rawpixel / 123RF Stock Photo

Sean Hopwood
MBA President and Founder at Day Translations, Inc.

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