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Performance Issue or Language Barrier? How to Know.

Recruiting or managing international talent is an important component of today’s global workforce. Large multinational corporations that have a strong base of employees and managers that are local to their region also tend to have less turnover and higher morale. However, when fitting all the disparate people and teams together, the issue of language skills and language barriers inevitably comes up.

While English may be the lingua franca of many large corporations, managers will find varying degrees of proficiency that may or may not be masking larger issues. This makes employee evaluations one of the more difficult aspects of the job because it can often be difficult to tell whether the issues holding a person back are performance-related or simply due to a language barrier. In this article we’ll look at ways to discern between the two.

Language: the Invisible Barrier

Communication is, of course, essential to any job. However, in today’s workplace it should be remembered that just because someone’s English skills aren’t strong doesn’t mean they aren’t (or can’t become) a valuable employee. According to an article by Tsedal Neeley in the Harvard Business Review, many managers and recruiters tend to have an unconscious bias towards those with better language proficiency.

The results are that workers with good English are branded “winners” and favored for raises and promotions. Those who have lesser English skills often find themselves at a dead end in spite of their other talents; the negative classification impacts their own morale, which spills over into their job performance. Many end up being forced out or leaving for better opportunities elsewhere.

To be fair to managers, it can be difficult to fairly assess the problem. For example, if an employee writes short, badly written emails, is this a signifier of carelessness or poor language abilities? If they are curt in conversations are they purposely being insensitive to others? If they are not contributing meetings is it because they lack initiative or that they are afraid to embarrass themselves?

Making a Total Assessment

Therefore, as a manager, team leader, or HR exec, it’s crucial you consider other factors besides language abilities when evaluating an employee’s performance. Here are a few to take into account.

Consider their background

Many cultures are not as loquacious and gregarious as Americans. Some are taught to be quiet and not speak up; others may not be comfortable working without more specific direction. They may even have a different understanding of time and deadlines.

Sarah A. Lanier, author of “Foreign to Familiar,” has broken down certain behaviors into “hot” and “cold,” based upon their climate. Hot includes Southern United States, Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Cold climate cultures include Canada, Northern United States, Northern Europe, and Israel. Generally speaking, hot climate cultures are more friendly in communication and group-oriented; whereas cold climate cultures are more individualistic, task-oriented, and prefer a rigid structure.

Conduct a fair 360 review

Make sure your 360 review is really the total picture. A good assessment of an employee’s skills involves more than just talking with co-workers, managers, and even clients. This is because they too may have an unconscious language bias and end up reinforcing a poor review. Include people who speak the same language or those that have more exposure to the individual’s skill set.

Set aside time with them.

For example, an employee may be afraid to speak up at meetings because it takes them time to process English. A manager who spends a little more one on one time with that employee, allowing them to formulate their sentences will see that their capabilities are more easily assessed. This will also relieve pressure, putting them more at ease.

Welcome differences

Let them know that cultural and differences language difficulties are welcomed. After all, the global workforce is becoming larger and more diverse every year. Not only does that make for more opportunities for everyone, but it’s also good for the company’s themselves. DiversityInc did a study of the most diverse corporations in the Fortune 500; although they made up just 7 percent, they reaped 22% of the revenue.

Language Training is a Good Investment

If through your investigation you discover the problems are indeed language-related, that is essentially good news. Language training has become an essential investment in a company’s overall performance and retention strategy. Research in Neely’s Harvard Business Review article suggests that grooming entry-level employees with language training skills helps the company create stronger leaders and results in less turnover.

Help your teams improve their communication skills

Effective communication goes beyond knowing how to speak a language. Culture plays a huge role, and we want to help you bring your international teams together through effective cross-cultural communication. Make the most of our free resources and get in touch to learn more about our communications training.

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