How to overcome language barriers in a dispersed workplace

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Do your employees all speak English? If not, do they understand their roles and responsibilities? And, if an emergency were to occur, would they understand what to do? 

July 20, 2022

The evolution to a hybrid or remote work model has brought a lot of improvements to the workplace: less time spent commuting, better work/life balance, and stronger mental health. 

It’s also made it easier for organizations to hire employees from almost anywhere in the world. 

While this is beneficial for most employers and employees, it also comes with a unique set of challenges—most notably language barriers. 

And with this comes a big responsibility. 

Do all your employees understand their roles and responsibilities? Do they understand important company news and information? And, most importantly, if an emergency were to occur, would they understand what to do? 

Reasons for language barriers in the workplace

A language barrier is defined as any linguistic limitation that creates confusion or prevents comprehension. A barrier could refer to spoken languages, but it may also include specialized knowledge, or speech impairments.

As mentioned above, dispersed workplaces are quickly becoming the norm. And with this comes a mix of employees from different companies, religious principles, political beliefs, and cultural backgrounds, and of course various languages.  

According to a survey by Rosetta Stone, 90 percent of organizations struggle with language barriers in their day-to-day work. This isn’t too surprising considering almost 50 million people living in America were born elsewhere. And according to a recent Pew Research Center report, almost half of all immigrants ages five and older have limited English proficiency.  

However, it is not only dispersed workplaces who suffer from language barriers in the workplace. Language and communication challenges are an ongoing struggle for many industries. 

For example, organizations with large manufacturing divisions often have a majority of non-native English speakers. Hospitality and tourism also tends to attract a diverse workforce as housekeepers and cleaning staff don’t require English proficiency to complete their jobs.

Ramifications of language barriers

No matter which communication channels we use, if someone’s words don’t make sense to you, every conversation, email, or instant message you have with that person will be unproductive. Misunderstandings in communication can potentially lead to damaging consequences in colleague relations as well as employee-customer interactions. Here are some of the biggest ramifications of language barriers in the workplace:

Danger

Approximately 25% of job site accidents are attributable to the language barrier. Why? Because language gaps prevent dispersed employees and frontline workers from communicating efficiently. 

When a non-English speaking worker doesn’t understand the safety training materials or cannot effectively communicate with their colleagues, the workplace is at risk to all types of injuries, including death. This is especially true in industries like agriculture, manufacturing and construction that require employees to regularly use heavy machinery regularly. 

language barriers

Loss in productivity

Imagine how much time is potentially wasted when employees don’t understand the language of the materials presented? How can you increase productivity if you can't communicate what you want? How can you train an employee if they misunderstand you? Or worse yet, how can you improve employee performance if the worker can't understand corrective counsel? 

A study by Forbes in conjunction with Rosetta Stone revealed that the impact of language  barriers may be significant. Asked about consequences, nearly two-thirds of respondents (67%) said that miscommunications were leading to inefficiency. More than 40% noted that miscommunication made collaboration difficult, and a similar percentage noted that productivity was lower than it should be due to language barriers.

Higher turnover

Procedures, practices, and role requirements are often presented in only a few languages. However, misunderstandings in job expectancies and instructions can lead to increased employee frustrations and inevitably higher turnover rates.

Silos

While there is nothing wrong with speaking different languages in the workplace, it can potentially lead to silos as employees with similar backgrounds and familiar languages isolate themselves from other individuals and teams.

Frustrated customers

The customer experience suffers when misunderstandings based on language discrepancies occur, as frustrated customers quickly take their business elsewhere. This is a common scenario for call centers that may employ non-native English speakers. 

How to overcome language barriers in the workplace

Language barriers will only increase as the workplace becomes more globalized, but that doesn’t mean we should throw in the towel. Here are some tips to overcoming the negative consequences of language barriers in the workplace. 

Create a welcoming environment

Create a welcoming employee experience from day one where employees who aren't native English speakers feel like they can ask questions without fear of judgment. If employees are working remotely, or in a hybrid setting, this could be via a new employee onboarding hub within your intranet. 

Don’t forget to also ask new hires what they need to understand and comprehend internal communication messages. This proactive approach helps set communication expectations from the early days of employment, building trust between employer and employee.

Make sure communications meet accessibility guidelines

Not all language challenges are related to foreign languages. Dyslexia acts as a language barrier because it can lead to misunderstandings. For example, someone with dyslexia may interpret directions backwards. Because dyslexia is considered a learning disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are expected to make reasonable accommodations. This includes ensuring documents and web material meet accessibility guidelines. We do a deep dive into accessibility in this post: Accessibility: What it is and why it’s a priority at ThoughtFarmer.

Translate relevant documents

Depending on the size and scope of your documentation, you might want to consider using the services of someone who specializes in translation. For small and minor updates, you can make use of free websites that translate text from one language to another. However, if you do go this route, be careful since the translation may not be the exact same dialect as that of your employees. 

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Use visual methods of communication

Using images and video is a powerful way of communicating critical information. A great example of this is on airlines. Almost the entire flying experience is visual—from the safety card located in the seat in front of you, to the pre-flight video that demonstrates safety instructions. Because travellers come from around the world, airlines cannot afford to be vague in any communication—particularly as it relates to safety! 

Use repetition

Most of us don’t learn something the very first time we hear it. This is true of your employees, whether they have a language barrier or not. Repetition could include sending the same message on the same medium, or it could involve using multiple mediums (Intranet, email, instant messaging apps).

Try a readability checker

Readability is defined as the ease with which a written text can be understood by a reader. The formula can be a bit confusing, but all you really need to know is that readable content contains shorter sentences, and fewer syllables in each word.  

An argument against readability is often, “But our audience is educated,” but this isn't about winning a Pulitzer. It's about ensuring every employee understands the information and content presented to them. Long sentences are like labyrinths for readers, so keep it short and simple. 

Learn about other cultures

Different cultures have different methods of communicating and conveying feedback. If your workforce is predominantly diverse, consider learning the communication styles of your employees to better understand how to connect with them. Hosting lunch and learns, or potlucks, are a great way for employees to learn about and share cultures. 

Be careful of business jargon and idioms

Idioms are some of the most difficult parts of speech for a non-native speaker to comprehend. Any business needs to ensure that their company's printed materials, like training manuals and circulations, are idiom-free so that a literal translation makes sense. A second area of concern for any company is the use of a business language that may be different or contrary to the vocabulary of everyday life. Organizations often use terms like paradigm or benchmark and to make mundane words sound complex.  

Obtain a read receipt on important communications

For HR and internal communication professionals, it can be challenging trying to determine if an employee has fully understood important communications. This is where a read receipt comes in handy.   

At ThoughtFarmer we have a feature called Required Reading. It’s basically a banner that displays on the top of a designated intranet page, that requires an employee to acknowledge they have read it. Afterwards, a report can be generated to view who has acknowledged they have read the content and who hasn’t. It’s a great way for communicators to ‘cover their behind’ and ensure information and content is understood. 

Ensure your intranet has multilingual functionality

An intranet serves as the single access point for  internal and external resources, and enables employees to communicate, collaborate, and share information. 

When employees login to your intranet site, they should be able to access company policies, homepages, and chat with colleagues in the language of their choice.

Translation

At ThoughtFarmer, content creators can create pages in multiple languages, either using their own manual translation, or auto-translation to supported languages. The auto-translation feature allows for machine translation of existing content into 45+ languages using Microsoft Translator.

When users visit a page, they will automatically see the page in their default site language (if a version exists in that language). Users will also have pages in their preferred language prioritized in search results. 

Final thoughts

Language barriers can be a challenge, but having a diverse workplace can drive innovation, creativity, and success. Don’t let language barriers stand in the way of embracing all the good stuff a diverse workplace has to offer.

Have questions? Get in touch! We're always happy to hear from you.