Should you use one corporate language when communicating with your global team? Is English as a lingua-franca good enough? Here’s what you need to know.
Whether you want to build an inclusive culture, share important updates or provide vital training — employee engagement is crucial. But getting employees to engage with company comms can be a struggle, particularly if you have a multilingual workforce.
If engagement and connection is your target destination, then the choice of language may be the shortcut to get there.
“We know that having a good company culture with engaged employees leads to happier employees, but employee engagement doesn’t happen automatically. We work for it.” — Nicole Sahin, CEO and founder at Globalization Partners.
In this blog, we examine why a one-language (‘lingua franca’) strategy isn’t always the best option for driving employee engagement.
The pros and cons of using one corporate language
Okay, let’s start with the pros. There are clear benefits to using one corporate language in your organisation. It simplifies the process of communication and makes sure everyone is singing from the same sheet. In most cases, if you are tempted to use a lingua franca it will be English. Even companies not based in English-speaking countries have been known to adopt English as their go-to. Tokyo-based Honda announced that its corporate language would become English by 2020, senior executives will have to prove English proficiency before taking up their roles.
Whilst the benefits to one corporate language are clear, the disadvantages are more subtle but still warrant attention.
Excluding those who don’t speak the language well — or at all
When you set one language for all, you run the risk of alienating those who don’t speak the language or aren’t confident in doing so.
Talented staff with ideas to share might become excluded due to lack of linguistic ability. You are judging them on language skills — which probably isn’t why they were hired!
Remember the fear of raising your hand in school? Staff who don’t feel confident speaking the lingua franca may stifle themselves in meetings. They might feel lost for words or be nervous of embarrassing themselves. This contradicts the ambition of one language fits all. Rather than simplifying communication and opening up conversations, it might silence them.
In setting a lingua franca you risk creating a power shift. Prominence is given to those with linguistic strengths rather than skills within a job role.
With a one-language strategy, it’s hard for recruiters to avoid putting undue bias on candidates who are already fluent in the lingua franca. Failure to do so can lead to strong candidates being overlooked in favour of those who are better linguists. This could not only have an impact on levels of capability in certain markets, but will exaggerate the dominance of certain cultures and styles.
Employees receiving comms or learning content in a non-native language may misinterpret or disregard it, having failed to recognise its importance. This can have dire consequences in form of compliance failure and associated costs, injury and loss of life. In 2014, the OHSA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration) estimated that the language barrier contributed to 25% of job-related accidents (2014). Employees who feel unsafe are unlikely to feel engaged.
To read more about the pitfalls of lingua franca and how to avoid them in our guide: Creating internal communications that engage and connect in every language.
The argument for a hybrid approach
If your organisation adopts a one-language strategy, we recommend taking a hybrid approach. This would include translating key communications into other languages for your wider workforce. Doing so will put you in good company. IBM has a lingua franca, whilst recognising eight other languages as important to serving local markets.
To ensure your critical messages reach your workforce undiluted, we recommend translating newsletters, L&D materials (e.g. digital learning content) and compliance-related information.
If you’re interested in using language to improve employee engagement, you’ll find the content of our recent webinar ‘Engaging with a global workforce and the impact of language’ useful. It explores, in more detail, the role of language in engaging a global workforce.
Want to talk more about lingua franca, multilingual comms or a hybrid strategy? Why not get in touch and see how we can help you.