What’s Your Company’s Language Policy
Recent events in the United States involving customers and law enforcement harassing Spanish speakers are shameful. The incidents should make businesses aware of their own obligation to clarify the use of languages other than English on their premises and in their workplaces.
The reality is that majority of organizations now have an international reach or a diverse customer base. Whether it’s to build relationships with new customers, access production facilities, or recruit talent, organizations are expanding their presence globally. As a result, multilingual organizations are more common and critical to connecting staff with clients and partners.
Servicing a Diverse Customer Base
Organizations with employees who speak different languages can serve a broader range of customers. For example, if you are considering offering your services in France, you are going to need employees who are fluent in French. Even if your French customers speak English, being able to serve them in French demonstrates that you value them as a customer and understand the importance of being able to communicate in their preferred language. If you are competing for customers, your ability to speak French may even be a critical factor in you winning new business. Some customers simply won’t do business with you if you cannot service them in their native language.
Increasing Team Efficiency
Speaking multiple languages not only allows you to serve your customers better, but there are internal benefits to the organization as well. Allowing your employees to speak different languages allows them to form stronger relationships with colleagues who share the same language. It may even give employees the opportunity to practice their language skills if they are learning another language and not yet fluent. Allowing your employees to speak their preferred language at work demonstrates that you value and respect their diversity.
A multilingual workplace also allows for more creativity. Employees who speak different languages are often from different cultural backgrounds. They bring different ideas, perspectives, and approaches to problem-solving. A diverse workforce is more open-minded and tolerant, which creates a healthier workplace for everyone.
The Limitations of “English-only” Workplaces
Although there are many benefits of multilingual workplaces, sometimes speaking English is not only important but can be required. While the law can differ between different states, employers are typically permitted to limit or prohibit the use of any non-English language on the job with the justification of "business necessity". This usually requires that the employer also define the specific circumstances in which this requirement is in force.
What’s Your Company’s Language Policy?
The most common reason for enforcing a language restriction is workplace safety. For example, high-risk environments like construction sites or mines present significant safety hazards. In these cases, employers can justify the requirement that all workers speak English so that information can be disseminated quickly and consistently. Employers should have a written policy in place that defines what the language requirements are, in what circumstances they are in force, and the penalty for non-compliance.
Although it is possible for employers to have a policy that requires English to be spoken in specific circumstances or workplaces, it is not without risks. A policy limiting language makes the organization vulnerable to accusations of discrimination. It is the role of HR to ensure that the policy can be justified based on business necessity, that it is clearly communicated to all employees, and that it is consistently applied.
After all, no company wants its name splashed on the front page of the LA Times or the Financial Times of London.