The multilingual, multicultural workforce is on the rise. According to the World Trade Organization, 70% of the Global 1000 workforce are now non-native English speakers. In addition, international business networks of clients, partners, suppliers and overseas company offices are rapidly expanding wherever you look.
This throws up 5 key issues for HR and Learning and Development professionals to deal with.
1. There are many language gaps between members of staff, both intra- and inter-office. While English is the lingua franca in many organisations, the level of competence may vary greatly. Also, the type of English spoken can be very different in terms of dialect, accent and vocabulary choice. In non-English speaking countries, staff often prefer to speak their own language, and communication between offices can be problematic.
As a result, misunderstandings arise and mistakes get made. Or excessive time is spent re-stating, clarifying and checking written and spoken communication. In this way, communication can be inefficient and employee productivity and engagement negatively impacted. In complex industrial environments, health and safety can be compromised with potentially fatal results.
2. Geographically disparate employees cannot collaborate efficiently. Company-wide drives are weakened, cross-border learnings are lost, and overall business performance is damaged.
A geographically diverse operation without a strong common language and culture is unpredictable. Customer service can be affected, processes disrupted, relationships with suppliers upset, and offshore operations difficult to manage.
3. Relocations can fail. Managers brought into countries where they have no or limited language knowledge find it difficult to work with a local workforce, who may quickly lose respect for them. The relocated manager and his family may then find themselves stuck in an expat ghetto and unable to integrate into the local culture.
Relocating bilingual or multicultural, multilingual managers with previous international experience has been shown time after time to be considerably more effective and long-lasting than their monolingual counterparts.
4. The potential impact of international talent is lessened. Recruiting from a wide pool of talent will set the companies of the future apart. A company with a pro-active policy on language learning and cross-cultural training will provide the right environment for such recruitment to happen.
For executives, language skills can abilities can help advance their careers, widen options and increase their mobility. Their employability or ability to start a company in an international setting is significantly enhanced.
5. Monolingual staff are ill-equipped to help an organization compete effectively in a globalized environment. Managers who manage a diverse workforce receive greater loyalty and respect if they speak languages. In overseas assignments, workers are more productive when their managers communicate with them in their native language.
Now and in the future, it is leaders with a high degree of multilingualism and an open, positive multicultural outlook who will drive their companies to greater levels of efficiency, productivity, innovation and quality. Fewer mistakes will be committed, new markets accessed and international opportunities seized. Cross-company communication will be smoother and more effective, and company culture more engaged and unified.