May 29, 2024


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Workplace Multilingualism – Part 3, Managing Multiple Languages to Benefit an Organization

Employees’ use of several or multiple languages in the workplace can be beneficial if it is tailored for business needs. To address the negative impacts of using languages other than the language in which the business is conducted, some employers have instituted monolingual or single language rules.

Some HR Practitioners and legal experts in employment law advise that one of the things employers can do to address issues of multilingualism in the workplace is to involve employees to create or mutually agree on the appropriate use of other languages in the workplace.

This final review on the use of multiple languages in the workplace would look at the advantages, disadvantages and recommend measures that would enhance the benefits to the workplace.

Advantages of using a single language in the workplace

  • Using a single language understood by all employees on a team is useful for team building, whether it is the language in which business is conducted.
  • Employees communicate better in single language environment and serve as resource if they are allowed to use a second language when required business.
  • It is easier for supervisors to monitor work, develop and manage employee performance.
  • The valued work principles of transparency, respect, integrity and safety are easy to implement in single language workplaces.
  • Employees with diverse ethnical and social backgrounds using a single language build highly innovative and high performing teams.
  • Employee engagement and team productivity fostered in organizations that value diversity.

Disadvantages of using other languages in the workplace

  • It makes team building difficult in workplaces where the use of a single language is business necessity and strong teams are required for improved performance
  • Employees in the workplace who do not understand the language used by some of their co-workers may suspect that they are “talking behind their backs” and could create a tension in the environment.
  • It sometimes undermines a workplace’s core values concerning professionalism, respect and integrity.
  • It is one of the major causes of employee misunderstanding and stress, which has the potential of lowering moral and performance

When it is appropriate to use other language(s) other than the formal business language

  • When necessitated by business needs e.g. when a customer finds it difficult to understand the “official” business language and requests assistance from a worker who can explain it in the customer’s language
  • When the business operates in community that is dominated by people who speak a language other than the workplace language and employees understand the local language.
  • When all members of a work team understand the language used.
  • When employees in a work team have agreed that it is appropriate and feels comfortable using the language in team settings.
  • When an employee who uses a foreign language is prepared to immediately translate the conversation for the benefit other employees present – this practice may be allowed under certain circumstances. For example, when two deaf employees use the sign language in front of non-sign language employee and one of the deaf employees with ability to speak promptly explains the conversation. 

How to respond to complaints of inappropriate use of multiple languages in the workplace

Recommend the following or a combination depending on the circumstance:

  1. Through team and discussions to agree on appropriate modes of communicating when others who do not understand the language used are present.
  2. Create a guide to assist employees in their interaction with team if they have to use a foreign language in the workplace.
  3. Managers should manage isolated complaints on a case by case basis using a script as a guide to ensure consistency across the organization.
  4. Using the “Respect in the Workplace” policy to address some of the issues around inappropriate use of foreign languages in team
  5. Inclusion of the topic in curriculum for training of managers where the issue is a problem in an organization.