Managing Nonnative Speakers of English in the Workplace

A successful global business requires a global workplace—one where cultures mix and multiple languages are spoken. This is an exciting time to be in business, but it can have its challenges, especially for managers, who have to know how to lead a diverse group of employees.

Employees who speak English as a second language bring unique challenges with them to the workplace. The most visible of these challenges is language. This can create situations where team members have difficulty communicating with one another or where customers misinterpret the tone or intent of employee communications.

For employees new to the US, cultural miscues are inevitable and expected, but even employees who have lived in the US a long time may lack cultural knowledge that native-born employees consider to be “common sense.” For example, in the American workplace, small talk is essential for building relationships and navigating internal politics. In many other cultures, small talk is virtually nonexistent.

How, then, can a manager create a workplace where employees not only understand and respect each other’s differences but also work together as equals? The first thing to do is understand that the linguistic and cultural missteps of nonnative speakers are not a reflection of their intelligence.

Here are a few examples of mistakes that even highly-intelligent and advanced speakers of English may continue to make after studying English for many years.

• Incorrect use of definite and indefinite articles: “Meeting is held tomorrow.”
• Forgetting the “s” on plural count nouns: “Give us five minute.”
• Confusing she and he. (Many languages do not distinguish between these pronouns.)

Next, managers should be aware that what may be perceived as rude in American culture is often a manifestation of a speaker’s native language or culture. For example, many nonnative English speakers use the rhythm and intonation patterns of their first language when speaking English. These rhythm and intonation patterns may sound harsh or aggressive to native speakers of American English.

In addition to rhythm and intonation, the lack of softeners or indirect phrasing may also be interpreted as rude by native speakers, but this is often not the intent. Many of our advanced clients will ask the questions, “Why did you…?”, “Why didn’t you..?”, or “Why aren’t you…?” While native speakers may begin those same questions with “I was wondering…?”, “Is there any reason…?”, or “Do you think you could…?” It is important for managers to remember to evaluate the intent of the question before responding to the tone.

By becoming more aware of the reason for miscommunication among nonnative speakers in the workplace, managers are in a better position to open up dialog and overcome these workplace challenges. Here are a few suggestions:

• Let employees know that you’re available to talk and discuss any language or cultural problems they are having. Let them know if their language issues are causing problems with colleagues or customers and discuss solutions.

• Don’t just say, “your language is incorrect.” Instead, try to identify specific situations where you noticed problems and share these with the employee. Doing this will help you both understand what improvements are needed.

• Recognize improvements. If the employee has shared with you that she is working on certain skills, make sure to point out improvements that you notice. Say, “I thought the email you sent was really well-written. I can tell you are improving.” Most people don’t recognize their own improvements but will be motivated if they hear praise from others.