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How should we bridge cultural and linguistic differences at work?

A Guest Blog by Rachel Wheeler of Morningtrans.com

7th June 2018

Contrast in workplace language and culture can make it hard to give direction and feedback, train new employees, or review expectations. Leaders are obligated to determine which language and cultural differences can be accommodated in the workplace, and which can’t.

Building an environment of inclusion and acceptance will aid team members in reaching their full potential. Below are some strategies which managers can use to enhance communication among all team members, regardless of their cultural background or grasp of English.


Overcoming Language Barriers

Not everyone is able to quickly master a new language to a degree which allows them to understand each nuance and phrase of the general workplace language. You can help staff who have trouble speaking English better understand policies, directions given from supervisors, or understand feedback on their performance with HR translation services and simple adjustments and considerations for your audience:

Translate all relevant documents

Non-English speaking workers have a right to understand all rules, policies, and procedures relating to their role. English-only policies can be considered either directly or indirectly discriminatory by UK Employment Tribunals, and treating someone less favourably than someone else due to personal or cultural differences is against UK employment laws. Translating all necessary documentation into your workforce’s main language(s) will increase understanding, compliance, and adherence to policies.

English-language classes aid workplace communication

Consider teaming up with a language service provider or ESL educator to teach words, phrases, warnings, and other critical communication fundamentals relevant to your workforce. If the resources and funds are available, additional classes can be provided so employees are able to understand more and thrive in your business.

Consider using an interpreter

Instructions and feedback are necessary for smooth business operations. Engaging with a professional interpreter or an employee that’s fluent in both English and the main language of the workforce ensures that instructions are understood by all employees and feedback can be followed.

Simplify training

Using both speaking and showing methods for training staff with English as a second language allows them to understand what is expected of them. Visual methods of communication should be used to supplement vocal instructions.

Consider using pictures wherever possible in instruction manuals and training courses. Cue cards and pictorial signs should also be considered.

Use repetition and speak clearly

Don’t raise your volume when conversing with non-English speaking employees; it’s unlikely they’re hard of hearing, and shouting is offensive. Enunciate your words slowly, use proper English, and consider using simpler words with fewer syllables to convey your message. Don’t talk down to employees who speak English as their second language, but do speak slower, more clearly and tailor your vocabulary.

Reciprocate understanding

Try learning a few key phrases and words in your workforces main language. Understanding both English and Polish, for example, will build rapport, aid communication, and show your non-English speaking employees that their input is welcomed and valued.

Learn how to say ‘Hello’, ‘Goodbye’, ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’, and other key words and phrases to aid workplace interactions.


Bridging Cultural Divides

Some cultural differences can be accommodated in the workplace, while some cannot. Below are some tips for identifying which behaviours are acceptable and which are non-negotiable.

Determine specific qualities required for the job

As a manger, you need to define which attitudes, behaviours, and attributes are necessary for tasks to be performed safely and efficiently. Many types of nonverbal communication can impact how employees perform their roles.

Something as simple as lack of eye-contact throughout an interaction can result in a customer complaint. Policy decisions regarding employee behaviour should be put in place, while taking these cultural differences into consideration.

Accommodate cultural differences where possible

In some cultures, it is rude to praise an individual for their effort, or to disagree with an elder or superior. It is becoming even more important to be aware and sensitive of such cultural differences and to alter your management style where possible to accommodate them, as more people from Europe and other parts of the world choose to make their homes in England.

There are many resources available online or at libraries and bookstores that discuss cultural delineations. Study these to ensure you avoid cultural faux pas and accommodate for differences wherever possible.

In some cases, employees can use their language and cultural differences purposely to avoid following instructions or changing their behaviour to fit in with the company’s culture. In such cases it is important to determine if the misunderstanding was genuine before confronting it directly in a private meeting with an interpreter or witness present.

Accepting diversity within the workplace has many benefits, as long as an environment of inclusion and acceptance is fostered. This will let all employees reach their full potential and push the business toward ever greater success together.


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