HR Managers, Invest In Your Non-Native English Speaking Employees

Last January, Priyanka Chopra became the first South Asian actress to win a People’s Choice Award for her role on the hit ABC show Quantico.

To the casual observer, Chopra is an overnight success now working on Hollywood film projects and starring in commercials as a global brand ambassador for Pantene.

On the contrary, Chopra was already famous in India. Her seemingly sudden introduction to mainstream American audiences was a focused effort spearheaded by entrepreneur Anjula Acharia, whose vision for a more diverse entertainment industry drove her to bridge the gap between Bollywood and Hollywood.

Leading up to Quantico’s debut in September 2015, Acharia steadily increased Chopra’s profile in the U.S. by pitching Chopra as a global brand to Hollywood power players. To win over American executives who were unaware of Chopra’s clout, Acharia positioned the star as the way to entice a slice of a whole new demographic – one-fifth of the world’s population, to be more specific.

She was right. Quantico debuted to 7.1 million viewers.

Non-Native English Speakers Are Your Organization’s Untapped Resource of Diverse Voices

Acharia’s business savvy coupled with a diverse perspective on the entertainment industry allowed her to turn a Bollywood star into a global brand. Her story is a testament to the growing recognition that diversity both in Hollywood and business isn’t just about good PR – it’s also about boosting your bottom line.

At the same time, Chopra’s rise is an extreme example. It involved one dedicated power player empowering another individual’s talent. If employers want to replicate this kind of outside-the-box success in their organization, they’ll need to empower diverse voices.

Today’s access to a global talent pool means that an international workplace will increasingly include employees whose first language isn’t English. Nevertheless, there are unique challenges faced by non-native English speakers that prevent them from playing a more active role in their organization. And failing to empower individuals from different backgrounds can mean missing out on powerful market opportunities.

Difficulties Faced By Non-Native English Speakers in the Workforce

Challenges faced by non-native English speakers aren’t related to their competence or skills. Rather, their challenges relate to an organizational culture that makes it difficult to advocate for their ideas or build relationships with their colleagues. Such challenges include:

  • An inability to pick up on subtext (i.e. reading between the lines)
  • Missing cultural cues or committing workplaces faux pas that were a non-issue in their previous work environment (i.e. diving right into the meeting as opposed to opening with chit chat)
  • Hesitating to ask for clarification, even if it’s a reasonable request, because of the stigma that deems non-native English speaking employees as incompetent
  • Failing to speak up due to self-consciousness about their delivery

Underscoring all of these challenges is the fact that non-native English speakers lack a support system within the workplace. While native English speakers can seek guidance from colleagues on shared challenges (i.e. dealing with a demanding client, preparing a report for a manager), non-native English speakers struggle to seek guidance related to their specific challenges like confusing cultural business norms.

How Managers Can Empower Non-Native English Speaking Employees

Central to empowering your team is the task of trust-building. Innovation requires change, and change, by definition, means challenging the status quo. Without trust, it’s next to impossible to create the conditions within which employees can debate ideas with their colleagues while also also being collaborative and productive.

In an article for Harvard Business Review, Andy Molinsky and Ernest Gundling outlined ways managers can build trust within cross-cultural teams. The approach they recommend is proactive rather than reactive. They advise managers to build a team that is conducive to cross-cultural collaboration. To nip confusion in the bud, managers should establish norms from the jump so everybody is clear on the appropriate ways to communicate ideas, provide feedback, and solicit advice. Additionally, managers who convey expectations related to participation, communication, and meetings can preemptively clear up any cultural confusion related to workplace norms.

Likewise, managers who value diversity of thought cultivate a team that recognizes the strategic value of challenged assumptions and new ideas. Someone who feels empowered to argue for the adoption of their ideas may, as Acharia’s story shows, present an otherwise unconsidered business opportunity or audience.

Naturally, managers set the tone. Cultivating this kind of a workplace is a top-down initiative. But there are also specific steps that employees can take to empower their colleagues and that non-native English speakers themselves can take to empower themselves.

For building morale and solidarity, native English speaking employees can engage their colleagues by asking how a meeting went, exhibiting patience if it takes a moment longer for a non-native English speaker to express an idea, and avoid adopting a condescending attitude.

They can also demonstrate that they value the opinions of non-native English speakers by seeking their opinions on a group project and asking for their perspective on a specific topic.

At the individual level of non-native English speakers, self-empowerment plays an important role. This may, forging bonds with co-workers that they trust, building confidence through Toastmasters sessions, or benefiting from private business English tutors on Talaera.

The biggest message here? By investing in creating a positive, cross-cultural work environment, you’re not just benefiting non-native English speaking employees – you’re benefiting your entire organization.

Photo Credit: Roselinde Alexandra Flickr via Compfight cc