Diversity and Inclusion

Creating a diverse and inclusive language policy

What does your corporate language policy say about your company culture? Does it reflect the value you place on diversity in the workplace? These are questions that get at the heart of the challenge many companies face in drafting a corporate language policy.

While some companies have made strides toward creating more diverse and inclusive workplaces, many still inadvertently undermine that effort with one-size-fits-all language policies. Having a language policy may reduce confusion when it comes to internal communications among a global workforce, but failing to recognize and support linguistic and cultural diversity among your employees can reflect poorly on your corporate values. And in the long run, could hurt your efforts to recruit and retain a talented global workforce.

The good news is, there is a middle ground. And taking the time to carefully craft an inclusive corporate language policy can pay off in both internal and external benefits. To a point, you may have linguistic diversity in your workplace, but you may not be leveraging and embracing that diversity to help make your company truly inclusive.

Why an inclusive language policy matters

When surveying millennials in 2018, Deloitte discovered these young professionals overwhelmingly believed business leaders were only giving lip service to diversity and inclusion. This same population, which currently makes up the largest portion of the US labor force, also specified that diverse and inclusive work environments could make or break their willingness to stay in a job. Deloitte found 69% of millennials indicated they were more likely to stay at a company they perceived as diverse for five years or longer. 

It’s clear that for the largest portion of the workforce, half-hearted attempts at diversity and inclusion training isn’t going to cut it. Millennials are looking for employers that embrace diversity in everything they do. And one of the areas in which global enterprises have floundered is in the creation of diverse and inclusive language policies. 

Some companies have chosen to address the challenge of a global workplace by mandating a universal corporate language, but this may actually discourage a diverse workforce and communicate intolerance for other cultures. So how do we begin drafting language policies that embrace diversity and inclusion?

4 steps to drafting an inclusive language policy

  1. Help everyone be heard

Creating a council that focuses on diversity and inclusion is a good first step, but the people on that council should represent the diversity of both your employees and customers, including linguistic diversity. Before crafting policy, make sure your diversity and inclusion council is well-trained and has the confidence and experience needed to help others embrace language diversity in the workplace.

You’ve heard it before but we’ll say it again. Representation matters. Getting perspective from different cultures and languages as well as different sexual orientations, genders, and races is vital to keep implicit bias in check. A diverse council may spot potentially offensive pitfalls in your policy that corporate leadership might not recognize.

  1. Listen

Exhaustively surveying your employees after every training isn’t a substitute for active listening. Intentionally creating opportunities for employees to speak up and be heard is crucial. Town hall-style forums, round tables, focus groups, and even one-on-one meetings can provide avenues for open conversations, but that feedback must make it back to leadership so it can inform decisions and policies.

For instance, you may discover that your company is inadvertently discouraging language and cultural diversity. Company holiday calendars that emphasize time off for Christmas and Thanksgiving but exclude holy holidays like Rosh Hashanah or Diwali can make employees feel their religious beliefs or cultural traditions are unwelcome. Mandating meetings be conducted in English only or that newsletters conform to the parent company language can also create an environment where employees feel their linguistic diversity isn’t valued.

  1. Make it multilingual

One way to formulate an inclusive language policy among a global workforce is not to adopt an “English” first approach. Instead, allow teams to speak and do business in their local language. This has obvious benefits in promoting healthier customer and client relationships, but it can have internal benefits as well. Encouraging a linguistically diverse culture helps your management and leadership have a better understanding of local cultures and the customers and clients they do business with.

One thing to watch, however, is how you provide opportunities for those who are bilingual versus those who only speak the local language. As Marie-Therese Claes, a Professor of Cross-Cultural Management at Louvain School of Management in Belgium said “…language can be used as a power game, as an excuse to limit access to non-native speakers because their level of English is ‘not up to scratch.’” Take care that you’re not accidentally rewarding bilingual employees with growth and leadership opportunities and open up language training to anyone who wants it. 

  1. Strive to develop cultural intelligence

Having a common language can help interactions between your business and customers or clients run more smoothly, but it also has blind spots. You’ll see this come into play when the meaning of words doesn’t translate across cultures or with differing traditions, customs, or values. A company in Japan, for instance, might not view “speediness” as an asset and instead feel the word comes weighted with implications of sloppiness or substandard work.

Your language policy should seek not to homogenize but to embrace difference. That means taking the time to consider other customs and values and framing your communication in a way that demonstrates cultural awareness. This is sometimes referred to as cultural intelligence. Many companies report employees who are fluent in cultural intelligence are essential to successfully operating in other countries and bring a wealth of experience to the negotiating table.

Crafting a diverse language policy takes a bit of extra effort. Building and retaining a talented global workforce requires embracing the challenge of linguistic diversity as an asset and not a hindrance to your ability to do business around the world

Ready to learn more about how to encourage a linguistically diverse workforce? 

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Kaz Weida
Kaz Weida is a freelance journalist and photographer who is passionate about crafting content that helps entrepreneurs and businesses of all sizes tackle challenges. When not at her keyboard, Kaz can be found in the kitchen indulging in a little craft cocktail inspiration.