To be sure, one-language policies can have repercussions that decrease efficiency. Evidence from Tsedal Neeley's research at Rakuten—along with a study she conducted with Pamela Hinds of Stanford University and Catherine Cramton of George Mason University at a company she calls GlobalTech and a study she conducted at a firm she calls FrenchCo—reveals costs that global English-language rules can create. Proper rollout mitigates the risks, but even well-considered plans can encounter pitfalls. Here are some of the most common.
No amount of warning and preparation can entirely prevent the psychological blow to employees when proposed change becomes reality. When Marie (all names in this article are disguised, with the exception of Mikitani and Ito) first learned of FrenchCo’s English-only policy, she was excited. She had been communicating in English with non-French partners for some time, and she saw the proposed policy as a positive sign that the company was becoming more international. That is until she attended a routine meeting that was normally held in French. “I didn’t realise that the very first meeting after the rule came out was really going to be in English. It was a shock,” Marie says. She recalls walking into the meeting with a lot of energy—until she noticed the translator headsets.
“They’re humiliating,” she says. “I felt like an observer rather than a participant at my own company.”
An English mandate created a different problem for a service representative at GlobalTech. Based in Germany, the technology firm had subsidiaries worldwide. Hans, a service representative, received a frantic call from his boss when a key customer’s multimillion-dollar financial services operation ground to a halt as a result of a software glitch. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were at stake for both the customer and GlobalTech. Hans quickly placed a call to the technical department in India, but the software team was unable to jump on the problem because all communications about it were in German—despite the English-only policy instituted two years earlier requiring that all internal communications (meetings, e-mails, documents, and phone calls) be carried out in English. As Hans waited for documents to be translated, the crisis continued to escalate. Two years into the implementation, adoption was dragging.
When nonnative speakers are forced to communicate in English, they can feel that their worth to the company has been diminished, regardless of their fluency level. “The most difficult thing is to have to admit that one’s value as an English speaker overshadows one’s real value,” a FrenchCo employee says. “For the past 30 years the company did not ask us to develop our foreign-language skills or offer us the opportunity to do so,” he points out. “Now, it is difficult to accept the fact that we are disqualified.” Employees facing one-language policies often worry that the best jobs will be offered only to those with strong English skills, regardless of content expertise.
WhenTsedal Neeley and her colleagues interviewed 164 employees at GlobalTech two years after the company’s English-only policy had been implemented, they found that nearly 70% of employees continued to experience frustration with it. At FrenchCo, 56% of medium-fluency English speakers and 42% of low-fluency speakers reported worrying about job advancement because of their relatively limited English skills. Such feelings are common when companies merely announce the new policy and offer language classes rather than implement the shift in a systematic way. It’s worth noting that employees often underestimate their own abilities or overestimate the challenge of developing sufficient fluency.
Even though achieving sufficient fluency is possible for most, the reality is that with the adoption of an English-only policy, employees’ job requirements change—sometimes overnight. That can be a bitter pill to swallow, especially among top performers. Rakuten’s Mikitani didn’t mince words with his employees: He was clear that he would demote people who didn’t develop their English proficiency.
It’s not unusual to hear nonnative speakers revert to their own language at the expense of their English-speaking colleagues, often because it’s faster and easier to conduct meetings in their mother tongue. Others may take more aggressive measures to avoid speaking English, such as holding meetings at inopportune times. Employees in Asia might schedule a global meeting that falls during the middle of the night in England, for instance. In doing so, nonnative speakers shift their anxiety and loss of power to native speakers.
Many FrenchCo employees said that when they felt that their relatively poor language skills could become conspicuous and have career-related consequences, they simply stopped contributing to common discourse. “They’re afraid to make mistakes,” an HR manager at the firm explains, “so they will just not speak at all.”
In other cases, documents that are supposed to be composed in English may be written in the mother tongue—as experienced by Hans at GlobalTech—or not written at all. “It’s too hard to write in English, so I don’t do it!” one GlobalTech employee notes. “And then there’s no documentation at all.”
The bottom line takes a hit when employees stop participating in group settings. Once participation ebbs, processes fall apart. Companies miss out on new ideas that might have been generated in meetings. People don’t report costly errors or offer observations about mistakes or questionable decisions. One of the engineers at GlobalTech’s Indian office explained that when meetings reverted into German his ability to contribute was cut off. He lost important information—particularly inside exchanges—despite receiving meeting notes afterwards. Often those quick asides contained important contextual information, background analyses, or hypotheses about the root cause of a particular problem. He neither participated in the meetings nor learned from the problem-solving discussions.
This article was originally written by Tsedal Neeley who is an associate professor in the Organisational Behaviour unit at the Harvard Business School and the founder of the consulting firm Global Matters. She is the author of The Language of Global Success and full credit goes to the Harvard Business School, who published this article over a year ago. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.