Research & Thought Leadership

The omnipresence of English in the workplace: A DEIB issue?

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The language your organization speaks – as well as its policy on English as the ‘lingua franca’ – could be hampering your DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging) efforts. 

As part of a series where we look at how language impacts the professional world (including our talent retention and language piece), we surveyed 1,175 HR and L&D leaders from a range of multinational companies to discover whether the languages we speak are determining our experience in the workplace. Here is what we found. 

Key findings

  • 7 in 10 say that employees with low English proficiency struggle to fully participate and are less likely to be promoted.

  • 61% of employees with low English proficiency feel less included in their organization.

  • As part of their D&I strategy, 43% of organizations offer English language training, while 36% offer language training in other languages. These figures are higher on average in non-European regions.

  • 60% of all types of training globally is provided in English rather than local or other languages.

Recruiting for diversity with English as a requirement

Increased diversity is seen as one of the main benefits of international recruitment, bringing new, disruptive and different perspectives into the business. But hiring staff who don’t speak the main language of the organization raises specific concerns around miscommunication. This is why most companies (53%) expect applicants to be already fluent in English when they apply. 

Top benefits of hiring internationally

If they are hired, those with low English proficiency cannot access the majority of training and development opportunities, since most are provided exclusively in English (60%). Furthermore, 70%+ of respondents in our study indicated that this same group are less likely to be promoted, will struggle to fully participate in the company, and will have a ‘limited experience’.  

Effectively, those with low English proficiency are operating in a more limited professional space, both at the hiring stage and as employees. 

Employees with low English proficiency graph

English training to reach DEIB goals

Companies recognize language proficiency as a DEIB issue and cite language training among their top methods of reaching DEIB goals. With English training at the top of their DEIB agenda, most organizations thus aim to tap into a wider talent pool when hiring, create paths for hidden talent in their organization, and deploy their staff more efficiently (since everyone will have the requisite language skills).

What measures are organizations taking to achieve their D&I goals

But how can those speaking minority languages belong?

Speakers of minority languages may feel ‘on the outside’ if only proficient English speakers are valued. While English training will always remain the top tool to tackle this, by reviewing and understanding the use of languages across your company, you may find opportunities to grow both productivity and well-being, for example by developing training programs in local languages too (another area of focus indicated by 36% of respondents). 

In other words, both the needs of your business and of your people must be considered when it comes to internal language policies.

Key takeaways

Undeniably, language proficiency – in English particularly – presents a significant DEIB challenge for HR and leaders in multicultural companies.  

While most agree that a diverse workforce provides the global perspective and positive business outcomes that leaders aim for, diversity without considerations for inclusivity can do more damage than good. Through language policies to help your global team feel a sense of belonging and enjoy true equity of opportunity, leaders can: 

  • Recruit mindfully, considering the real need for language proficiency at the entry stage. 

  • Offer English language development programs as a minimum. 

  • Consider other common communication languages in your business and how they can be included in training and other initiatives to increase inclusivity and belonging. 

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