Overcoming Cultural Barriers at Work - Multilingual Connections

Overcoming Cultural Barriers at Work

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In a global workforce, language barriers aren’t the only challenges employees face when doing their best work and collaborating smoothly. Cultural barriers can also impede understanding and productivity. Overcoming those cultural barriers requires ongoing efforts on different fronts. In this blog, we teamed up with Fluency Corp, a language training company, to share the most effective strategies for improving cross-cultural collaboration across diverse teams.

Provide Translations of Key Documents

Even if expat employees speak the language of their new workplace, the office culture may differ dramatically from what they were used to at their previous place of employment. In a survey on employee relocations by Altair Global, employees who relocated to the U.S. said that others underestimated what a big adjustment the move was for them.

For this reason, Altair recommends treating employees who have relocated from an international branch of your company to the U.S. as transfer employees instead of new employees.

HR Materials, Handbooks, and Benefits

To support these employees, it’s important to provide clearly translated versions of HR materials  such as the employee handbook and explanation of benefits. Include a glossary of key terms, since direct translations of the documents might not convey the full meaning of unfamiliar concepts. For example, you probably assume that U.S employees know the definition of healthcare deductible. But deductibles are going to be a new idea to most of your international employees.

During a Discovery Chat with a potential Fluency Corp client, the HR team was expressing various challenges they were having. One of those challenges was ensuring the incoming expats from Japan understood the healthcare benefits and company policy handbook. They had it translated, but quickly realized that direct translations weren’t enough. We suggested having 1 employee highlight the words, phrases or even ideas that were not clear. Then, they could not only translate not the words, but also have a glossary of key ideas, phrases and vocabulary that simply don’t exist in Japan. Having a cultural translation as well as a direct translation will ensure understanding. 

Besides providing translated documents, you can also hold brown-bag lunches to provide more information about topics like your benefits program, code of conduct and even U.S. culture, which will  give employees a chance to ask questions on these topics. In the Altair survey, expat employees in the U.S. said they would welcome more informational and support sessions like this.

Choose Language Training that Incorporates Cultural Tips 

Overcoming Cultural Barriers at Work

Your organization can also use language training programs for expat employees to enhance their cultural understanding and help them feel more at ease working in their new country. Communicating in their second language doesn’t just require knowledge of vocabulary and grammar. It also requires familiarity with the culture of the people they’re working with. The trainer will be spending at least 2 hours with the employee a week during that first year. So many questions can be answered during these sessions, which could help the employee with work relationships, with understanding the management structure, and with figuring out how corporate America works (or how corporations work in the country to which they’ve moved).  

Here’s an example of how Fluency Corp incorporates cultural information into language training. Let’s say the employee they are tutoring wants to improve the way she contributes to an important meeting that’s on her schedule every week. Her instructor will customize her language lessons to focus not just on the information she needs to present, but also on the cultural nuances she needs to understand in order to navigate the meeting. For example, how should she participate in small talk before the meeting? What does it mean when one of her coworkers says “Let’s take this offline for now”?

Encourage Sharing to Break Down Cultural Barriers 

Finally, you can lower cultural barriers simply by getting employees to spend more time together, talk to each other more and ask each other questions. 

One way your organization can do this is by encouraging employees to eat lunch together. When we suggest this to our clients, they often moan: “But lunch is a time to relax. We don’t want to speak in our second language at lunch. We’re already doing it all day!” 

We understand where they’re coming from. Working in their second language all day is exhausting. But lunchtime conversations will help them gain both language and cultural fluency faster. Even weekly lunches between employees from different cultures can help. Colleagues can bond by asking each other where they’re from, how they grew up and what they like to do on the weekends. They can ask each other burning questions about each other’s cultures, ways of doing things and differences in doing business.

Talking to one person from another culture can change the way you see the culture as a whole.

For example, your U.S. employee Susan might learn that her colleague Silvia speaks very directly because the translation from Castilian Spanish to English is just that: very direct. Once Susan understands that Silvia isn’t mad or trying to be rude, she’ll approach her and other Spanish colleagues differently. 

And when Silvia learns that her way of speaking sounds like barking commands to the American ear, she can find ways to soften her requests, like saying “Could you please …?” or “Would you mind if … ?” She’ll learn that she gets a much better response from her American teammates when she asks questions this way — and that it’s easier to make friends with them. Susan and Sylvia can also share what they’ve learned with other colleagues to help them communicate better, too.

One of our clients at Amazon wanted to connect more with his employees. He was a manager of a team of 6. He shared with his language instructor that in Taiwan coworkers get to know each other deeply. The American trainer was surprised, because she was still friends with coworkers she had worked with 2 decades ago. She told the Amazon client, and he was surprised how deep her relationships with colleagues were and was curious to try this out. The Fluency Corp instructor suggested asking a few team members to dinner. 2 weeks later, the Amazon client admitted that they had gone to dinner and decided to play pool afterwards. Now, they are setting up Friday afternoon billiards meetups at least once a month. The Amazon client quickly realized that his American colleagues also wanted to make deep connections with team members. 

Bringing together different cultures in the workplace can pose challenges, but by taking steps like these, you can help all of your employees feel at home in your organization and contribute to them reaching their full potential.

Want to stay connected?

We periodically share news and updates around translation, language and culture. Rest assured we’ll never share your contact information with anyone!