Language barriers in the workplace


Intercultural communication in the workplaceThe United States has been a cultural ‘melting pot’ or ‘salad bowl’ for over two hundred years.  With this trend, comes the reality that many cultures must co-exist and work together.  A harmonious blending doesn’t always happen, and there are challenges of diversity in the workplace environment.  How can we overcome language barriers in the workplace so that everyone can benefit?  Certainly the answer is not to avoid the issue, but rather to embrace our differences and try to break down these language barriers.

What if English is not the first language of your employees?

It is likely you will have employees that speak more than one language, and their native tongue may be Spanish, Mandarin, French, Japanese, etc.  This is truly intercultural communication in business.  Because you may not be able to speak their first language, you may encounter difficulties with communicating expectations, giving feedback that is understood and accepted, or encouraging increased output and productivity.   If your employees cannot understand you, leading them is difficult.

Such challenges of workplace diversity easily lead to failure to communicate well and frustration for the worker or for management.  A worker may exhibit poor performance only because he or she cannot understand what is expected of him or her.  On the flip side, it may be the worker will take advantage of the situation, pretend they don’t understand, and then not work as hard as he or she might, and thus use the language barrier to their benefit.  It is more likely that the non-native speaker wants to work hard and please but cannot understand the direction or management or other co-workers.

Possible Solutions:

  • Define the basics. Have written policies and instructions translated into the various native languages of all your employees.  This may take some time to have all manuals, notices, etc. translated but it will be welcoming and help with any miscommunication.  Be careful with this process however, as you may encounter differences in dialects, and word meanings may be different from region to region, etc.
  • Offer incentives. Encourage employees to take classes either in English or other languages to aid in communication between employees.  These can be general language classes, on-line courses, or perhaps more specialized to your business/industry – teaching work oriented vocabulary, phrases, warnings, and other critical communication elements necessary to succeed in the workplace.
  • Provide assistance. Have an interpreter available on staff, and make sure that you can trust this individual to accurately convey your instructions.
  • Be visual. Adjust training practices to be “visual” vs. audio, i.e. a hands on “watch me do it first” method.  Perhaps you are even able to use pictures.  Re-demonstrate as often as necessary.
  • Use repetition. All employees need to hear the same, consistent message to grasp the task to be accomplished.
  • Speak clearly. You don’t have to speak louder, that isn’t helpful.  Be sure to speak clearly and slowly so that you can get your point across without speaking down to them or treating them like they can’t hear you.  Their ears are probably just fine.   You are in control of how they learn, so speak the language correctly yourself.
  • Use common language. Try to avoid big words or long run-on phrases.
  • Learn your employee’s language. Take some courses yourself so that you are better able to communicate.  This will show your employee that you care and have empathy for their situation.  You will probably notice increased productivity.  Maybe you can have them teach you or help you.  Again, this is good for relationship building.
  • Ask for clarification. Have the employee restate what is being asked to check understanding.  Keep open line of communication.  All employees need to know that they are welcome to ask questions, seek feedback, etc.

It is interesting to note here, that even native English speakers who have lived in the United States their whole life speak very poor English and have bad grammatical tendencies.  These individuals may be limiting themselves, as well, by having a language barrier.

We all know someone who has come to the United States without knowing much English at all, and within time speaks very well and achieves an amazing fluency.  These are motivated individuals, and I am certainly not suggesting that everyone has the same motivation.

What if cultural barrier is a ritual that interferes with job?

In addition to language barriers in the workplace, other cultural Workplace Diversitydiversity workplace issues can also surface.  As manager, or even a co-worker to someone from a different culture, it’s generally best to accept and not try to change your employee/coworker.  For example, if they have to wear special headgear, or take a break at a given time each day, you may need to adapt and accept these practices, especially if they don’t interfere with the overall success of your business/company.

On the other hand, if these attitudes or behaviors interfere with or distract from your business, then conversation needs to be had with that employee.  An example of this might happen if making eye contact with your customers is required, yet your employee says that looking people in the eye when talking with them is contraindicated by their culture.  Time for a policy decision.

  • Identify the cultural difference – you may need to do diligent research into such cultures, and you should be able to find great literature on-line or at the library.
  • Determine if it is a deal breaker for continued employment (be careful here with any discrimination).
  • Figure out a way to accommodate. Probably the best way to do this is to communicate with that employee and ask for their input.  If you show an open and honest willingness to learn from them and potentially adjust your own practices, your employees will respect that and work with you toward a solution.
  • Be sensitive and ready to alter your management style.

What about manipulative employees?

Don’t let your employees hide behind their culture when the going gets tough.  Unfortunately, there are those few employees who manipulate the situation to their advantage; and may I remind you that these employees are just as often American, native-English speakers!  All employees need to be confronted and held accountable for being manipulative.  Here is what you can do with them:

First, determine whether behavior is real or being manipulative.  Sometimes this is hard to do at first because you haven’t been able to notice patterns.  A good rule of thumb is to accept the misunderstanding as “real” the first time.  If you need to confront the same employee a second time for the same violation, you may then move to the acceptance of “confusion.”  When a pattern emerges, and behavior continues to persist, it is likely manipulative behavior after all and consequences should apply.

  • Confront manipulation and call it out for what it is. It is helpful to have an interpreter (witness) with you when you approach the employee with the fact you believe they understand more than they are letting on, etc.  Be clear in your expectations for the future.
  • Hold them accountable for their “yes.”  If your employee nods their head or says yes, simply to placate you, make it clear to them that they will be accountable for their understanding in the future.  Being truthful and honest is crucial to a successful business/company.
  • Be clear with all employees what you know them to understand (using an interpreter if needed). Remember, if they are truly manipulating, they do understand!

How do I succeed in a diverse workplace?

Probably the best words of wisdom here would be to create an Language barriers in the workplaceenvironment of inclusion rather than exclusion.  Your goal is for all employees to reach their full potential, no matter what problems may exist with intercultural communication in the workplace.  If language or other cultural differences are hindering your performance or that of co-workers, figure out a way to accommodate and move forward.

There is so much to be learned and gained from cultural diversity in your workforce.  Not only can the work be done efficiently if you find a way to work through and around the differences, but great friendships and insights can be shared between people of difficult cultures and backgrounds.  Language barriers in the workplace can be the catalyst to great success if embraced and handled appropriately.

Note: This article was inspired by a LINKED IN post by Mac McIntire, the president of Innovative Management Group, a Las Vegas-based training and consulting firm specializing in strategic visioning and alignment, organizational effectiveness, quality improvement, and teamwork. He can be reached at 702-592-6431 or e-mail

4 thoughts on “LANGUAGE BARRIERS IN THE WORKPLACE:  How to Overcome Them

  1. Hi Dana
    This article is a fascinating and informative post. It provides a proactive approach to co-existing in the workplace. You mentioned at some points to have a translator present, what would you suggest could be done if the organization is not able to afford one?
    You noted some great approaches to deal with various situations, very thorough.
    I’ll be sure to bookmark this page for future reference.


    1. Thank you for your kind words. More and more we are finding diversity in the workplace. A translator can be an expensive alternative. Perhaps it is more likely that a co-worker, already employed, can speak the language in question. Other incentives might also be afforded for employees to learn a second language to help with interpretation. There are many great language learning tools available; here are some of the best.

  2. This is a really important topic you raise particularly for workplaces in the 21st Century. Speaking another language is something I really wish I could to, but as much as I try, I just don’t seem to have the aptitude. I really like how you address not only potential language barriers in the workplace, but also cultural ones. It’s important to recognize these issues so that workplaces can run effectively.

    1. Thank you. Language and cultural barriers are becoming increasingly prevalent in many places of work. I applaud you for your desire to learn another language. There are many resources on this site to ease the process of language acquisition. To begin, I suggest you check out LANGUAGE LEARNING STRATEGIES. And, if you have questions after that, let me know and I’ll be glad to help.

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