When English isn’t your first language, it can be intimidating to register a complaint, express a concern, or even just talk to the HR department. It’s already intimidating for any employee to go tell someone a vulnerability, whether personal or work-related, and adding that second barrier of language makes it even harder and makes confidentiality a concern.
Many employers strive to hire from a diverse applicant pool, which is great. But the work doesn’t stop there. When you hire an employee, you take on liability and responsibility. If you’re committing to hiring diverse employees, some of whom may not speak English as their first language, you must factor that into your policies.
We’ve seen this become an issue particularly with complaints and employee concerns. It has to be in the handbook and clear from the beginning—if you have a complaint, this is where you file it, and if you’re not comfortable with that, here’s where you go. Ideally, each employee has three clearly identified options for someone they can talk to if they have a complaint or personal concern to discuss. For employees with limited English proficiency, you need to be sure those details are clear and that you include additional information about translation services in case it’s necessary for an employee to effectively communicate their concern.
What not to do
Some organizations take the easy way out of saying, “Oh, we have an employee that speaks their language and can interpret.” Asking someone else on the team to translate is unfair to both employees, and it makes an already complicated situation even more challenging. The first employee is sharing something that affects them personally, and adding a coworker to the mix makes it even more uncomfortable for them. And the impromptu translator likely doesn’t want to be there any more than the first employee! This is a huge confidentiality risk and should be avoided entirely.
Technology assistance for translating
The first option that can help is machine translation, but you have to be intentional about it up front and have the technology in place before an issue occurs. Using this to show written text, even if they bring you their feedback verbally, is a good first step to smooth any language barriers. Machine translation only goes so far, though, and it can struggle with more complex text.
Contracted confidential translators
The Department of Labor operates phone lines that will provide confidentiality for employees that speak other languages, and some chambers of commerce also offer translation services. It’s worth noting, though, that you have to set up a confidentiality agreement with them first to ensure all parties are protected. WhyHR can also provide this help for Spanish-speaking employees to ensure they have a clear avenue to express any HR concerns.
Creating an open, respectful environment
There may also be cultural considerations when it comes to diverse employees. Those who have immigrated to the United States may be less likely to report an issue because they’ve been told culturally to put their head down, focus on their work, and not complain about anything. Thus, employers need to be intentional about creating a company culture where all employees know someone is available to listen and wants to hear what they have to say.
No matter what language they speak, employees should always feel comfortable talking to you, and they need to realize that their communications will be kept confidential. Make sure you have systems in place to all of your employees but especially those whose first language isn’t English.
If you need help implementing policies and procedures for a diverse employee population, contact us today to discuss how we may be able to help.