July 26, 2018

Diversity in Thinking, How ESL Can Bring a Fresh Perspective to the Workplace


In 2016, 11%, or, roughly 3.4 million of the UK’s labour market were non-UK nationals. Of this 11%, 7%, which was around 2.2 million people, were EU nationals; and non-EU nationals comprised the other 4%, which stood at around 1.2 million people.

So, 3.4 million of the UK’s workforce two years ago were non-UK nationals. In 2018, that number is likely higher. And the numbers will continue rising. The demand for skilled labour never ceases. But of course, if 11% of your workforce are non-UK nationals, you need to think about how you’re integrating these ESL (English as a second language) employees into your workplace culture.

Hiring staff who specialise in their sector is important of course, but people need to communicate and coordinate with their colleagues to achieve even basic work tasks. You want to promote effective communication, reduce health & safety risks, and ensure that each of your employees is self-actualising in their job. If communication falters because of a language barrier, all of these things become problematic.

Let’s face it, very few people speak with the same eloquence and craft that they apply to their written work and their correspondences. This is as true for native English speakers as it is for people for whom English is a second language.

One obvious fact to extrapolate from this point, therefore, is that most people can understand the English language better than they can speak it. But there remain numerous reasons why someone might struggle to understand a communication while at work: different accents, enunciation, pronunciation (haven’t we all experienced one of those moments where we read a word we’ve not seen before, pronounce it (wrongly) how we think is correct, and then don’t recognise the word when somebody pronounces it differently?), and of course, noise disruptions. And in a high-risk environment where health & safety are crucial, misunderstanding a verbal communication or instruction could be fatal.

Put H&S aside for but a moment, and misunderstanding something one of your customers or clients say during an important phone call could be equally perilous from a financial point of view. So obviously, you want your ESL staff to have a command of English that reduces the above risks. The question is, what can you do to enhance your ESLs’ command of the language, and what benefits will doing it bring?

ESL classes

Obvious but crucial.

English is the language championed by thousands of businesses across the globe for commercial dealings and internal/external communication. Consequently, the teach-English-as-a-second-language industry has exploded like an over-aired balloon and scores of graduates, teachers, entrepreneurs, and others are training to come into businesses and teach English to ESL staff… for a fee, of course.

If you have employees for whom English is not their native language, invest in ESL classes with a qualified business English teacher.

Consider the workload, though

You should remember that in order to commit to English classes before or after their work hours, your employees are going to be taking on more work than their native English-speaking colleagues. Of course, effective communication is important, but so is maintaining positive employee morale, and more importantly, you don’t want staff who are burnt-out and struggling to wake up on time in a morning.

Believe it or not, exhaustion isn’t automatically good for wellbeing, no matter what Elon Musk and his 100-hour work week might tell you.

Everyone has their ambitions and of course, people will apply themselves and commit to more work when they need to if they have the capacity at that moment, but perhaps you could do either or both of the following:

Fit their classes into their work hours.

The obvious problem here is that if your employee normally works 9-5, but they’re busy learning the fundamentals of English between 9-10 and 4-5, or some other set period during their day, their work output could be lower than their colleagues’ during their education.

However, you’re better off looking at the future investment of an employee whom you’re training. With effective education during mornings and/or afternoons, an employee’s probation period (between 3-6 months) will be an efficacious crash course in ensuring that they have a firm command of the English language, its grammar, punctuation, and the rest.

And remember, you’re stopping their 8-hour work day from becoming a gruelling 10-hour one, and they’ll thank you for that. You’ll be able to compare the productivity of your ESL employees during their 5-6 hours of work with the 7-8 hours of your other staff.

Expecting that somebody can do more work in eight hours rather than six might seem fair, but beware superficial assumptions. We all have moments during the day when our energy levels go up and down and our productivity ratchets up or seeps out of us. Some people work better in repeated short bursts, some people work better over long periods. One person’s focus increases the longer they concentrate on something; and for others, the opposite: they crush short tasks like a giant crushes walnuts.

The point here is that if it turns out that the best productivity is coming during 5-6 hours’ work rather than 7-8, what could you do about it? Could you use the first, or middle, or last hour of each working day for a specific purpose that is separate from the employee’s job tasks?

Some ideas: 

  • Education sessions.
  • Mentoring sessions. Especially useful for new ESL employees.
  • Group exercises to enhance the company culture.
  • Recognition recaps, to acknowledge what everyone has achieved that day.
  • Flexible finishing times if staff complete their workload.

Across the globe, some companies are offering their employees unlimited annual leave. Sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? But actually, the idea is to increase an employee’s accountability. If they can get a day’s work done in 4 hours rather than 8, not only will they likely stay a little longer to bite into the next day’s workload, but knowing they’re free to leave will reduce stress and increase well-being.

Insert a performance bonus into their contract

Pay people a bonus for learning English? Are we out of our minds? No.

Since you’re going to the effort of investing in the development of your ESL employees’ ability to communicate in this language that reaches every nook and cranny of the globe, why not incentivise their commitment to this education with performance bonuses?

How do you measure their performance? With assessments, of course. That’s why you’re paying a business English teacher. Set the bar high, and reward employees who score 80% and above. You might choose the bonus to be cash, or you might reserve the right to reward high performers with a new gadget, restaurant vouchers, or a spa day. There are plenty of options available, obviously.

By taking advantage of suggestion 1, you’re highlighting your empathy towards your employees’ tricky situation of developing their competence of a foreign language. With suggestion 2, you’re reinforcing your culture of rewarding high-performing employees. While you might already champion such a culture, particularly if you’re leading a sales or recruitment business, it’s worth remembering, again, that staff needing to strengthen their command of English are obviously at a disadvantage to their colleagues when they first start their employment. By levelling the reward playing field, you can reduce the risk of ESL employees feeling like they’re playing catch-up.

In addition, give others the opportunity to further their learning and you’ll increase company buy-in

In the same way that students at university can audit classes, attending a course’s lectures and seminars without submitting work for assessment at the semester’s end, you could encourage native English staff (including stakeholders) to attend the business English classes you’ve invested in. Heck, let them take the assessments if they’re feeling lucky.

Not only will these native English speakers almost certainly learn something new or rediscover some element of the language or composition that they’d forgotten, which could help with their work tasks, such as writing reports, or negotiating with clients or on-boarding a candidate, you’ll be further stressing to your entire workforce the importance of communicating effectively through a common language. Your staff will witness your senior management getting involved in the process, and they’ll understand the importance you’re placing on improving team communication.

Introduce a mentor scheme

You could establish a mentor-like scheme between native English speakers and ESLs, wherein your staff will strengthen team cohesion, and ESLs will feel their sense of community in your workplace grow as they come to learn everything from how to effectively discuss the technical details of their job in English, and also grasp the local idiom of your workforce, so that they feel comfortable in both business meetings and kitchen catch-ups.

And, the byproduct of championing English in these ways is that you inculcate the notion of effective communication being critical to both the harmony of your teams and the success of your business into all staff, including stakeholders.

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