by William R. Dodson
1 March 2002
The American consulting manager in the office next to mine sounded like a Drill Sergeant (ever see Jack Webb in the film, “The DI?”). He belted out the timeline of the project overall, then the structure of the project team; he then went on to expectations for working hours; and ended the forceful monologue with, “Do you have any questions?” The new Indian employee whispered, “No.” Then I heard the manager say, “Good.” The statement reflected the end of the lecture, and the manager’s satisfaction that he had effectively communicated all the new employee needed to know to discharge his job. My head spun from the amount of information the manager shunted into the short lecture. I was sure the drill had dazed the Indian business analyst even more. I wondered if the Indian fellow had really understood what the project truly required of him: not only was the tone of the presentation commanding – I’d even say patronizing – but the manager had spoken quickly, as if to a platoon of soldiers familiar with the language of the Army. Now, they had simply to act, like automatons.
Four months later the manager fired the Indian fellow for “performance that did not meet expectations.” I believe that a major contributing factor in the employee’s lack of performance was based in language. I believe that technically he was adequate. He spoke English; however, the English was heavily accented, and I believe his listening comprehension mirrored the level of his speaking ability. I also believe the stove-piped, command-and-control business structure of the project team made it practically impossible for the staff member to become oriented; that is, to take alternate approaches to understanding how he and his work fit into the overall project. The staff member worked in isolation then, linguistic and managerial.
The multi-million dollar project had lost time and money because assumptions were applied that were not accurate. The consulting manager and his American subordinates all assumed they could speak and act the same way they did with their American staff: conversations steeped in sports analogies, jokes based in regionalisms, directives or requests for results couched in military jargon. Companies every day lose time and money because work has to be re-done due to linguistic misapprehension; worker morale decreases because of a sense of isolation; and conflict breaks out due to syntactical misunderstandings.
A few simple Management considerations make all the difference in reducing the risk of an employee from another country not working out:
- ask up-front about the employee’s comfort level with the language of the office;
- take more time than you would in a five-minute “pep-talk” to orient the employee to the new environment;
- slow down the speed with which you speak to the employee, and be mindful of jargon: if you must use specialized words, confirm the employee understands its usage;
- ensure your work environment is open enough that a staff member who is not fluent in the office’s primary language can easily gather information from other employees through formal and informal means – blocking communications between staff may be an effective way to control people, but not to manage them.
- Extend yourself to the immigrant employee to ensure he/she is indeed oriented; don’t distance yourself from the individual after initial orientations to create nasty surprises for yourself months down the line;
- Invest in ESL courses for immigrant staff to improve listening comprehension and to reduce their accents if team members find it impossible to understand the foreign national.
- Above all, be patient: even the most well-educated foreign nationals take time to formulate their thoughts in a second language.
The Drill Instructor lost six months (taking into account the search and ramp-up time for the new resource) and tens of thousands of dollars by not offering the Indian analyst even a rudimentary orientation that was genuinely comprehensible. How much of your credibility are you willing to gamble by not making small, up-front investments in patience and cultural consideration?
William R. Dodson is Managing Director of Silk Road Communications, L.L.C., a management consultancy that builds and improves working relationships across cultures. He is the international business editor of the American Management Association’s (AMA) MWorld Journal of Management, and writes the weekly column “The Cultured Business”, found at www./ and at the Global Perspectives section of the AMA’s member website. He can be reached at contactus@/ or +1 (847)722-7817.