Is a language barrier an obstacle when hiring for skills?

By Beyondo, 5. Aug 2022


3 practical tips for multilingual talents

 We are exchanging our thoughts on the topics in a talk with a language expert:

When working with international talents and international companies, it is obvious that communication and interaction between the employees are very important. Internal and external communication is essential. Does a native speaker communicate better with another native speaker of the same language, or does one need to ‘pay extra attention if one speaks to someone that does not have English as their native language? Do companies see the various language skills and cultural aspects that come with international teams as an advantage, or an obstacle?

 I bring 25 years of experience in recruiting international talents to international companies in The Netherlands and Sweden. In The Netherlands, companies – from my experience and impression – see the added value of hiring a for example German speaker to work for them on the German market, however operating out of The Netherlands. In Sweden, is the impression, that we think that we can work with the international markets, getting around just fine by speaking English. Is that right? How do we succeed in doing business by using English as our second language? Do we communicate with the clients that are using English as their second language as well? Is this an effective way? Or how can we bring the best out of each other’s way of communicating?

 I have been speaking to Shelley Purchon, a Workplace trainer at English Unlocked, as I was curious to know, if are we missing out on a lot of good talent when recruiting because we are afraid of people not having a high enough level of a certain language?

What is your advice to companies, that are working internationally, when it comes to recruiting international talents with language skills?

The ability to speak English fluently, with the right accent, has become a status symbol among non-native English speakers. It can show that a candidate is well connected, well-travelled, and formally educated but these things do not guarantee skill in the workplace. If companies use English purely as a status symbol when recruiting, they can miss out on great candidates.

“As a non-native English speaker, I saw how mediocre people were hired in a company only because they had a great level of English instead of trying to find the perfect fit for the role independently of the nationality.” Pedro Lozano, former CEO, Spain.

Some recruiters demand ‘proficient’ English just because they can, or because they always have done so, or because it is a quick way to reduce the number of CVs they have to read. The other problem is that when ‘proficient English’ really is required, recruiters are looking at the wrong things when trying to assess it. For example, they only notice exam results, or how quickly someone can speak, instead of noticing what really counts.

Do you have any tips for companies? (In order not to lose good multilingual talents in the recruitment process)

Here are some signs that your recruitment process might be missing talent-

  • You rely purely on exam results to decide if candidates have good enough English. You set a very high minimum standard and discard the rest because it saves you time.
  • You assume that if a candidate lived in the UK or the US for a certain length of time their English must be great. (This isn’t always the case.) Even worse, you exclude people who haven’t lived abroad.
  • You put all your attention on their speed of speech. If an overseas candidate speaks slowly and hesitantly during the interview, you stop listening to the quality of their answer. Remember - language fluency is not the only indicator of language proficiency. Some fluent people have huge gaps in their English, while some people who speak slowly are very skilled communicators.
  • You avoid candidates from certain countries because you find the accent difficult.
  • You only consider CVs written in perfect English. (A CV might be written in perfect English because it’s been checked by a friend. If you reject imperfect CVs you may be discarding talented candidates who are not well connected.)

Here are some signs that you are getting it right-

  • Accent and fluency are just two of the things you notice during the interview. When assessing their English level you also pay attention to their range of vocabulary, range of tenses, accuracy and knowledge of specialist vocabulary. You might have a person on the interview panel who is there to pay attention to this one thing.
  • You think about what they will need to actually do with their English in this specific job role, instead of relying on a generic English test which is the same for everyone.
  • During the interview, you assess their English while they are doing a task which is relevant to the workplace. Eg a PA needs to be able to write great emails, and someone in overseas sales needs to be able to persuade. In some jobs knowing JavaScript is more useful than knowing English.

What is your best tip for companies to make it easier for them to integrate staff who is a non-native speaker?

This is where English Unlocked training can help. Our communication training is a really cost-effective way to integrate non-native speakers into the workplace - in just a couple of hours, we can help a company’s most fluent English speakers to communicate with colleagues who speak English less well. People who can think and dream in English tend to speak in a way that is unnecessarily confusing for colleagues who are still perfecting their English – we train them to ‘unlock their English’ so that miscommunication becomes less likely. Check our website for free tips or get in touch to find out whether this training can benefit you.