The ball is in your court: Why we need effective workplace English

Personnel Matters

By W. J. Heisler, Ph.D., Troy University

We operate today in a globally diverse environment. People from all countries continue to migrate to the United States for work, and numerous U.S. employees are sent into other parts of the world as representatives of their American organizations. Goods from suppliers are often manufactured in other countries, and customers from other countries frequently buy our goods and services.

All of these transactions are typically carried out in English. And how well we perform as a business can be influenced by how well we communicate across cultures. According to some estimates, people who speak English as a non-native language in the global workforce now outnumber native English speakers by about 4:1.

Why is this statistic important? Because English is the number one language of business in the world. And, effective performance in a global marketplace depends on effective communication across multiple cultural backgrounds. Global managers and leaders must become aware of how they can use English as an effective communication tool and as a means to foster collaboration, rather than as an expression of cultural heritage, history and local cultural contexts.

Domestically, several workplace English challenges threaten teamwork, organizational productivity and individual professional growth and development, regardless of the size or type of organization. The primary challenge arises from the diversity of meanings of the language across cultures and locations.

For example, the phrase “Cut it out!” makes no sense outside of its cultural context. A reader or listener would not know the intended meaning of the phrase from translating the words “cut”, “it” and “out.” Native English speakers often presume that they are using words and phrases that all other speakers of English will understand without explanation. Such assumptions could lead to interpersonal misunderstandings and work-related errors.

So, what can be done to mitigate the potential problems associated with use of English in the workplace? Here are several possible recommendations from a diversity expert I know:

  • Require that English be the spoken language when at work.
  • Raise employee awareness of the issues associated with workplace English. Ensure that all employees understand the need for, and the value of, effective workplace English.
  • Attempt to use culturally neutral language when communicating. Especially, avoid the use of idioms that are only relevant in specific cultural settings. A list of commonly used English idioms can be down-
    loaded from Many of these can be work-related.
  • Confirm verbal communication in writing whenever practical and ask for a response from the recipient (other than a simple “yes” or “no”) to ensure the appropriate message was received.
  • Invest in workplace English language skills for both your native and non-native English speakers. While English as a Second Language (ESL) skills are good for non-native English speakers, native English speakers also would benefit from training in how to use culturally neutral English.

In addition to concerns about workplace English affecting communication, teamwork, productivity and safety, employers need to be conscious of the potential for language discrimination. Language discrimination is the unfair treatment of individuals solely because of their native language or other characteristics of speech, such as accent, size of vocabulary or syntax. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects workers from discrimination based on race and national origin. Areas of potential concern involve the following:

Accents. Whether an employment decision involving an accent is illegal will depend on whether the employee’s accent or manner of speaking harmed or would harm his or her job performance.

Poor English skills. Similar to the situation involving accents, an employer must show a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason to make employment decisions because of an employee’s proficiency (how well one speaks or writes) in English.

Using native language at work. A rule requiring employees to speak only English at all times on the job can violate the law if it (1) has been adopted for a discriminatory reason, (2) is not uniformly enforced or (3) is not necessary for conducting business. As long as the English-only rule is not motivated by discriminatory intent, it will be considered legal so long as it is necessary for the safe or efficient operation of the business.

When both native and non-native speakers of English understand that there are differences in how they use English and develop competencies in culturally neutral English, it becomes possible to address communication dynamics in the workplace and create the kind of work environment that leads to better organizational results. So, if you encounter a performance problem with a non-native English speaker, avoid saying “I need you to put your nose to the grindstone.” Instead, say “I need you to work faster” or “I need you to work more accurately.” Whatever the issue may be, you’ll be more pleased with the result if you use neutral workplace English.

Dr. W. J. Heisler is professor of human resource management and director of the MSHRM program at Troy University. He operates out of TROY’s site based in Chesapeake, VA. He holds Ph.D. and M.B.A. degrees from Syracuse University and worked for more than 20 years in management and executive positions in human resources at Newport News Shipbuilding. Contact:

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.