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DE&I Means Everyone’s Voice Is Heard: Are You Listening to Your Non-Native English Speaking Talent?

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion have become a big topic of conversation for U.S. companies over the last couple of years. We've learned some surprising things about how DEI works and how it can change corporations. For example, 76% of job seekers won't accept a new position if the company doesn't value DEI. However, only 35% of HR leaders say DEI is among their top priorities. Over the last two years, we've also learned that remote work can benefit DEI programs. In 2022, Black employees reported a 21% increase in the feeling of fair treatment because working remotely they no longer have to expend the extra emotional labor it takes to code switch to fit into the dominant culture in the physical office.

There is another aspect of DEI that companies need to consider moving forward. While English is the dominant language in global business, about 75% of the world's 1.5 billion English speakers are non-native. While non-native English-speaking employees may have important messages to contribute, linguistic, and cultural communication subtleties may prohibit those messages from getting through to the intended audience. Having diverse people in the seats at the table is only the first step for a company to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce. Making sure every voice at the table is heard is the next step.

Linguistic Racism in the Workplace

Many organizations and HR departments are working hard to eliminate unconscious bias from hiring procedures and decisions, and access to resources in the workplace. There has long been a focus on blind resume reviews or other training that supposedly helps the person with the hiring power make more equitable decisions. But there is so much to unpack that most companies have barely scratched the surface of neutralizing or eliminating unconscious bias.

One source of unconscious bias is linguistic racism or "accentism." As soon as we hear someone's accent, we make judgments about a person, even if that person’s first language is English. There are countless examples of the southern accent being perceived as uneducated, regardless of the speaker's experience. This bias obviously affects non-native English speakers in the workplace. It takes 30 seconds to form an opinion about someone's background and abilities when hearing their accent. It's easy to see how this unconscious bias plays into the DEI conversation.

DEI and International Talent

The era of the global talent pool has been around for a while now and shows no signs of going away. It’s the diversity at the table that brings the necessary skills, diversity of ideas and different ways of doing things that keep companies competitive. Diversity, when managed well, drives innovation, and allows companies to look and sound like their customers.

However, it isn't enough to have a diverse group of people seated at the table. For diversity to work its magic, it's essential that everyone can contribute to the conversation. For this to happen, the linguistic and cultural communication challenges faced by non-native English-speaking employees must be acknowledged and addressed.

Challenges Faced by Non-native English Speakers in the Workplace

What are common challenges non-native English speakers face in companies where the C-Suite and other decision makers speak English as a first language? The challenges come from both sides of the communication equation.

Challenges created by Non-Native English- Speakers

Challenges created by Native English speakers

  • Using inexact grammar (e.g., putting English words in Spanish sentences)

  • Structuring their messages in a culturally inaccessible way

  • Using general rather than specific vocabulary

  • Speaking too fast

  • Using inside jokes and idioms

  • Railroading

  • Unconscious body language cues

  • Hijacking thoughts and ideas

Because it takes extra energy to understand an unfamiliar accent or to interpret what a non-native English speaker means because of their cultural style of communication, native English speakers may unconsciously communicate a negative attitude toward their non-native English-speaking colleagues non-verbally. This can take a significant psychological toll on non-native English speakers, leading to low self-esteem, feeling unsafe and like they don’t belong in the workplace.

How to Empower Your Non-Native English-Speaking Talent

Ensuring your non-native English-speaking employees can effectively communicate like leaders in English is as important as any other commitment to DEI in the workplace. But you may not know how best to help. English lessons and accent reduction, while valid for some, may not be effective for others. We go beyond English as a Second Language and accent reduction and teach leadership communication skills that will benefit your leaders throughout their careers.

If you are a human resources professional involved in developing high-potential professionals whose first language is not English, I can help. My comprehensive 1:1 Coaching Program for Non-native English-speaking executives and directors has been specifically designed to address the issues these professionals face. Applying my knowledge of linguistic issues, cross-cultural communication, and leadership communication, I can accurately diagnose specific challenges and deliver a quick result.

I'd love to speak with your HR department to learn about your challenges and explore how I can help your non-native English-speaking leaders. Go to Boldt Global or write to me, Barbara, at today to learn more about specialized executive communication skills coaching for your international talent.

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