As workforces continue to grow more diverse, human resources and learning and development teams have embraced language training programs, such as Business English and ESL, for multicultural employees. By strengthening communications skills and building a “same language” framework for the workforce, these initiatives not only foster individual development, they enhance collaboration and productivity and contribute to cultural cohesion.
Despite these efforts, however, companies often continue to experience excess attrition in their multicultural workforce as these employees seek better opportunities to enhance their skills, climb the career ladder and take on higher levels of leadership.
Employee turnover and replacement are costly. According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2016 “Human Capital Benchmarking Report,” the average cost-per-hire is $4,129, while the average time it takes to fill a given position is 42 days. Add to that a strong economy and low unemployment rate, and recruitment and retention have become harder than ever. To remain competitive now and into the future, organizations must attract and retain talented multicultural workers.
Consider the numbers: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 1 in 5 workers in the U.S. is foreign-born (17 percent), and this number is growing. Almost one-third of these workers are in professional/management positions — highly sought after by recruiters, they provide significant value to their organizations. But even organizations practicing diversity-based recruiting don’t always succeed in creating an inclusive, welcoming culture that encourages retention.
“Diverse hiring practices don’t always translate into a more diverse workplace or improved employee retention,” wrote Zoe Mackey in her 2019 article, “Here’s How Workplace Diversity Impacts Employee Retention.” “Lack of alignment among goals is disillusioning to diverse employees, who come to regret their career decisions (after such a promising start during hiring) and end up leaving for better opportunities.”
If employees — particularly those from different cultural backgrounds — feel they are not adequately invested in or supported in their skills development, it may be because they aren’t. In a recent survey conducted by Wiley Education Services and Future Workplace,“Closing the Skills Gap 2019,” fewer than half of the 600 surveyed HR leaders reported spending $500 or more to upskill individual employees. And looking ahead, such minimal investment could prove even more troubling as demand for higher-order skills increases. A November 2019 article in ATD’s TD Magazine, “Future-Ready or Not?” noted, “McKinsey predicts that demand for social and emotional skills will grow by 26 percent by 2030 across all industries in the United States. Some of these skills (such as empathy) are innate, but individuals can hone or learn others (like advanced communication).”
By conducting an accurate assessment of development needs, especially for their diverse and foreign-born population, and ensuring that the right strategies and tools are in place to promote career growth, organizations can tackle the skills and retention challenge head-on. HR and L&D leaders will likely begin by considering what role communications coaching and language learning programs can play in helping to meet the development need. But first they should be clear — and aligned — on goals, determine what resources are available, assess the pros and cons of each option, and define the desired result.
A Higher Order of Challenges
There’s no question that meeting the basic language needs of multicultural employees is critical. Lacking confidence in their ability to communicate in English on par with colleagues — or at a level commensurate with their professional skills — some may become demotivated and start to withdraw. For these individuals who are dealing with needs that are primarily language-driven (accent, idiomatic language, vocabulary and grammar), ongoing, intensive ESL instruction, either in person or online, may make the most sense. Toward that end, group classes or an e-learning solution to develop language skills and literacy should be considered.
By contrast, many multicultural professionals will have had extensive language instruction throughout their education; their communications challenges may be based more in the norms and preferences of their cultural backgrounds. As they advance in their careers and seek roles requiring leadership and higher-level communications skills, their development needs will likely not be met by ESL or Business English programs. Instead, individual coaching support, geared toward developing leadership-level skills within an all-English speaking or American business context, is the best way to address typical concerns, such as:
- The hesitancy of some multicultural employees when it comes to letting their voices be heard.
- The difficulty of integrating across multicultural teams in the face of negative cultural stereotypes.
- The potential for misinterpretation or difficulty in understanding across languages and cultures.
- Uncertainty around professional etiquette norms.
- Conflicting working styles across diverse teams.
The following scenario is based on an actual coaching engagement. Sameer, a high-performing consulting professional originally from India, recently transferred to his firm’s Atlanta office and has been asked by his manager to take on a role that would include business development. Sameer is highly educated, with strong technical and analytical skills, and has spent enough time learning American idioms to figure out what “step up to the plate” means. But he is now faced with new assignments that require strong culturally informed communications capabilities, more nuanced and more complicated to master than language skills.
From networking and small talk to relationship-building and marketing calls, Sameer will need to gain fluency in business communications in order to succeed with clients. He’ll also have to figure out where his approach to communications may be at odds with that of the dominant culture, whether clients or colleagues, and to master appropriate, politically astute interaction.
A needs assessment of Sameer may include recognizing the influence of his normative values on his communications style; for example, what social psychologist and management professor Geert Hofstede calls the “power distance” factor, in which “the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.” Sameer feels he has a firm handle on how to interact with senior management, but they find him overly formal and sometimes too deferential, hampering his ability to build partnerships with firm leaders. And in his supervisory role, in which he provides direction to more junior employees (the “less powerful”), he displays a hierarchical mode of behavior that can come across as overly authoritative and even condescending, according to recent performance review feedback.
Addressing these needs will far exceed the scope of most ESL or Business English programs and merits an individualized approach commensurate with the level and demands of Sameer’s role. Careful selection of the right approach doesn’t just ensure alignment of the need and offering — it signals a strategic investment in an emerging leader and in important corporate goals such as succession planning and the future growth of the firm.
Understanding Multicultural Barriers
The potential challenges to advancement and professional success facing Sameer confront many up-and-coming multicultural professionals. There are a number of typical barriers.
One common barrier is understanding the corporate culture and how one’s culturally informed preferences and norms may differ in terms of both verbal and nonverbal communications. If these differences are not surfaced and addressed thoughtfully, communication breakdowns can result, eroding relationships with senior management, mentors, colleagues and direct reports. The multicultural employee gets demotivated, the environment feels less inclusive and, as this dynamic builds over time, the employee no longer feels they fit and may move on. As noted in a Hult International Business School blog, “13 Benefits and Challenges of Cultural Diversity in the Workplace,” “Colleagues from different cultures can also bring with them different workplace attitudes, values, behaviors and etiquette. Nonverbal communication is a delicate and nuanced part of cultural interaction that can lead to misunderstandings or even offense between team members from different countries.”
Another barrier is leveling the playing field and becoming competitive in a client-facing or senior role by developing a strong set of relationship-building skills, demonstrated by persuasive writing, influencing, vocal dexterity (especially when communicating remotely) and emotionally intelligent responsiveness, critical in high-stakes situations.
Imagine, for example, a high-performing multicultural manager unsure of whether it’s appropriate to speak up in a client meeting, or of how to interrupt respectfully to make a point. A coaching client recently shared his conundrum: “I don’t know which is worse: Do I try to chime in and interrupt and come off as too aggressive? Or do I stay quiet, knowing it’s inappropriate at my level not to contribute?” Lacking confidence in his ability to read the room and be seen as credible, he retreats, missing an important opportunity to benefit himself and his company. “The bottom line takes a hit when employees stop participating in group settings,” wrote Tsedal Neeley in “Global Business Speaks English,” published in 2012 in Harvard Business Review. “Once participation ebbs, processes fall apart. Companies miss out on new ideas that might have been generated in meetings.”
Another common hurdle is deepening one’s leadership presence by successfully mentoring and managing in ways that inspire and uplift individuals, teams and, ultimately, the overall workplace.
In Sameer’s case, the goals are retention, promotion and optimizing the employee experience for a multicultural employee, making coaching the right vehicle. If, however, the training goal is tied primarily to reducing inefficiency, improving quality of work product and reducing communication bottlenecks, the right choice would likely be a language-based solution, at least as a “Phase 1,” almost certainly followed down the road by a more in-depth “Phase 2.” And, as is often the case, the most successful coaching outcomes stem from involvement of the coachee’s mentors and managers. L&D can play a key role in making sure that management is on board and is given the tools to be more culturally aware, including an inclusive vocabulary with which to discuss and evaluate the skills, communications behavior and performance of multicultural employees.
Ensuring the right solution to help multicultural professionals meet advancement challenges starts with an understanding of the desired behavioral changes, an in-depth assessment of need and alignment of the approach with corporate L&D goals. Drawing on Kirkpatrick’s four levels of training evaluation, an L&D manager might explore a differentiated approach combining an ESL/Business English program and tailored one-on-one coaching (as described in “Meeting the Communications Need 1” below), depending on the mix of need and behavior change (Kirkpatrick’s level 3, behavior) identified, as well as the corporate goals and desired outcomes (level 4, results).
Meeting the Communications Need 1: Writing Skills
When focusing not only on multicultural employee development but on achieving critical D&I goals such as enhanced recruitment, reduced attrition and increased promotions, L&D teams can take a number of learning pathways. Here’s an example that achieved a firm’s dual goals: to better leverage senior staff by reducing their involvement in lower-level delegable work, and to boost advancement and promotion, especially at certain career levels.
A pharmaceutical company’s training team had determined that a high percentage of senior managers’ overtime hours were spent editing and quality-controlling the written work product of ESL employees. These employees, whose efforts were often eclipsed by those of colleagues proficient in written English, were promoted less frequently and sensed that the skills development key to their advancement was out of reach.
The company introduced a group writing program designed to enhance writing skills and enable participants to gain independence in report writing. The initiative incorporated individual sessions on effective writing methods, addressed grammar and syntax needs, and provided coaching support for individuals as well as group work. In a 12-month follow-up assessment of impact, the company determined that two weeks of FTE-equivalent hours per manager had been saved, in terms of reduced or eliminated re-work. In addition, several program participants went on to key roles the same year, outcomes that achieved behavior change based in functional skills acquisition and the larger corporate goal.
Meeting the Communications Need 2: Leadership Skills
In a case example highlighting a different need and approach, the HR and L&D teams of a Big 4 consulting firm determined, based on performance review feedback and exit interview data, that turnover of multicultural employees at managerial levels was largely due to lack of leadership communications skills, including supervisory abilities, client interaction skills and writing proficiency. This input prompted L&D leaders to introduce individualized cultural coaching programs focused on helping emerging managers to mentor and supervise junior employees and to communicate professionally in presentations and business writing. Two to three years into the initiative, turnover rates among multicultural program participants were tracked against same-level multicultural employees who did not receive coaching. All program participants were promoted on or before schedule, while the majority of nonparticipating peers showed no advancement or, even worse, attrition.
In this case, coaches equipped with the requisite skills to support multicultural leaders proved best-suited to ensure attainment of the higher-order skills associated with leadership and senior professional roles that rely on both intellectual capital and emotional IQ. The ROI of coaching speaks for itself: Training contributes directly to employee commitment, productivity and progress — and is therefore an important driver in reducing the high cost of turnover.
Arie de Geus, former CEO of Shell Oil Co., declared decades ago in Harvard Business Review article “Planning as Learning” that “the only competitive advantage the company of the future will have is its managers’ ability to learn faster than their competitors.” I would add that it is not only the ability to learn faster, but the ability to learn better that will truly distinguish successful organizations going forward.