Diversity management: languages and accents in the workplace

Job mobility within the European Union is fairly easy: there is no paperwork involved and there is plenty of information available to help you with the decision. The European Job Mobility Portal contains lots of helpful information, including not only labor market conditions but also a broad range of practical information, covering topics such us housing, tax implications, healthcare systems…  No doubt this represents a major advantage for European citizens, particularly if you compare the situation with other regions in the world. The real challenge in this open environment is to have some basic knowledge of the language spoken in the country you are considering moving to.

Around 600 hours seem to be needed to learn a new language with a level of difficulty similar to your native one (that’s definitely the case for the vast majority of the European languages). This is the estimation of the US Foreign Learning Institute after years of experience and research. Living outside is the best way to accelerate this learning process, mainly if you are already at a basic or intermediate level. The experience of living abroad has many other advantages. One of great interest is the fact that  it fosters creativity, an asset highly appreciate by companies as a precursor of their deadly needed innovation. It is important to say though that this enhancement of creativity comes only for individuals with a demonstrated an intrinsic interest and openness to the cultures they encounter. This includes also a strong correlation with learning the local language so… forget about being an isolated expat .

There is always a dark side and the one of working abroad it is the difficulty to have a “career” beyond your landing job. There is a lot of research on the correlation between accent and stereotypes. It is fascinating for example to see how accents affect our perception of service quality or how some accents seem to “perform” better during job applications (you’d better have a French one than a Japanese one). The critical thing is that we are not talking only about prejudice by association of accent and ethnic origin. It seems to be deeper than that, something that affects our way of processing information: it requires extra effort to understand a foreign person and that make us trust less the speaker.

For any of us who have to perform regularly in a different language, it is very clear how this affect our professional skills. You feel less comfortable, less dynamic and quick, less accurate in your statements … In summary, you look less yourself. And this only gets worst if you end in an emotionally charged situation: a difficult negotiation, a strong disagreement or a controversial topic.

With or without a direct experience of living abroad, our professional experiences are becoming more multilingual. It is quite uncommon to remain purely “local” in the global business environment. As most of the companies centralize or regionalize some shared services, you end sooner or later expose to different English accents and languages. This new reality goes beyond the traditional approach to multicultural management as it doesn’t relate only to cultural values but to perceptions of competence and pure ability to fully perform under pressure. It is therefore at the core of our global talent management processes.

About Uxío Malvido

Spanish; based in Paris; working across Europe on Diversity and Inclusion issues.
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