"I hope he just said ‘focus’ because it sure sounded like %?!# &$”
Have you ever had to do a double-take when listening to a presenter with a heavy accent? Ever felt anxious during a conversation with a colleague because you only understood about half of what that person was saying?
If you find situations like these stressful, imagine how the person with the accent is feeling – looking into the eyes of someone who is quietly panicking because they are struggling to understand your English. This isn’t an occasional experience for people with heavy accents. It’s every time they speak. For many people whose first language is not English, searching for the right words and knowing that the pronunciation may be difficult for their colleagues to understand is unnerving. It’s exhausting.
A slight adjustment to a vowel sound and innocuous words like focus, sheets, peanuts, and beach can suddenly become offensive as they’re misheard by a manager or client. It may be amusing to us, but it can strike terror into the heart of a non-native English speaker.
Accent and workplace communication barriers
These are some of the best and the brightest employees and subject matter experts in our organizations but we rarely get to witness their full contributions because we tell them how difficult they are to understand, or we interrupt them before they can translate and articulate a point, or we vaguely say “uh-huh” on the other end of the line. Before long, they’re repeating themselves out of habit, falling silent in meetings, or not volunteering for presentations.
People with heavy accents know when we don’t understand them. We’re not fooling anyone with our polite nodding. Their struggle to speak English clearly impacts their confidence, engagement at work, and what they can offer the team.
It’s all so unnecessary and completely fixable.
It’s fixable because there are services available specifically designed to help employees speak English clearly in any situation and allow them to reach their full potential within the company. So why are these services so under-utilized? Ignorance and misguided niceness.
Often, employers don’t know exactly how to address the problem. They may suggest a course in public speaking, hoping that will somehow clear things up. You can teach someone to speak in front of a room full of people all day long, but if they struggle to speak English clearly, it won’t fix their specific communication problem.
Other employers aren’t sure how to approach the subject for fear of embarrassing or offending the employee or because they fear it might be perceived as discrimination. With regard to the latter, discrimination is only a potential concern if an employer has taken an adverse action against an employee based on the employee’s accent or command of English. With respect to embarrassment or offense, odds are, these employees would appreciate English pronunciation training but don’t know how to bring it up to their employer. Either way, it becomes the elephant in the room that nobody is sure how to acknowledge.
How can companies solve this?
Ask. Create a survey with possible professional development options, one of which is improving English communication skills. Offering it alongside other common training courses normalizes it so it can be discussed openly.
So why don’t we just muddle through like we’ve always done? Because there are good business reasons to tackle this problem. Research shows that ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform their peers. However, having a diverse workforce is only half the formula for success. Having strong, open communication is the other half. Being able to support strong communication in all its forms should be a priority.
Top performing companies are not only diverse but also encourage open communication. They leverage employees’ diverse backgrounds to drive value and achieve better business results. These “inclusive” organizations are three times more likely to identify and build leaders. Because they value open communication, they are open about where employees can improve performance. They encourage employees to ask for coaching and continuous improvement. This results in employees feeling valued, involved, respected and connected.
Shouldn’t employees who struggle to speak clear, easy-to-understand English be encouraged to ask for the coaching they need to support their growth in the organization? By helping to remove language barriers, employers unlock a whole new level of potential from their talented employees — who happen to not be native English speakers. We all gain when communication skills improve and lose when it’s never brought up.
Want to learn more about English pronunciation training for your organization?
Pronounced Success can help.