Communication is essential to smooth and successful working relationships. You could argue that it is the key ingredient to succeeding in a professional environment. It isn’t always what you know, but how you convey your ideas and beliefs that can propel a career forward.
So it should come as no surprise that non-native workers — whether remote freelancers or permanent employees — operate under an invisible glass ceiling that doesn’t exist for native speakers. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on native English speakers, encompassing the U.S., UK and any country where English, in some form, is the majority or de-facto language of the business and entrepreneurial communities.
Although it is illegal in many of these English speaking countries to discriminate on grounds of national origin, and the languages people speak (along with race, gender, age, and numerous other things), this doesn’t prevent unconscious bias on the part of native speakers.
In this article, we will cover what this means, how it impacts native and non-native workers and managers, and how both can work together to overcome the invisible language glass ceiling.
The glass ceiling effect
When working with a remote team, open, honest and shared communication is an essential part of the process for managers and freelancers or employees. Working effectively is more challenging when people don’t communicate often enough, clearly enough or with an openness that makes it easier for everyone to trust one another.
Unfortunately, this is where the glass ceiling effect kicks in for non-native speakers.
If two or more on a team speak the same language fluently, as native speakers, then communication is simple and natural between them. That primary language doesn’t need to be English.
But when a manager speaks English (with native fluency) and a remote worker does not, then the glass ceiling could put the working relationship at risk.
In practice, this might mean the manager may prefer a native speaker on a future project. Or trust a native speaker — or someone with more proficient language fluency — in a managerial role over someone without the same level of language skills.
Cost savings and other benefits might encourage the client or manager to keep working with non-native employees or contractors. However, they might not get the pick of the best projects. They could be sidelined for a local team, or the working relationship could be more difficult as both sides try to find common ground and overcome the language and cultural barriers.
Native speaking managers often work on the assumption that non-native workers aren’t as skilled and qualified.Click to tweet
Even when someone demonstrates the skills and experiences necessary, studies show that non-native workers are more likely to be passed over for managerial roles if there is an equally qualified native speaker going for the same position. According to a Harvard Business Review study, “native speakers were, on average, 16% likelier to be recommended for” managerial roles.
In another HBR study, a funding pitched was judged on whether entrepreneurs appeared to have accents, political skills, communication skills, and collaboration skills. Those watching weren’t told the outcome of the funding pitches. The results showed that speakers without accents “were, on average, 23% likelier to have gotten funding.”
Paul Graham, Co-founder of Y Combinator, in an interview, amplified this inherent bias in the startup community:
There are a bunch of subtle things entrepreneurs have to communicate and [you] can’t [do that] if you have a strong accent.Click to tweet
“One quality that’s a really bad indication is a CEO with a strong foreign accent,” Graham said in an Inc. magazine interview.
It comes down to political skills. Language fluency makes it easier — when communicating with native speakers — to perceive, understand and influence others. Managers and team leaders need those skills. You need those skills when working with clients.
This glass ceiling reduces the number and quality of job opportunities, career advancement, and the ability for entrepreneurs to raise funding for startups.
Let’s take a look at how both native speaking managers and non-native developers can work together to overcome this barrier and break the glass ceiling.
5 ways remote managers can work with non-native remote teams
#1: Reach out
Before launching into a project, take time to get to know your team. Ask them questions. Master effective chat and phone techniques and talk to them. It will give you a chance as a manager to gauge communication proficiency early on. Not only will this start to build trust, but getting a sense of skills, experiences and language abilities makes it easier for managers when communicating with team members during a project.
This way, when speaking with team members and sending emails, you can more accurately assess whether someone has understood something. When they understand something quicker, they can ask the right questions and both sides can get closer to the target outcomes and outputs.
#2: Don’t assume or make snap judgements
One reason for the unconscious bias when working with non-native speakers is the assumption that they aren’t as qualified and therefore don’t know what they’re doing. Even if they are experts with years of experience, a lack of fluency is mistaken — usually on a subconscious level — for a lack of skills, or poor political and therefore communication proficiency.
For example, if a non-native developer has missed a crucial point in an email, Slack message or Skype call. Missing a detail is often seen as an example of weak skills or abilities, rather than not understanding subtle language details, words and phrases that a native speaker would spot.
#3: Recognize and acknowledge improvements
Part of these assumptions often overlook when a non-native speaker has made noticeable improvements.
On the part of the manager, some effort is needed to encourage and support improvements in language and communication skills. If nothing has been said prior to an improvement being made, a manager might need to be politically astute enough not to mention an improvement. It could cause embarrassment.
#4: Know the law
When employees are working on-site, health and safety law in the U.S. requires that employees are given health and safety training in their native language.
Other laws, focusing on discrimination, in the U.S., UK
#5: Listen for cues
When you’ve got employees or contractors on-site, body language cues are easier to spot. So a manager needs to work harder when communicating with remote non-native team members. Try not to read too much into the tone of a message or email. Often, especially when communicating with non-native team members, mistakes can be made. Ask for as much openness and honesty as they’re happy to give. Try to do the same and do your best to make sure that neither party is in the dark about what the other means.
Next, we will look at the other side of the table. For non-native workers — whether salaried or freelance, there are numerous ways you can work more effectively with managers. This process works both ways. It requires give and take on both sides, and crucially, proficient listening skills so that you find the best ways to communicate with one another.
5 ways non-native developers can crack the glass ceiling
#1: Use slides
Use slides to illustrate a point. Even if your language skills lack behind your coding skills, visual and diagrammatic displays are one of the most effective ways to get a point across. One that maybe you can’t express as easily in English. Work in the assumption that your slides are going to be more easily understood than what you say — if your English skills are still fairly basic — so be visual with these sides and illustrate what you mean.
As a developer, reading programming documentation, you are going to encounter a lot of English words on a daily basis. All of this will help you learn to become more proficient, which is what you need because to be understood in daily life, only 850 words are needed in English, in most everyday situations.
#2: Ask questions
A gold rule, when working with native speakers, is to ask questions when you aren’t sure about something. Never assume.
A manager or client would rather you ask an extra question or two than make an assumption that turns out to be incorrect and produce work that either isn’t needed, or someone else has already done, or is simply completely wrong and delays a project.
#3: Listen carefully
Words and phrases sound different depending on the native language of the speaker and the listener. Beyond that, words and phrases can sound different depending on where someone is from. Regional variances in accents and what people mean are quite dramatic. Even in relatively mid-sized countries, such as the UK, there are hundreds of regional variables that can sound odd to a non-native speaker.
Listening skills when working with native speakers are as important as your ability to communicate and ask questions.
#4: Break the ice
When starting to work with a new manager or client, find ways to break the ice and break through cultural and language barriers.
Tell personal stories, find common ground, share memes, share cultural observations; find something you have in common, you can talk about that isn’t work. It will make communicating far easier.
#5: Communicate clearly
And crucially, always communicate clearly when sending emails, messages and talking with clients and managers. If in doubt, ask more questions. Run emails and other messages through language and spell-check programs whenever possible, to make sure something comes out as clearly as possible in English.
Find ways to work on your language skills and proficiency, which could mean anything from binge-watching US or British TV series on Netflix and Amazon Prime, or taking online or in-person language classes😉.
Over to you
Non-native speaking developers do face an unfortunate and fairly ingrained bias against those without the relevant language skills. But these can be overcome.
Both managers and developers can work on their listening and communication skills to overcome this bias and break the glass ceiling. Language skills, like developer abilities, improve with time and work. Give each other time to understand one another and overcome this bias, to improve project outcomes and teamwork.
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