Friday, 3 January 2014

Telling the Bad News to Your Employee (Via an Interpreter)

It is a challenge for some employers to communicate with their non-English speaking employees on a day-to-day basis. Because of the language barrier, explaining the company's policy and procedures or giving simple instructions sometimes require a bit more effort. Yet, most of the time everyone seems to be coping well in everyday conversations and get the message across despite perhaps some little misunderstandings.

However, there are situations, where you want to be 100% sure that you know exactly what your employee is telling you and vice versa. These include all types of formal meetings, especially disciplinary hearings or redundancy consultations, when it is absolutely essential that there is no confusion as to what is being said.

Telling your employee the bad news is a very unpleasant and stressful moment for both you and your worker. It is essential to use the right wording and be precise as to why you are letting them go. If you want to make sure that your non-English speaking employee understands why they were dismissed or made redundant or what they are expected to do, enable them to hear your message in their native language. Otherwise, they may misunderstand what your intentions are and feel unfairly treated or even discriminated against. 

Although you are not legally obliged to provide an interpreter during formal meetings with your employees, it is a wise thing to do, since it might prevent from any legal issues that could arise if anything goes wrong. It is also a way to prove you have taken the necessary measures to assist your employee in this difficult and stressful moment.

Moreover, being unable to understand what is being said during a formal meeting may aggravate an already tense atmosphere and lead to unnecessary arguments or bursts of anger in the meeting room. A sensible thing to do to avoid this would be to provide an independent, professional interpreter who will act objectively and ease off the tension caused by lack of understanding.

Giving your employee a chance to speak during a meeting is a crucial part of the discussion process. Equally, it is the most stressful moment for the worker, when emotions take over and it is difficult to find exact words to express themselves. This is particularly challenging when they need to speak in a foreign language. Stress and pressure add up to already uncomfortable circumstances and this leads to situations where employees are unable to speak in an understandable manner, and put their thoughts into words. 

Sometimes employers have no other choice but to discontinue the meeting due to lack of mutual understanding. This, however, turns out to be costly and delays the whole process, which means a lot of your time will be wasted. Doing it right the first time will save you time, money and unnecessary stress.

Although law does not set out clear rules on how to carry out e.g. disciplinary meetings, employers are required to make sure they act impartially and fairly. In order to ensure just treatment of employees during a disciplinary investigation or dismissal process, employers are encouraged to follow the rules laid out in the ACAS Code of Practice. One of the rules states, “The employee should have a reasonable opportunity to ask questions, present evidence, call relevant witnesses and raise points about any information provided by witnesses.” It is worth noting that “a reasonable opportunity” for an employee with a limited command of English would mean enabling them to speak in their native language because  this is when they can fully and properly express themselves and feel more comfortable with.

ACAS also advises employers to “Involve employees and/or their representatives in developing any new disciplinary procedures, and make sure the procedures are transparent and accessible to employees.” Again, presenting the procedures to your employee in their first language will be a clear sign that, as an employer, you are taking the necessary steps to make them “transparent” and “accessible”.

Similarly, when it comes to providing written notifications, letters or decisions, it is also important that they are fully understandable to your employee. Unfortunately, non-English speakers might find formal language too difficult to comprehend, especially if the letter contains legal, technical or other complex concepts.

One of my long-term clients - a company in Dorset was forced to select a few employees for redundancy. One of the chosen workers was Polish. They held a few consultation meetings with their employees making sure that the redundancy process is transparent and fair to everyone involved. When it came to the final meeting when a decision was announced it turned out that the Polish employee had a very vague idea of what was going on and when he heard that he had been made redundant, he was shocked. Despite detailed explanations and a long discussion, he still did not understand why he was chosen for redundancy. Only then, the general manager decided that any further discussions were pointless until a professional interpreter was called in. 

The company contacted me and asked if I could interpret during the consultations. Needless to say, they have to run the redundancy process all over again, this time with my assistance. Although the outcome of the meetings was successful, the company lost initially plenty of time and money by not doing it right the first time. Now that they learnt from their mistake, they use an interpreter at every formal meeting with their non-English speaking employees.

Another company in Weymouth was very pleased that they hired a professional the first time they held a disciplinary hearing. It appeared that during the disciplinary investigation there was confusion between two terms: “tin foil” and “plastic bag” that, perhaps surprisingly, were of importance to the investigation. This was just one of the misunderstandings which occurred during the process and were successfully clarified by the interpreter.

Giving your employee a chance to go through the procedures in their first language will not only save you time, money and any further problems - if meetings need to be discontinued or delayed - but it will also clearly show that you are taking steps to make the whole process transparent and fair to your non-English speaking employee.

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