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Recruiting & Hiring

Hiring Decisions: The Language Dilemma

POSTED 11/25/2015
By Arielle Dollinger

Susan Erdmann grew up in Frankfurt, Germany. A decade ago, she moved to Norway — a country whose immigrants, Erdmann said, often learn the native tongue for free — and began the job search. 

As an immigrant to the country, she “was very eager to learn” the language — “the key to having some sort of social life that isn’t within an expatriate bubble.”

Norwegian lessons were also one condition of her employment.

When making hiring decisions for companies that span states, countries, or continents, an employer has a choice: look for a candidate who speaks a certain language and meets all other requirements, or look for a candidate who meets all requirements but the language one.

Because of her fluency in German, Erdmann completed language training over the course of two years — half a year spent in a large class, and the remainder spent in a class of five or six students — instead of the usual three.

She took classes at night, twice a week with assignments in between.

“I think the employer has to have reasonable expectations as to what kind of competence an adult is going to be able to master in two or three years, when they’re also working a job,” Erdmann said. “But, as long as those expectations are in line with what’s possible, it’s a win-win.”

For employers, Erdmann said, to hire someone who does not yet speak a second language should not be seen as a hinderance.

“Having a diverse workforce is a good thing in and of itself,” she said.

Eric Ebert, a 35-year-old Minnesota native, moved to Germany in 2006 after stints in Hawaii and New York.

His first job in Germany allowed him to speak English, but his boss told him he needed to learn German to feel comfortable in the country.

Ebert started with private lessons, the cost covered by his employer, and then switched schools in search of a group environment. His first school was “pretty intense,” he said.

“It’s one-on-one and I didn’t speak a word of the language,” Ebert said. “They don’t speak English ever.”

Ebert, now fluent in German, has since moved to a new job in a German-speaking office. Part of learning to speak German was about his personal life, as well, Ebert said — if one is unhappy in his or her personal life, he said, work will not be a positive experience either.

From a professional standpoint, Ebert said that the skill was worth the cost for him.

The first office was small. Ebert was the only English-speaking employee there. Interactions with fellow employees did not really begin until after he had spent three or four months studying the language they spoke.

“It makes everybody a little bit more at ease,” he said of everyone in an office speaking the same language. “To feel included is important.”

From his current employer’s standpoint, Ebert said, to have an American on the team was exciting. The company was trying to enter the United States market — it did not work out — but ended up pivoting into such countries as Italy and Spain.

That employer, Peter Oehler, said that he was looking for someone who had the language skills as well as the cultural understanding of the United States and an understanding of the company.

“The language skills that he brought with him from  his ex-employer helped him and us make a seamless transition into our daily work,” Oehler said.

The company would consider offering language training to a potential employee, but only “if they checked all the right boxes” in other areas, he said. Making hiring decisions for the company involves looking at how well a candidate can fit into the team and how effectively that candidate can communicate with team members, he said.

Sometimes, the company will look to hire an outside translator.

“If we’re going to have a long term relationship with the country or language, then it makes sense to hire someone that can speak the language, such as the US,” Oehler said in an email. “If it is just to translate a product description, then we would use a translator because there are less long term costs. Contracted employees can be pretty expensive in Europe and represent a significant expenditure for companies.”

In an effort to better-position the company internationally, it translated the program Lookeen into Spanish, French, Japanese, Russian Portuguese and Polish — each via translator — Oehler said.

Training in non-spoken languages is also a possibility. Eric has the opportunity to take computer programming classes, paid for by the company, as do company interns and full-time employees.

“We have a lot of students that do their internships here and we help them learn different aspects of software development, as well as the business side of selling software,” Oehler said. “We thought that it would be a great idea to offer these teachable skills to our full-time employees as well.”

According to Oehler, the company has seen great rewards from both business and personal standpoints.

As Oehler mentioned, a candidate’s skillset outside of the language is important. That skillset overshadows a language barrier, which a candidate can overcome through training.

Alison Pepper has been hiring for CBS News news magazine show 60 Minutes since 2004. The search for new hires is, more than anything, a search for “reporters.”

“We want reporters, we want storytellers,” Pepper said during a phone interview. “If you can speak another language, that’s great… but it’s not a prerequisite.”

The show has had staff members who wanted to go back to school for Masters degrees or make other efforts to further their education, she said; but the company supports those efforts rather than initiating them.

When hiring, Pepper said, it is important to fully understand the company’s mission.

“You should just really know the place that you’re hiring for well in order to be able to hire well for it,” she said.

Currently, the show has an Iraqi refugee working as a broadcast associate; an NYPD investigator came on as a producer; there have been lawyers, business people, veterans. If a hire does speak a second language, the company will make use of it, Pepper said; but 60 Minutes hiring decisions are not based on language.

“The reality is that we cover the world,” Pepper said of 60 Minutes. “So the more experience that you have in it, either as a reporter or as just a regular human being, the better off you’re going to be.”

Jagged Edge Media JAcom Consultants