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A filing cabinet drawer with folders labeled Benefits Options, Dress Code, Harassment Policy, and Employee HandbookDo you have an international workforce and are wondering which HR documents need to be translated? Whether your company is opening stores outside of the US or you have US-based employees with limited English proficiency, translating your HR assets is often good business sense. If you find that your budget will limit how many of these assets you can have translated, deciding which ones doesn’t have to be a shot in the dark. In this post we’ll look at both an HR and legal perspective on how to determine which HR documents need to be translated.

Language Laws

If your US-based company is opening stores in other countries, Donald C. Dowling, Jr., of New York-based international law firm White & Case LLP, explains that many foreign countries have workplace language laws. In the Canadian province of Québec, for example, all businesses are required to provide written employee communications and schedules in French and must ensure that employees have a good working knowledge of the French language. We’ve worked with companies on their francization process, which involves translating all internal assets with which employees in Québec will interact.

Dowling goes on to list 4 “tiers” of workplace language laws based on strictness, from laws that require the provision of company documents in the country’s official language to countries with no formal language laws in place. Countries in the first tier, with explicit laws around the language of internal corporate communications, are the exception and not the rule. The last tier, however, is still classified as “hostile reception in local proceedings.” Given Dowling’s use of the word “hostile,” we can gather that providing HR documents and other employee materials only in English where the majority of staff are not native English speakers may not be looked upon positively.

Observing Outcomes

Dowling also points out that “beyond legal compliance comes the problem that untranslated employee communications raise human resources and business issues.” As we’ve written many times regarding healthcare communications, providing translations to individuals with limited English proficiency, even if it is not required by law, has been shown to result in more positive health outcomes for that population. Dowling argues that “English is not quite the lingua franca of international business that Americans think it is.” And while this may have changed a bit since he wrote that in 2011, he also makes the still-true point that “most people on Earth do not speak [English].”

Like with any project, it pays to do your research ahead of time. Is English widely used by industry professionals in the country where your new office is located? If so, are there laws against providing employee communications that are not in the country’s official language? Once you’ve answered these questions you can decide whether seeking translation services makes sense for you and your colleagues.

Deciding Which HR Documents Need to be Translated

An employment contractIf you only have employees based in the US but some or all of them speak a language other than English, California employment lawyer Kevin Rivera references applicable laws and past lawsuits to recommend which HR documents need to be translated. He makes some interesting points about the validity of signed documents such as Acknowledgements of Receipt, Non-Compete Agreements or Nondisclosure Agreements. According to Rivera, “case law… is nearly unanimous that employers cannot enforce arbitration agreements written in English against employees who have little proficiency in English.” He writes that the same is true for confidentiality and severance agreements.

In light of these facts, as well as applicable laws, Rivera breaks HR documents into 2 categories: must translate and should translate. The reasons behind his should translate list is based on heavy litigation in California, so if you are in another state the same logic may not apply. When you look at the 3 items he lists as “should translate,” however, reasons to translate them other than lawsuits in your state are evident:

  1. Employment at-will
  2. Meal and rest breaks
  3. Reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities

All three of these items have the potential to affect both quality of life and job performance.Two binders labeled Procedure and Policies sitting on top of an office organizational chart

Rivera’s “must translate” items are:

  1. Policy against harassment, discrimination and retaliation (including investigation and complaint procedures)
  2. Family and medical leave (only applicable to employers with 50+ employees)
  3. Reasonable accommodation for employees disabled by pregnancy, pregnancy disability leave or transfer

Rivera explains that legally, these must be translated if 10% or more of your workforce speaks a language other than English. Given the importance of these policies, however, it is not surprising that Rivera recommends putting these on the “should translate” list even if less than 10% of your workforce speaks a language other than English.

Final Thoughts

A man touches an icon labeled HR on a touch screen, which is surrounded by other icons of people, a clock, a bullseye, a document, a magnifying glass, a notebook, and a lightbulbRegardless of where your employees live or what language they speak, providing translations can increase employee engagement and satisfaction. As Dori Meinert writes in HR Magazine, connecting with employees in their native language can cultivate loyalty, productivity and happiness.

If you have an international workforce, you may want, or even need, to consider which HR documents need to be translated. We’d love the opportunity to help you determine what that might look like and we have experienced HR teams to get the job done. Give us a call or send us a message to get started!

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