How to Hire for Language-Skilled Talent

Hiring top-notch people is important for any business. But when you’re opening an office in another country and plan to manage people from a distance, the stakes are even higher. Add a foreign language into the mix, one that no one at your company speaks. Suddenly, hiring a team for your new international office can snowball into a daunting and potentially risky undertaking.

Here are some tips for hiring language-skilled talent, no matter the language in question, and no matter where they are based in the world.

Clarify how they’ll use the language

Why exactly do you need someone who speaks this language? If this a replica of a job that already exists, think about how people communicate in this job today. Chances are, if you need someone who speaks another language, they will be in a customer-facing role of some sort, such as sales, services, support, or finance. If not, they might be working in marketing, but will be dealing with vendors in another language, or producing content and communications in that language.

As you create the job description, think through all of the types of communication that this person will be engaging in. This will tell you whether you need to screen them simply for language comprehension, for spoken language skills, or for written language skills. If you need someone who can write in another language, especially for anything that will be published, just remember that the bar should be very high. Excellent writing skills are not common, so don’t make the mistake of assuming that just because someone speaks a language well that they’re also a good writer in that language.

Look for people educated in the language

No matter what language skills they need, your best bet for finding someone who is highly proficient in a language is to quickly scan their resume. Where did they attend school? In which country did they receive the majority of their education?

If they attended school for 12 years in a French-speaking country, it’s almost a guarantee that they will have spoken and written French proficiency. If they only spent a year living abroad, think twice — they might be able to get along with spoken French, but are unlikely to have strong written skills, or even fluent spoken skills. If they obtained an advanced or graduate degree in another language, chances are that their proficiency is strong in all areas.

Candidates who have simply studied a language notoriously overestimate their language capabilities, usually listing “languages” alongside “computer skills” at the bottom of their resume, without providing the hiring manager with any detail about how well they speak, read, or write in that language. If it isn’t immediately clear from their resume that they received education in another country, you’ll need to drill into this further.

Conversely, candidates who were educated in another country often focus more on proving that they have strong English skills and will often underplay their native language, viewing it more as a negative than a positive on their profile. Sometimes, they won’t even mention their native fluency in another language, unless it is specifically requested for the job in question.

Think twice about heritage speakers

Many candidates seeking a job will say that they speak a language, and that the language is in fact their mother tongue. They’re not being dishonest — your mother tongue is the first language you learn, usually taught to you by one or more parent. However, your mother tongue is not necessarily your best language for business. It’s very common for heritage speakers, people who learned a language from their parents or grandparents, to believe they are qualified to use a given language in professional settings, even when they’ve never actually done so before.

However, they are unlikely to be proficient enough in such a language to use it in a business setting. Unless their heritage learning was accompanied by formal classroom instruction, time spent abroad actually enrolled in educational programs, or unless they have already been using their language skills in a business setting, they are likely to have difficulty using their language skills for a work environment.

Having heritage speakers in roles where they are using their “mother tongue” but don’t actually have full working proficiency of a given language is a very common phenomenon, one that managers often aren’t even aware of. The employee’s spoken proficiency might sound “native” to someone who isn’t fluent in the language, but the customer can definitely tell the difference, and especially when it comes to written communications where their limitations are nearly always revealed.

This isn’t to say that heritage speakers can never be valuable. For example, if they already know your business very well, they might be a good bet versus training a new person from scratch. However, you should be clear about what their abilities are and aren’t, so that you can supplement their language skills as needed depending on the role they are in.

Don’t let fluent English sway you

It’s easy to be impressed by someone with good spoken language skills in English. You might think you’ve hit the jackpot where communication is concerned. But all too often, hiring managers become so impressed with candidates who speak English with a minimal accent that this can sway them and cause them to forget about some of the most important skills they are hiring for.

If a candidate will be using the other language for the majority of their job, English skills matter less. Remind yourself, when interviewing, not to let accent-free speech sway you toward a candidate whom you would otherwise normally not hire.

Leverage native speakers

If you don’t speak the language yourself, always have a native speaker screen the candidate in the language they’ll be using. If you don’t have anyone who speaks the language internally, consider alternative sources. Do you have a partner in your network, or even a customer, who could talk to the candidate in that language? If not, do you work with a vendor, an agency, or a recruiting firm who has people who speak the language?

When you don’t have anyone at all in your network who can speak the language, this could be a warning sign that you’re hiring too soon for the language in question. If you don’t have a single customer or partner who speaks the language, consider whether you really need someone full-time for this language yet.

But if the timing is indeed right and you definitely need to hire for this language, another alternative to consider is language proficiency testing. Companies like Language Testing International offer third-party, objective language proficiency testing for a fee. They can assess candidates on spoken language skills, as well as written language skills, and these are tested separately. Language testing will add slightly to the recruiting costs, but for such an important hiring decision, the small fee may be well worth it.

Translate work materials in advance

Don’t ask your language-skilled employees to translate. Not only is it a poor use of their time, but it usually results in sloppy copy, mistranslations, errors, and a great deal of other problems that won’t reflect well on your brand. These mistakes are costly to fix later on — if in fact they ever do get fixed. Often, the work these non-translators do as a “side project” never gets reviewed or updated, reflecting poorly on your company.

Bilinguals aren’t the same as translators, just like playing the piano doesn’t mean a person is a concert pianist. Translation is best left to professionals, so send the translation work to freelance translators or a reputable agency. Give your employees the tools they need to do their job from day one, in the language they require, instead of asking them to start work by creating the tools they need before they can become truly productive.

Remember also to factor in the lost productivity for language-skilled employees who are asked to translate on top of their day job. This is particularly counter-productive when it comes to sales and marketing professionals, who are often the ones who get asked to do “volunteer” translation work. Salespeople should be selling. Marketers should be generating demand. Every hour they spend translating is an hour of missed revenue or lead flow. Make sure you don’t blindly penny-pinch on translation when you could actually be incurring a far higher opportunity cost.

Keep the bar high for international hiring

Lastly, as you focus on hiring language-skilled individuals, make sure you don’t dilute your attention on all of the other attributes you typically look for when finding A players for your company. Perhaps most importantly, don’t neglect culture fit just because you find the “perfect” candidate who also happens to speak a language.

It’s easy for a hiring manager or team to rush into a hiring decision, especially when you’re concerned about getting the language right. To help prevent this, consider having someone outside your core team interview the candidate strictly from a culture fit perspective. Use them as a check and balance to ensure that “language fit” is just one of the attributes you’re using when making these important decisions.

Nataly Kelly

Nataly leads international operations and strategy at HubSpot and has previously held diverse roles leading marketing, research, product development, and localization. She writes for Harvard Business Review on topics of international marketing and business. Nataly grew up in rural Illinois, lives in Boston, and has visited 44 countries (so far).

One comment

  • All very real and valid points, Nataly. I worked at an international banking agency in Miami in the late 80’s early 90’s and the number of heritage speakers who could not read or write in Spanish but still called themselves “fully bilingual” was shocking. Great guidelines. Thank you.

    Like

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