The Glass-Ceiling for Non-Native English Speakers

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by Academic Committee 

Managers, recruiters, and applicants are aware that English proficiency is a critical factor for the professional advancement of individuals in virtually every industry, especially in business and management. Not speaking the language hinders employees at all levels to develop themselves fully and excludes them from a wide array of opportunities inside and outside their companies. English has such importance that employees who do not speak it are left in a stagnant position and are relegated and eventually replaced. However, a bias against non-native English speakers in the business and entrepreneurial world has become a more pervasive problem that has created a glass ceiling for a valuable segment of the workforce, and a non-native accent is one of the most prominent ways in which this challenge manifests.

Non-native English speakers can face communication and cultural barriers that might be difficult to overcome depending on the attitude and level of immersion with the language and culture. These barriers provide some insights regarding the existence of this glass-ceiling. For instance, they can face difficulties in interpersonal relationships with vital people, in negotiations and preliminary talks, and selling themselves and their ideas, among others. However, the problem has a more intricate background. Even though the degree of globalization the world experiments nowadays both in academics and business has triggered a steep increase in the number of highly-qualified workers non-native of the English language, they still face difficulties being promoted, finding executive-level jobs, and even obtaining funding for entrepreneurial ventures. Hence, there are also other roots to this problem that transcend communication and cultural barriers and even performance. These are more related to an implicit, subtle discrimination towards foreigners, and they have deep psychological and evolutionary roots which affect the foreign labor force at a macro level.

Laura Huang et al., (2013) explain this phenomenon and states that companies and venture capitalists are shifting away their focus from the quality of entrepreneurs’ and workers’ ideas and knowledge to the quality of their English. However, she concludes that even though communication per se is not a significant factor causing the glass ceiling, political skill is. Ferris et al. (2005) define political skill as the ability of an individual to change his or her behavior according to the situational demands to influence or control other’s responses. An important aspect of political skill is that it expresses sincerity, which allows the person to hide ulterior motives. Furthermore, according to Ferris, it is independent of general mental ability but related to personality traits. Although a non-native accent can undermine opportunities for promotion, lower political skills provide a better explanation to the glass-ceiling problem since it is an essential skill for executives.

The existence of this bias against non-native English speakers poses some problems for the labor force, regulators, and also for companies. The most visible problem is the limited opportunities for professional advancement this segment of the population has despite their intelligence and performance. Moreover, regulators might have to establish stricter policies regarding the hiring of foreigners. Besides, due to the changing dynamics of the labor force, it creates tension for companies related to the recruitment of either national applicants with excellent political skills but lower expertise or foreign applicants with lower political skills but greater expertise. This tradeoff can significantly affect their organizational culture and profitability.

Professor Huang presents two possible solutions to this problem. The first one consists of training to help non-native English speakers develop an accent more in tune to the standard and requirements of their society, Nevertheless, this solution might not be as effective due to the difficulty in changing a person’s accent, especially at an older age. The other solution entails directly addressing this bias and the implicit assumptions related to it during interviews or job-seeking activities and taking advantage of opportunities to demonstrate high political skills despite a foreign accent.

The bias against non-native speakers, and the glass-ceiling it creates, poses difficult challenges for knowledgeable professionals, as well as for companies and regulators. This bias has deep roots beyond communication and performance issues, which makes it difficult to solve shortly. Political skill is one of the factors that best explain the problem. Hence, accent-reduction training and demonstration of political skills are possible solutions at a personal level to help mitigate the problem and increase professional opportunities within the labor force.

References

Ferris, G. R., Treadway, D. C., Kolodinsky, R. W., Hochwater, W. A., Kacmar, W. A., Douglas, C., & Frink, D. D. (2005). Development and Validation of the Political Skill Inventory. Journal of Management, 31(1), 126-152. doi:10.1177/0149206304271386

Huang, L., Frideger, M., & Pearce, J.L. (2013). Political Skill: Explaining the Effects of Nonnative Accent on Managerial Hiring and Entrepreneurial Investment Decisions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98(6), 1005-1017. doi:10.1037/a0034125

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