Improving Workplace English: The Competitive Advantage


It is common knowledge, thanks to a pool of research, that there is a positive relationship between wealth and countries with high levels of English proficiency. The clear relationship between English fluency and individual earning power is less well-known. While governments around the world are promoting English for schools, many companies and individuals are left to invest in their own language training. Gaps in workforce English proficiency are left open.

Harvard Business Review completed a global study of workforce English in 2016. The thorough study surveyed 510,000 professionals across 16 industries (including Banking and Finance, Aviation and Information Technology) in 40 countries worldwide. They aimed to find out how large the English skill gaps are between countries and industries. The results illuminate the potential for competitive advantage.

Executives Who Speak English are Rare and Valuable

The report found that executives generally have lower English proficiency than the managers they supervise. Even the English of junior staff surpasses executives. This reflects generational differences, and also suggests non-English-speaking executives may have trouble communicating in the increasingly English environments of business.

Meetings, detailed reports, even emails and teams who need a lingua franca would be impacted by a leader’s inability to completely grasp English. Companies would improve if executives’ English were as good as their staff. An executive unwilling to learn English is unable to stand apart from other executives internationally and is not setting a leadership example that their company needs.

Gaping Opportunities in All Industries, Countries, and Companies

Even industries where it seems logical to utilize strong English skills (such as aviation) have low levels of it. Only two industries, one being consulting and professional services and the other engineering, showed consistently high English levels. According to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, none of the countries assessed to qualify as ‘advanced’ in English.

It is commonplace to preach that English is the language of business, but the value is found in practice. Those who don’t practice leave opportunities for unhesitating, forward-thinking companies to act on. The general lack of English in companies seems to be a consequence of an unwillingness to learn. The implementation of English as a lingua franca is often seen as too daunting; a fear which prevents improvement.

National Companies Can Benefit From English Just as Much as International

Companies with sales of $10-$60 billion have higher English proficiency than those with less or more. Larger companies tend to be international, of course, which explains the low level of English in smaller companies. Less fluent companies earning over $60 billion in this study were long-established and, evidently, the new business lingua franca had not affected them.

Harvard Business Review suggests that the findings indicate smaller businesses, who work on a national scale, don’t need to speak English. However, in a videoed interview for her article on global business English, Tsedal Neeley, an associate professor in the Organisational Behavior unit at the Harvard Business School, claims that companies are adopting lingua franca quickly. The customers of national businesses are increasingly from around the world. Thoughtful strategy and implementation can be extremely advantageous for those companies.

Established Companies are Beginning to Lead Business English

Facebook, Adobe and Google are just three companies that have English language learning facilities for employees at their offices in Silicon Valley. In fact, The Janitors Union in California has fought for Californian companies to make contracts with English training vendors so that English instruction happens at the worksite.

There is a simple, but important, efficiency in employees communicating a health and safety problem to a janitor and the janitor instantly understanding. Not all companies see the usefulness and convenience of this initiative, however. Some refuse to train their employees in English because, as the BBC report discovered, they are wary of subcontracted companies. Supporters of the Janitors Union worry about the social gap expanding for future generations because of this lack of initiative.

Rakuten: a Case Study of Competitive Advantage

Japan’s largest (and ever-growing) online marketplace mandated English as the company’s official language of business in 2010. Hiroshi Mikitani, the CEO, set a goal of Rakuten becoming the world’s number one internet services company (it already being a multibillion-dollar company and the collector of numerous websites internationally). Knowing that English is the future language of business, over 7,000 of his Japanese employees were put under pressure to gain proficiency in the language within two years.

Mikitani faced a backlash from other Japanese CEOs and experienced the usual difficulties when companies change their lingua franca (staff disdain, fear for their job stability) to create a diverse and far more powerful organization.

Eight years later, Rakuten’s corporate culture remains intact, they have access to global talent and are a prominent international brand, sponsoring FC Barcelona and the Golden State Warriors. In the last five years, they’ve gone from having 200 million users to 1.1 billion.

Improving English in the workplace seems daunting and costly but, at this moment, it is lucrative and transformative. It is universally acknowledged that English is the language of business, but those brave enough to partake in it have the upper hand.

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