Localizing for employees

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh is a communications consultant and author of Localizing Employee Communications: A Handbook. He has helped global organizations deliver content for 20 years. Currently based in Prague, he has been working in Europe since 2007.

Ray Walsh

Employee communication, as a field, is not normally targeted by language service providers (LSPs) — probably because most companies keep minimum budgetary allotments for employee-focused content. But as corporate content struggles for employee attention, especially in global markets, LSPs’ knowledge of audiences gives them an opportunity to deepen client relationships. LSPs can remind clients that employees are not a guaranteed audience, and coach clients how to make strategic changes in communication practices.

Localizing for employees

Multinational companies typically have not considered the unique needs of employees outside the headquarters’ home country. But if they start to look at aspects of the work experience (such as what can and should be localized, which locations would benefit most from it and what that process would look like) they have much to learn from partners in the translation and localization industries.

Every global company I’ve worked with maintains that its corporate language is English — even those with headquarters outside Anglo-centric regions. Since I work in corporate communications and produce content in English, my experience is a limited sample.

The belief runs deep that companies need a lingua franca and that English is the most logical and affordable choice. When I talked to people at LocWorld about my interest in the question of how localization could be applied to internal communications, several didn’t think it practical. One attendee told me that multiple languages would work against a company’s effort to unify employees and teams together behind a purpose and a strategy.

It’s true that professionals all over the world are able to speak and understand English at a high level, especially in sectors like healthcare and technology. But readers of this magazine know that when it comes to winning hearts and minds (which is what companies want to do when communicating to their people) localized content is more appealing and more persuasive.

What’s wrong with English?

Relying on English as the only operating language overlooks important aspects of the work experience.

[ Unless you’re in an English-speaking country, day-to-day interactions typically occur in another language, and establishing another one as standard puts corporate and local content on an unequal footing.

[ Producing global content in only one language fosters complacency about conventional practices and discourages the examination of audience needs or impact.

[ Company-wide content is written from a global perspective. It’s abstract, distant and exclusively in English, contributing to the local perception that the corporate office doesn’t understand or care about them.

[ English-centered content discourages global engagement. Few employees outside of native-speaking countries have the confidence to comment or post a selfie video, especially since English mastery is a job requirement.

Communicating exclusively in English has another significant side effect: it decreases the chances that global employees will read the content. While the corporate office may write about important subjects, global employees may habitually ignore it. With so much content demanding their time, people are looking for ways to prioritize and screen out what’s not essential. Corporate content in a foreign language easily falls into this category.

With my clients who measure content readership, I’ve seen firsthand that lower read rates can’t just be attributed to comprehension. You would expect lower content engagement in countries with less English proficiency, but readership drops even in countries like the Netherlands and Sweden where fluency in English is high. For content created in the US, I’ve even seen lower read rates among other English-speaking countries. So much for English being a shared language.

The true costs of translating content internally

The conventional practice for English-only companies is to allow local markets to determine whether and how to translate a message. It’s surprising how ignorant corporate managers can be about language needs. For example, I’ve heard of some companies genuinely surprised that a message was delayed by a couple of days because it needed to be translated into Chinese. But translating is happening anyway, with or without the involvement of the corporate office.

Corporation headquarters generally don’t budget time or money for translation of internal content, and local countries don’t want to spend money on this work either. They often assign the task internally — giving the work to someone untrained in translating and who has another job to do. Some companies report that they’ve successfully crowdsourced translations from among employees, but both approaches overlook the fact that there’s no such thing as free translation.

With volunteer translators, quality and accuracy will suffer. It can also be a drain on productivity. Corporate functions like marketing, communications, human resources, compliance and others independently dispense pieces of content for local consumption. This output is uncoordinated, and the collective volume may add up to a heavy translation load at the local level.

If companies continue to depend on volunteers to adapt and execute their communications, they should be prepared for misunderstandings, misinterpretations, resistance and delays.

Educate management about communicating globally

Managers at headquarters need to better understand the language needs of their own internal stakeholders, which countries their work impacts and to what extent. One communication manager I talked to led the project with his company’s global LSP, and months after, project managers kept asking him which language set they needed for their product launch. “They thought of me as the translations guy. Shouldn’t they have people in their own group who can tell them?” he said.

Which employee groups need localization?

Global projects rarely have a budget for internal translations, and when they do, they have to determine the language set that they can afford to translate into. They typically allocate their translation budget according to headcount, providing content only for a few of their largest markets.

A more useful allocation would consider the project’s purpose. For example, it might be a better choice to reflect the company’s growth strategy and translate for countries designated with the most ambitious goals. If the purpose of the content is to urge people to complete mandatory training, they may want to focus on countries where participation is historically low, those with the lowest proficiency in English, or those with the least engagement with corporate content.

In the May/June 2019 edition of MultiLingual, John Yunker of Byte Level Research advised companies to prioritize according to scenario-based localization. The same principle could be applied to global employee communications. Instead of thinking about entire channels or initiatives, companies should consider end-to-end user experience in processes such as expense reporting, training or internal recruiting. If the company is struggling to get results in specific countries, localization is an opportunity to work closely with local business units and focus on outcomes instead of output.

Internal communication budgets are obviously limiting, but the silver lining is the opportunity to do some close cost/benefit analysis. It may be too expensive to localize content in a specific project for German-speaking countries, but the costs for Polish and Romanian could be within reach. Even if the company’s presence in those markets is minor, localizing for more affordable markets gives companies an opportunity to evaluate the benefits of the practice.

Localization as a tool for improving engagement

Targeting translations also brings local countries into the process. Collateral in select countries that normally wouldn’t see corporate translations helps build alliances with local functions.

Traditional corporate communications divides the world into senders and receivers: content is created centrally and then distributed. Not only is this kind of content widely ignored, at the local level it breeds passivity. Local business units resign themselves to global content, thinking that such content is the best the company can do.

Localization gives local management a stake in content, and if they are engaged, they are more likely to follow through and help communications have more impact. By taking part in localization, local business units can transform how they interact with employees, get their attention and create content that resonates with people’s experience and interests.

Convince clients to see their employees as stakeholders

The localization and translation industries know far more about global communication than most. In routine work with clients, LSPs will encounter strategic initiatives that could benefit from localized components designed for employees. Examples include:

[ Rollout of a new product or service in global markets.

[ Training for a new process or tool.

[ Content or training related to safe work procedures.

LSPs should ask their clients whether they’ve planned to engage employees about the content they are creating together. If they can convince their clients that employees are also a stakeholder to be reached through localization, LSPs can expand their business.