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Document Translation Services to Comply with Workplace Language Laws and Policies around the World

We’ve blogged about the growing need for business translation services to comply with the EEOC requirements for U.S. companies that employ multilingual workforce in this country.  But what about that company-wide official HR memo you recently sent out to employees located around the world? The one your communications team put it together in English, you signed off and pushed ‘send’. Well, unless all your employees are native English speakers, there’s a good chance that your memo fails to comply with at least one other country’s workplace language laws.

For example, if you have a plant in Belgium and your memo wasn’t in either French or Dutch (depending on which part of the country the plant is located in), then your memo is likely in violation of Belgium’s language laws, which require all official company communication be done in one of the country’s official languages (and English isn’t one of them).

In today’s global economy, translating human resource policies and employee communications is a million dollar industry. In fact, in 2005 the Texas Supreme Court overturned a $1.6 million jury verdict for worker compensation retaliation because the allegedly retaliatory act was consistent with a provision in a company handbook that the employer had communicated in English to the monolingual Spanish-speaker worker plaintiff – whatever the cost to have the handbook translated, it was well under the $1.6 million it saved the company!

Even though much of your multinational’s HR policies probably originate from the foreign local HR team (i.e., routine local employment contracts, policies, benefit documents, etc.) and are done in the local language, more often than not, corporate headquarters also gets involved via newsletters, a global intranet, emailed policy updates, etc. These are often sent in English only and, although not all the time, often contain important, ‘official’ company policies and related information.

Even if your company has designated that its official company language is English, this likely won’t stand up in a local court if accused of breaching a workplace language law. In fact, such an official English only policy could actually be used as evidence of intent to violate local language laws! Such a policy could even land you in a labor dispute.

Take the 2011 incident in Saint-Marcellin-en-Forez, France at the plant of UK-based Morgan Thermal Ceramics. Angered that British management refused to communicate in French, employees opted to go on a well-publicized strike.

Of course, the easy solution here is to always, always have all global company communications translated into every relevant language. But let’s face it, for many multinationals operating in dozens of countries, such a solution isn’t always practical. The better solution? Spend time understanding local language laws and adapt your communications accordingly. As every country differs in terms of what is required and what isn’t, it makes sense to spend the time and resources finding out where multi-language legal translations are needed and, if so, for what types of communications. No need spending the time and money translating a memo if the country’s language laws do not require it.

Workplace Language Laws Requiring Translation of Company Communications into Local Languages

Across the world, workplace language laws tend to fall into one of three categories:

1. Flat prohibitions: the world’s toughest. These are absolute bans that punish employers for issuing written communications to employees other than in the local language. (France, Belgium, Quebec, Spain, Mongolia, Turkey).

2. Enforceability prohibitions: laws that invalidate untranslated employee communications, rendering them void even as to affected employees fluent in the document’s language. As such, the company can’t discipline an employee for violating a policy that was issued in English. (Chile, Macedonia, Poland, Russia).

3. De facto language requirements: many countries require, by law, that employers submit certain documents to government agencies and certain documents to workers or their representatives (i.e. Work Councils). Although these laws are silent as to language requirements, untranslated submissions are usually found to be in violation. (Germany, Haiti, Panama, Peru, Niger, Vietnam).

One has to keep in mind that these workplace language laws should be seen as the exception, not the rule. In the vast majority of countries, there are no laws requiring that companies provide workplace communications in the local language. However, even when there is no law on the books, that doesn’t mean a multinational company can get away without providing workplace communications in the local language. In many countries, an employee who is being disciplined for violating such a policy can take their case to court (or before their Work Council) and argue that such communications are presumptively unenforceable. When the lawsuit is brought before a local court, and before a non-English speaking judge, often times the court will favor the employee.

Why take unnecessary chances with violating other countries’ workplace language laws? Contact our legal translation service today to start complying with foreign countries’ labor laws.

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