Lost in Translation: How Language Exclusion Impacts the Workplace

Effective communication in the workplace is essential in a world increasingly connected by technology and global commerce. However, grappling with the nuances of language exclusion presents a complex challenge. As someone who primarily speaks English, I’ve traversed the realm of language barriers, witnessing both the potential for inclusion and the pitfalls of exclusion. While my linguistic repertoire may be limited, I’ve come to understand the power dynamics, missed opportunities, and genuine efforts that define the multilingual workplace landscape. Join me as we delve into language exclusion, exploring its manifestations, consequences, and the imperative to cultivate a truly inclusive work environment.

Obligatory Disclaimer

I wouldn’t blame you if you rolled your eyes at me while reading this post. After all, I’m trying to tackle the topic of language exclusion when I only speak one language. Like most public school attendees in America, I speak English, and that’s it. I always try to make up for only speaking one language in attempting to be exceptionally good at English. Still, I’m always privately ashamed of my inability to learn another language at this point in my life and my disinterest in learning additional languages when I was younger. 

Like many of my peers, I took a second language in high school. And like many of my peers, I learned enough to communicate one thing after years of French class. 

Pardon. Je ne parle pas Francais (I’m sorry. I don’t speak French).

I’m probably not even saying that right.

What is Language Exclusion in the Workplace?

Language exclusion can apply to many different areas in the workplace. Typically, it’s when everyone does not speak the dominant language, and others struggle to communicate with their teammates or understand concepts. Sometimes, it’s dealing with colleagues who choose to speak another language right in front of you, knowing full well you can’t understand them, so that they can hide their true intentions. Others would say that using corporate jargon is an exclusion in and of itself.

Why is Language Exclusion in the Workplace Dangerous?

  • Communication barriers: Employees who do not speak the majority language may find it difficult or impossible to communicate effectively with their colleagues or supervisors, leading to misunderstandings and mistakes.
  • Social isolation: Employees who do not speak the majority language may feel socially isolated or excluded from the workplace community, leading to feelings of loneliness, low morale, and reduced engagement.
  • Professional opportunities: Employees who do not speak the majority language may miss out on professional opportunities, such as promotions, training, or international assignments, which require proficiency in the majority language.

Language exclusion can significantly hinder workplace inclusivity and diversity, negatively impacting employees’ wellbeing and professional growth. Employers need to promote language inclusivity and support employees who speak languages other than the majority language used in the workplace.

Language Exclusion

My Experience in a Multilingual Workplace

I had the opportunity to visit my colleagues in Manila a couple of times in my last role. When I walked into the conference room on the first night of training, I noticed that one of our Team Leads had written the letters EOP on the whiteboard. I asked what it meant, and someone said it meant “English Only Policy.” I had never heard of it before, but my Filipino colleagues were well-versed in its meaning, having worked for large companies like American Express and Synchrony Bank. It turned out that it was common for large companies to implement an English-only policy at the time. It shocked me, but I understand why speaking several languages in an organization can lead to miscommunication and exclusion. 

My Filipino colleagues should have enacted a Tagalog Only Policy. After all, they made up the most significant workforce as our customer service team was almost wholly outsourced there, and they were our largest team. Sadly, outside of a few words here and there, I don’t know much Tagalog.


The Filipinos taught me another important term: “nosebleed.” They take the term from a movie where the character struggles so much to switch from one language to another that they get a spontaneous nosebleed. That was how they felt trying to speak in English all the time. I couldn’t relate. 

Tagalog wasn’t the only struggle. The organization was headquartered in Boston, but the owner was originally from Armenia. We had an office in Yerevan and several outsourced Eastern European developers who spoke Armenian or Russian. I did make an honest attempt to learn Armenian, but it was difficult. 

Instead, I took the initiative to swap some lessons with an Armenian developer I worked with. I would teach him some American slang every week, and he would teach me some conversational Armenian. I immensely enjoyed these conversations with him and miss him now that I’ve moved on from that position. But now, if I ever run into an Armenian, I can say, “Hello, how are you? I’m good too.” in their native language. Hopefully, that programmer won’t soon forget what “spill the tea” means. 

I had colleagues who primarily spoke English, Tagalog, Armenian, Russian, Ukrainian, Albanian, Spanish, Romanian, Jamaican Patois, Arabic, and probably more that I have forgotten about. 

Are Policies Like EOP Necessary? 

When I got to Manila, I was so used to Eastern European languages and Spanish flying around my office that I didn’t think much about my multilingual coworkers. I didn’t think much of it until I hit my first real snag outside of not knowing what people were arguing about. Two Filipino colleagues used a slang term in Tagalog that stood for a pejorative slur to refer to their boss, the Customer Support Manager. It was challenging to find out what the word meant exactly as the CS Manager and I don’t speak Tagalog. We didn’t want to put our customer service reps in the awkward position of ratting out their team leads, so we had to ask one of our dev team members in the Philippines what it meant. He confirmed the meaning, and I lost all my trust in those two colleagues that day. 

Newer colleagues would mention things to me about how inappropriate they thought it was that senior leadership would often have entire conversations in Armenian in front of them. It felt exclusive. My colleagues wondered out loud if it was possible to get promoted if they weren’t Eastern European. Of course it was, I was living proof.  

As I started to view things as a new employee might, I realized that language was incredibly exclusive at my organization on both sides. The Filipinos and Eastern Europeans had to attend weekly meetings and switch to English to communicate with us. I can’t imagine how frustrating that was for them. At the same time, we felt left out when everyone was speaking a language other than English in front of us. It seemed that someone was going to be excluded no matter what. 

Advice From the EEOC

In the United States, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued guidelines stating that employers should avoid implementing policies that restrict the use of languages other than English unless there is a legitimate business reason. Employers should also ensure that language policies are applied fairly and consistently to all employees. 

corporate jargon

Does Corporate Jargon Count as Language Exclusion?

One of my favorite former colleagues lives for corporate jargon and buzzwords. If you’re not paying close attention to what he says, you might think he’s making words up between the jargon and the technical speak (he’s a CTO). Sometimes, I think he may be playing Shakespeare, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. He often uses this language to hype up his teammates, and I know he would never use it to exclude anyone purposefully.

That said, corporate jargon can be considered a form of language exclusion in the workplace, particularly if used excessively or inappropriately. This is because jargon refers to specialized language specific to a particular industry, profession, or organization and may be difficult for others outside of that group to understand.

Using too much corporate jargon can make it harder for employees who are new to the company or who are not part of a particular department or team to understand what is being discussed. It can also create a sense of exclusion and make these employees feel like they are not part of the in-group.

Moreover, excessive use of corporate jargon can lead to miscommunication and misunderstandings, negatively impacting productivity and the workplace’s overall effectiveness. Therefore, employers need to encourage clear and effective communication accessible to all employees, regardless of their background or level of expertise in a particular area.

The Benefits of a Multilingual Workplace

There are many benefits to having a multilingual workplace, including:

  • Increased cultural awareness: A multilingual workplace can also promote greater cultural awareness and understanding among employees. This can lead to a more inclusive workplace culture and reduce discrimination and bias.
  • Access to new markets: A multilingual workforce can also provide businesses access to new markets and opportunities. This is particularly important in today’s globalized economy, where businesses must be able to communicate effectively with customers and partners from around the world.
  • Improved problem-solving: A multilingual workforce can bring together employees with different perspectives and problem-solving skills. This can lead to more innovative and practical solutions to business challenges and can help to improve overall business performance.

A multilingual workplace can promote a more diverse, inclusive, and effective workplace culture while providing businesses with a range of strategic advantages in today’s global economy.

benefits of a multilingual workplace

Reducing Language Barriers and Promoting Language Inclusivity

Here are some strategies for reducing language barriers and promoting inclusivity in the workplace:

  • Provide language training: Employers can offer language training programs to help employees improve their language skills and overcome language barriers. This could include classes in English as a second language (ESL) or training in the specialized language or jargon specific to the workplace.
  • Use plain language: To promote clarity and understanding in the workplace, it is important to use plain language that is easy to understand. This means avoiding jargon, technical terms, and overly complicated language whenever possible.
  • Provide translation and interpretation services: Employers can offer translation and interpretation services to help employees who speak different languages communicate effectively. This could include hiring professional translators or interpreters or using technology such as translation apps or software.
  • Create a culture of inclusivity: Employers can create a culture of inclusivity by promoting respect and understanding among employees of different backgrounds and languages. This could include promoting diversity and inclusion initiatives, providing opportunities for employees to learn about different cultures and languages, and creating a welcoming and inclusive workplace culture.
  • Use visual aids: Visual aids such as diagrams, pictures, and videos convey information in a way that is accessible to employees who may have language barriers. This is particularly useful for communicating complex or technical information.
  • Encourage feedback and communication: Employers can encourage employees to provide feedback and communicate openly about language barriers or other issues they may be facing in the workplace. This can help identify and address potential language barriers and promote a more inclusive and supportive workplace culture.


Language exclusion casts a long shadow in the modern workplace, affecting everything from communication and collaboration to professional growth and organizational culture. The stories of my experiences, alongside the insights gathered, underscore the intricate tapestry of language diversity and the quest for inclusivity. The narratives of EOP policies, the unspoken power of corporate jargon, and the enriching benefits of a multilingual workforce collectively depict the challenges and possibilities ahead. 

As we navigate this complex terrain, one thing becomes clear: our ability to bridge linguistic divides and embrace the richness of diversity will define our success not just as individuals but as thriving, interconnected organizations in an increasingly globalized world. The path forward demands a conscious effort to break down language barriers and a collective commitment to creating an environment where every voice matters.




Founder of Girlboss Burnbook

Hey there! I’m Jenna, the founder of The Girlboss Burnbook. My mission is to support women feeling isolated in their leadership roles. After leaving the corporate world, I realized many women face the same struggles I did. I wanted to create a platform where we could share our stories and empower each other.

At The Girlboss Burnbook, you’ll find helpful content. If you resonate with it, please reach out and share your thoughts. I’m always looking for guest contributors to our blog. Let’s collaborate!

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