Recognizing bilingual skills through language pay has become a standardized component of many federal government agencies practices, including the Departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security. These policies increase the ability of the organization to effectively serve its citizens, and they represent sound HR practices.
As such, these policies have expanded into both the private sector and state and local governments. Let’s take a look at the benefits of offering services in languages other than English, and explore some best practices around fully utilizing this important asset in your organization.
Foreign language pay recognizes the value of bilingual employees
Whether you work for a state or local government or another organization in the public sector, it is critically important to offer services to the entire community and its citizens, regardless of their background. No matter how robust its programs, or how smart its employees, an agency will fall short if it can’t interact effectively with the population it serves.
“We have had instances in City Hall where a non-English-speaking citizen will come in asking for help — and they have been able to receive it immediately because of our Spanish-speaking employees in the building,” notes Ruby Bowen, HR training and development coordinator for the City of Killeen, Texas.
Killeen’s 2008 ordinance, which ushered in bilingual incentive pay, sought to improve “the ability of the city to provide services to citizens and to recruit and retain employees who perform the specialized functions of using bilingual skills.”
Language can be a huge barrier for the significant number of citizens who speak limited or no English — and this is where foreign language incentives can help bridge the gap.
Municipalities are making language incentives a priority
Across the country, cities are recognizing (and rewarding) the importance of language programs and skills. From Hobbs, New Mexico (a modestly-sized city with around 33,000 residents), to larger cities like Omaha, Nebraska; Atlanta and New York City, language services and employee incentives are being utilized to help better connect with residents and retain a talented workforce.
The State of California has had a law on the books since 1973 to ensure that citizens are not precluded from receiving state services due to language barriers. Counties such as San Mateo use a Bilingual Salary Differential Allowance to attract and reward qualified candidates and remain in compliance with the law.
Pleasanton, California, is currently rolling out a new language proficiency pay program stemming from the idea that “it is important to communicate as effectively as possible with the community you serve,” as noted by Debra Gill who works for the city.
“We expect the program will bring a sense of pride and value to our bilingual employees,” Gill adds.
On the East Coast, Suffolk County, Long Island, joined the movement in 2012 with Executive Order 10-2012, which stipulates that agencies provide language assistance to people of limited English proficiency. In order to provide the necessary communication, employees and new hires are tested to ensure their language skills.
Bowen encourages other cities to adopt programs similar to those in Killeen, with the most obvious reason being “the enhanced ability to give customer service to non-English-speaking citizens.” She also cites “greater efficiency with both internal and external communications” and suggests that offering the incentive pay “adds diversity to your workforce and more closely mirrors the community in which the employees live and work.”
Remove liabilities by using an external testing service
Once your state, county, city or town has committed to offering in-language services to its citizens, the task of ensuring that its employees possess the needed skills will fall to you and your team.
The obvious answer may seem to be to use your existing bilingual employees to “test” potential new hires for the necessary language skills. But in reality, this strategy holds many pitfalls. Not only do you run the risk of doing a grave disservice to candidates due to a lack of fairness and consistency, but your office also puts itself at risk for lawsuits and other legal action. The good news is that you can eliminate this liability by standardizing and formalizing your program.
Reputable outside firms offer independence, consistency, robustness and accredited testing (all things that internal testing resources likely lack). The idea of entrusting language testing activities to a third party is also consistent with best practices across the HR profession. So whether you are testing potential hires or testing current employees as part of an incentive pay package, you’ll want to look beyond the walls of your organization.
Language-based initiatives as a win-win
Engaging with your citizens in languages they understand is good business that benefits all. And in order to engage effectively, the use of language-testing services and foreign language payment incentives ensure that you’ll have the right employees in the right positions.
These are best practices, with a long precedent, and will help foster the mission of your organization while retaining a talented workforce. It’s a win-win.