Can English Language Proficiency Foster Employee Commitment to Globalisation?

Dr.Sachiko Yamao, Professor at Keio Business School, and Prof.Tomoki Sekiguchi of Kyoto University explore the extent to which a strong grasp of English can influence employee commitment towards embracing the globalisation of their firms.

By CoBS editorialist Afifeh Fakori based on the research paper Employee commitment to corporate globalization: The role of English language proficiency and human resource practices, Sachiko Yamao, Tomoki Sekiguchi

Let’s get this straight: Globalisation can be stressful for employees

Am I going to meet my targets? Are costs going up? Will I get that pay rise? Indeed, there’s no paucity of stress in daily corporate life. Now imagine your company decides to expand beyond national borders where your native language skills will no longer suffice. English is the de facto language for global business and lack of proficiency in this language can be a significant, new cause of stress for employees. Poor English language skills can hinder interpersonal communication and relationships within an organization, while the resulting frustration adversely affects collaboration and task performance within the firm.

Attitude towards globalisation is thus often influenced by non-native English speakers’ perceptions of their English-language proficiency.  However, it is imperative to remember that regardless of this self-perceived language proficiency, the organization in question can also play a role in aligning commitment towards globalisation through HR practices promoting the development of language skills.

This commitment can have 3 components:

  1. Affective Commitment: This relates to the employees’ desire to engage with the change (which in this case is globalisation) taking place within the firm
  2. Normative Commitment: This is associated with the employees’ sense of obligation to commit to organizational change
  3. Continuance Commitment: This pertains to employees’ calculative attitude based on a cost-benefit analysis which they do to decide whether or not they should comply with the change.

Self-perception of Language Skills Influences Degree of Commitment

When employees believe that they are adequately fluent in English, they have the confidence to cope with the multilingual work environment that accompanies the globalisation of their firm. They are less anxious about communication at work and thus more likely to be motivated to embrace working in a global setting.  This is an instance of affective commitment.

In fact, this commitment can go one step further with some employees believing that not only can they contribute to globalisation but also that they should contribute. Employees who are great in English often begin to develop their identities as ‘international employees’ capable of engaging in international transactions. With this identity, comes a strong sense of responsibility and obligation – that is, a normative commitment – towards contributing to globalisation.

Then there is also the fact that most people, consciously or unconsciously, engage in a cost-benefit analysis of not committing to corporate globalisation. The decision not to commit could lead to slower career progression, smaller increments and limited career options. In order to avoid such costs, employees with high levels of self-perceived English language proficiency often tend to develop a continuance commitment to align themselves to a multilingual work environment. However, this commitment is not particularly strong because English language skills are easily transferrable. As such, employees may not really feel that their jobs are threatened even if non- committed to the globalisation of their firm – after all, all they have to do is switch firms.

HR practices also impact employee attitude

Many firms offer language and cross-cultural training to their employees as a means to facilitate the process of globalisation. Such organizational support motivates employees and gives rise to a positive social exchange relationship between a firm and its employees. They also feel an obligation to reciprocate the support that they receive from their organization.

Some organizations go so far as to link language skills to performance appraisals. Fluency in English could also be set forth as a criterion for promotion. Under such a carrot and stick approach, employees tend to be eager to develop their language skills and contribute to the firm’s globalisation as the cost of not doing so would entail a stunted career progression. The ultimate result is that employees are more likely to put in efforts to help their firms throughout the globalisation process. This is particularly true for employees with low levels of self-perceived proficiency in English. These employees are often aware that they lack a resource of much instrumental and symbolic value – the ability to communicate well in English. As a result, they appreciate HR support towards attaining this resource more than the other employees. They are more responsive to HR practices and eventually exhibit stronger commitment to the globalisation of their organization.

The Japanese Context

Japanese companies serve as interesting examples of globalisation. They are diversifying operations across borders rapidly and even firms which have had multinational operations for quite some time now are revamping their strategies. Fast Retailing, Nissan and Rakuten have moved towards using English as the official corporate language while Toyota is sending more and more local employees on expatriation for career development.

Carrying out research among 693 Japanese employees, Dr. Yamao and Prof. Sekiguchi found that self-perceived English language proficiency and relevant HR practices indeed enhance affective and normative commitment to globalisation. However, it was observed that a cost-benefit analysis of not complying to globalisation was not a key driver of commitment in Japan. This can be attributed to the very specific style of HR management in Japan – a style that is characterised by long term employment. Since firing employees in Japan is difficult, losing one’s job due to low commitment to globalisation is not a particularly probable scenario.

So, what does this imply for managers?

Regardless of the type of organisational change (globalisation or otherwise), it is of paramount importance to identify the employee skills critical for a given organisational change – if not, managers remain unaware of how to nurture positive employee attitude towards it – and HR unable to implement practices necessary for acquiring the relevant skill.

In the specific case of globalisation, it has been observed that self-perceived level of English language proficiency is important towards shaping positive attitudes of employees towards globalisation. HR can reinforce this commitment through language training and by linking English fluency levels to recruitment and promotion. One word of caution though: such practices should be applied to all functions within the firm and across all levels – if not, conflict and power distance will result. In the case of limited resources, however, the focus should first be on employees with low levels of English language proficiency since it would be more effective for and appreciated by this group of employees. These efforts are long term investments that will eventually help an organisation to move smoothly from local to global.

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