The percentage of employees for whom English is a second language continues to rise. How do you communicate with such employees about their benefits?
In particular, is it a smart business practice to translate your benefits manuals and employee handbooks to the native language of foreign born employees? An ever-growing number of employers would say yes. But some legal analysts says no.
Reason: Even small discrepancies in the translation can open the door to lawsuits. It’s a classic case of no good deed going unpunished.
Legalese is hard to translate
Think about how hard it is to verbally explain the legalese of your benefit plan documents to English-speaking employees. While simplifying the terms helps employees understand, it also sacrifices a certain degree of accuracy.
That’s no problem when you’re speaking to an employee, but it gets messy when you expect employees to rely on written documents that may contain inaccuracies.
To make matters worse, many smaller employers opt for amateur translations (usually done by bilingual employees) of their benefits materials.
It’s very easy for the key terminology to become misleading: For instance, it’s very difficult to directly translate the English definitions – and exceptions – for coverage of pre-existing conditions.
Even if you’re bilingual, it’s quite difficult to come up with equivalent terms in a foreign language. Apart from causing confusion among the employees you’re trying to help, companies unwittingly increase their own legal liability if an employee sues for benefits discrimination.
Professionally written, specialized translations can be cost-prohibitive. You may get more bang for the buck by offering foreign-born employees educational benefits (e.g., English-as-a-second-language classes).
Reason: Some employees want these benefits more than the other ones described in your manuals.
In addition, when it comes to benefits education, there may be cultural issues at work that go beyond the language barrier. For instance, retirement is a foreign cultural concept to some foreign-born employees. In many countries people work their entire lives. It’s tough to convince these workers to participate in a 401(k) plan.
In a similar vein, some foreign-born employees hold the erroneous belief that the they won’t get back the money in their 401(k) account if they leave the company.
No matter how much you invest in translating your benefits materials, it takes time to build trust and open the lines of communication. In most cases, trust is your ultimate ROI.