Language-based discrimination is a prevalent form of discrimination in multilingual organisations, finds new research by Aalto University School of Business.

Language-based discrimination is when people experience an unfair disadvantage as a result of their written and spoken language. For example, excluding employees from conversations as they don’t have the same first language.

The case study, conducted by researchers Hilla Back and Rebecca Piekkari, investigated migrant professionals’ experiences of language-based discrimination across physical and virtual spaces.

Their findings reveal that when people work from home, language-discrimination was primarily organisational and more subtle than when people are office based.

The researchers say this is because in virtual spaces, it is easier to discriminate against other employees without getting caught. They add that in these settings, it is less personal, therefore instigators don’t witness the effects of their discrimination.

Doctoral candidate Hilla Back explains:

In virtual spaces they could ‘invisibilise’ minority needs without physically witnessing the effects of discrimination – also aiding in the prevalence of organisational discrimination in virtual spaces.

Hilla Back, researcher

The study also revealed that remote working sped up the process of excluding migrant professionals, due to the fact it was easier for employees to have separate meetings and parallel virtual channels for informal conversations.

Hilla Back continues:

Consequently, migrant professionals became more invisible to their co-workers in virtual spaces, remaining in their own English-speaking bubble, out of sight and out of mind.

Solutions include implementing an inclusive language policy, which is characterised by a shared language by managers and employees in formal and informal situations, enhanced tolerance of variation in proficiency levels, and a neutral vocabulary. Other suggestions include introducing a social etiquette for remote work to ensure that all employees understand what socially accepted behaviour is, according to the researchers.

Standing up against workplace discrimination is crucial for creating working environments that champion fairness and equality. By addressing language-based discrimination, organisations not only uphold their ethical responsibilities but also ensure the well-being and productivity of all employees.

Discrimination, whether overt or subtle, undermines morale and erodes trust within teams, therefore hindering collaboration and innovation. So, combating discrimination, both in physical and virtual workspaces, is imperative for creating inclusive and thriving work environments where everyone can contribute their best efforts uninhibited by prejudice or bias.

The study was published in the Journal of World Business.

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