The importance of translating and localising your international HR communications

November 8, 2017

The importance of translating and localising your international HR communications
Image By cybrain / Shutterstock, Inc

What works in one language, doesn’t always work in another. Take one of Pepsi’s most popular advertising campaigns, for example: “Come Alive! You’re in the Pepsi Generation.

When this very successful slogan was translated for the Chinese market, Pepsi took a massive hit. Why? Because while the translation was technically correct, the underlying message wasn’t. In fact, to the Chinese market, their campaign message read as follows: “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead”. Naturally, sales in China plummeted.

Now, this story has never been 100% confirmed or denied, and remains classified as “undetermined” by Snopes. But it still serves as a sharp reminder that, when working in multiple languages, it isn’t always enough to simply translate each word.

So what does this have to do with HR?

Miscommunication is one of the biggest international HR challenges

On the blog recently, we talked about how cultural differences can cause professional misunderstandings. It’s actually one of the biggest challenges for international HR.

Properly translating your communications in a way that your entire workforce can understand is vital. Failure to do so can lead to professional misunderstandings, and even legal complications.

But while most businesses accept the need to translate and localise their customer-facing messaging, many forget to pay the same attention to internal business and HR communications.

What kind of HR communications need the most careful translations?

It might not be the end of the world if you send out a badly translated memo – as long as it doesn’t contain critical information, of course. But there are so many situations where your international HR communications do require precise translation and even localisation, for example:

  • HR policies. If you have an important HR policy that needs to mean the same thing, word for word, across all regions where you operate, then a miscommunication could cost you a lot more than just a red face. It could land you in trouble with local legislation and employment law.
  • Company announcements. You don’t want to make an important announcement to your entire company that means one thing to one team, and another to another. If you have employees who work in different languages, take care to ensure announcements are properly translated.
  • Business software. If you use one particular system across your whole company, then it’s worth making sure employees can toggle their own local language in the system settings. For example, HR software with self-serve switched on will be widely utilised by employees for requesting holidays, submitting timesheets, and completing performance reviews. If they don’t understand what it’s telling them, they’ll stop using it – and there’s little point you paying for it.

international HR communications
Image By / Shutterstock, Inc

So what happens if you don’t translate these vital areas of your business communications?

The $255,000 cost of failing to translate HR policies

Law firm White & Case LLP sets out the case for translating your internal business communications, in a research paper called “English is Not Your Exclusive Company Language”. And while they admit that you may find yourself with little practical choice but to use English – or another language – as your dominant method of international company communication, they strongly urge companies to account for overseas local laws on language of employee communications, before delivering any global employee communications, policies, or codes of conduct.

So what happens when you fail to consider the translation of your HR policies? Well, in a story shared by, one potato plant in Colorado ended up paying a $255,000 settlement for this very reason.

You see, one of their employees had been accused of sexual harassment. But when the company tried to claim non-liability, because the alleged victim had not taken advantage of protections outlined in the HR policies, a judge dismissed the claims. Why? Because the handbook with the policy was written in English. And the alleged victim only spoke Spanish.

Machine translations VS human translations

In an age where we can complete almost any task by simply opening Google, it is tempting to turn to services such as Google Translate. But while this is certainly a useful service, it can lull you into a false sense of security – because, despite getting progressively better, machine translations can rarely translate and localise as well as another human being. I decided to learn more, by talking to Sirena Rubinoff, from Morningside Translations.

The key to deciding whether to go with machine or human translation services depends on what a business values in importance” explains Rubinoff. “If you value speed of sharing information that doesn’t require pin-point accuracy, machine language translation is suitable. On the other hand, highly technical information, like instruction manuals, medical- and legal-related documents, demand 100% accuracy.

So if you are translating international HR policies, then you need to pay close attention to the translation. But Rubinoff also explains that human translations can increase user engagement – meaning you’ll ideally want your internal business systems translated by a human being, too. Especially if you want to increase workforce buy-in.

Machine language translation has not reached the point where it can produce quality content material that engages users” says Rubinoff, adding that a good translation agency can “work with you to help improve your user engagement metrics, regardless of the language.

How to switch your People HR system to German or US-English

If you are a People HR customer, you’ll know that we’ve started translating the entire system into various languages. We’re doing this by working with language specialists who are ensuring all system text is properly translated and localised.

In the following video, our product manager Ranjit explains why we’ve started doing this.

You can already translate your People HR system into US-English or German, by selecting the Preferences option beneath your name from your People HR dashboard.

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