Translations and culture

I recently wrote a corporate policy that we expect all employees to understand and follow.

The group responsible for deploying this policy asked me for a list of languages that the policy should be translated into. My response was simple: in all the languages spoken by our employees*.

I believe that culture is an outcome of how we do things. And I believe that corporate policies should identify the processes we follow and the behaviors we expect from employees. Thus, if we truly wish to build a culture of compliance, we need to make sure our employees can read and understand our policies.

And there is also a meta aspect to this question: what message about our corporate culture would we be sending if we did not translate these policies?

* More specifically, in the official languages of every country where we operate.

Assume positive intent

As a native French speaker, the words “enfant” and “enfance” stir much stronger emotions in me than their English equivalents “child” and “childhood”.

I am told that in Thai, there are eight different words that can be used for the English word “ethics”, yet none of them have the exact same meaning as the English word.

In some cultures, yellow is a sign of bravery. In others, a sign of treason.

Communicating clearly is very difficult. When we create compliance policies, ethics training, posters and other materials, things get lost in translation. Mistakes are made unknowingly. Confusion emerges from subconscious levels.

Employees and management must recognize this reality and face it with humility and kindness. Let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt and assume positive intent.

Questioning translations

If you work in a multinational organization, when should you translate your policies, your training, your communications?

Only when required by law? All the time? Somewhere in between?

Is it your international employees’ responsibility to learn the language of the headquarters? Should it be considered disrespectful to publish anything in only one language?

Translations are expensive and time-consuming. They are greatly appreciated when offered and create all kinds of frustrations when they are not.

They are often seen as a proxy for how much you care.

Should you care?

The many challenges of E&C professionals

Here are some of the challenges facing organizations who provide ethics & compliance training to their employees:

  • Employees dread the training sessions (it gets in the way of doing their job)
  • The training is high-level (to cover all employees) and doesn’t really help each employee do their job better
  • Employees believe that the company provides the training as a check-the-box and/or CYA exercise
  • In-person training can be difficult to track (and thus prove that it was provided when the regulators knock on the door)
  • The effectiveness of the training is difficult to measure
  • Training is often provided months before an employee is faced with the risk, making it difficult to recall
  • In some jurisdictions, the training must be approved by employee unions
  • For multinationals, training must/should be translated in many languages. And scenarios like “John met a supplier at the hockey game and the supplier paid for the hot dogs” do not resonate well with your employees in Indonesia.
  • Online training, with its audio and video files, requires a strong internet connection, something still not available in many countries
  • In companies of 1,000+, 10,000+, or 100,000+ employees, how do you deploy the training? What are the consequences for employees who don’t complete their training on time?

The complete list would easily be thrice as long.

And that’s just for training. Wanna talk about communications? Policies? Audits? Investigations?

Thinking of creating or updating your code of conduct?

Electronic is better than paper (but make sure there’s a printable version).

Online is better that offline.

“Mobile first” is better than a responsive website, which is better than a static website, which is better than an ebook.

On the internet is better than on your intranet.

It’s better to include links to your corporate policies in the Code (and yes, those should be on the internet as well).

Values-based is better than rules-based.

Conducting a cultural assessment of your organization before you start writing the new code can prove very helpful.

Involving all your organizational SMEs is critical (HR, Legal, Finance, EH&S, Communications, etc.).

Hiring a consultant to help you write the code is better than going at it alone.

Whoever you choose to help you write the code and create a website, make sure they can show you at least two prior code projects that blow your mind, and call those organizations for reference.

Those who are good at writing codes are rarely good at making websites – and vice-versa.

If you operate in multiple countries, translate your code.

Assigning a project manager to herd all those cats will save you at least 20% of your time.

One year from start to finish is probably not enough.

At all times, ask yourself “What are we trying to change?” Employees will want to know why you have a new code and your launch communications will need to address that.

Seek the help of a communications expert (outside or in-house) to help you launch the new code. It’s the best way to transfer all the value you created to your employees.

These tips come from my own experience in writing a new code for my organization. I could have included many more. If you have experience in this domain, please feel free to share your tips by using the comment section below. Thanks!