Large company based in continental Europe.

How to handle a project lead who refuses to use English in meetings, even though there are engineers in the meeting who are known to not speak the local language and have been hired with the only language requirement of "good knowledge of English, both oral and written"?

Making explicit local language is not spoken and explicit requests to use English have been made and ignored.

Addendum: Project Lead is able to properly speak English, and when asked why not using English answered that "using local language is more effective" (though somebody else has then to translate the content of the meeting)

Edit: this is not a duplicate of colleagues not talking english, as the person having this behavior is in an higher hierarchical position.

UPDATE Made aware of the issue, management has sent an e-mail to remind all employees that meetings shall be held in English.

Reaction of the PL has been to move discussions from meetings to coffee machine stand up talks, still in local language.

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    Possible duplicate of How to deal with co-workers speaking in another language? – Bernhard Barker Nov 10 '17 at 18:07
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Nov 13 '17 at 22:25
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    As for your update, a meeting is a meeting whether it's held in a conference room or standing by the coffee machine. Let management know that this is still an issue and PL has still refused to switch to English. – David K Nov 15 '17 at 18:34
  • What do you want the PL to do, give you the names of the people who went to him in confidence and said, hey meetings would be more efficient not in English for 97% of us? If this was blue collar, you tell me in English, then I tell my guys. But I'm not there, so idk if it's just screw the foreigners or not. – Mazura Jan 20 '19 at 14:36

10 Answers 10


Work out what their motivation is; and get them to solve the problem for you

It seems to me that your PL is discriminating / bullying the English speaking employees.

If you / the team allow the non English coffee machine catchups to continue then you all could be liable (depending on local laws).

Their motivation

The PL may be behaving this way maliciously (trying to set up the foreigners for failure) or accidentally/unconsciously (e.g., because they lack the self awareness/ awareness of others; or lack of confidence in their own ability to use English)

"Don't attribute malice to what can be explained by incompetence"

That being said these kind of behaviors can be a result of some deeply held values/insecurities/past injustices. So be careful you don't push too hard less you become a target; and don't try and win (that is the wrong motivation), and don't try to get everything uncovered sorted in one go, keep your cool and play the long game.

I would suggest doing two things:

'Get clarification' from management that "meetings" would be 'any time a group is together discussing something about the project/work' (try asking off line, but getting management to respond with a group communication).

Get them to solve the problem, using Observations and 'How questions'

( A 'How question' is an open ended question that makes the person you are negotiating with, get out of their head and solve the problem for you.)

Make an observation at one of the 'coffee meetings'. Something like "It seems like <ABC> and <XYZ> are not going to be know that we discussed or be able to add their input"

Then follow up with a 'How question*' directed at the PL: "How will <ABC> and <XYZ> know what we talked about?" If the PL tries to turn it around and gets you to relay it to them, then keep asking follow up how questions "How will they be able to share their input to what we are discussing?"

Another observation & how question you may try is something like: "It seams like you (the PL) you don't seem comfortable taking meetings in English. How can we make having meetings in English more effective?"

Be careful to not corner your PL (no one likes that) and make sure you don't miss the key point ('having meetings in English') in the question. Re-ask the question (in a different way perhaps) if the PL tries an answer that drops the speaking in English part.

While making observations and asking How questions, watch for hints at what is really motivating your PL. Look for the thing which is really bothering them. Knowing that can help unlock what the real problem is. Keep an open mind it could be something surprising that you never would have thought of. It helps if you can pair up with someone so one of you is asking questions while the other is making observations/asking "How questions'.

Note also: That the example observations and how questions you using using the word meeting to describe the coffee catch ups, so you have subtly re-framed the sneaky loop hole back into what they are 'a meeting'.

Also very important, when doing this NEVER ask a question a how question that has a Yes or No answer; they must always be open ended. This can take some practice.

Credit where credit is due: Most of this is taken from the book: Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It., by Chris Voss I highly recommend it, both for working effectively with colleagues and your children Ha ha.

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  • Does it really matter whether the Lead is malicious or incompetent? Either way, he doesn't belong in the company. – MSalters Nov 13 '17 at 8:45
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    @MSalters Well one can be fixed the other maybe not. As OP is not the supervisor they can't just fire the PL. Also in many modern societies you can't fire someone, without making a reasonable effort to improve their 'performance'. Specifically in regard to my answer: their motivation is going to guide what 'Observation and How Questions' OP could ask. Finally even if you are trying to give the PL "enough rope to hang them self", you need to work out which rope to give them. – DarcyThomas Nov 13 '17 at 20:20

You contact management and inform them of your concerns. Even better, have the engineers in question contact management as a group.

Express it in terms that will immediately have them take notice:

Hey boss, I have some concerns about the way the project is progressing. [Name 1], and [Name 2] don't speak very good [Language Here], but despite repeated requests [Team Lead] runs the meetings in [Local Language] instead of English. We're spending time clarifying meeting details after the fact, and I'm afraid that things are only going to get worse as the project progresses.

At that point its the boss's responsibility to follow up with the team lead.

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    I would emphasize to management (in writing) that some team members were hired only requiring English and they are heavily disadvantaged by this. Also emphasizing that the lead can speak English but is simply refusing to do so. – StephenG Nov 10 '17 at 21:28
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    It's not just the team members who have a problem. The company is wasting time and money that way. – gnasher729 Nov 10 '17 at 21:43

Apply pain to the problematic joint.

Meta-introduction and acknowledgements

First of all, I'd agree with excellent answers that suggest to talk to the guy or escalate to management and my own answer is similar to that of DarkCygnus, but differs in spirit slightly. I'm also not going to speculate about the underlying issue as to how this situation came about and how to prevent that in the future, but assume English is the official company language or at least the officially backed "fall-back language".

What to do if someone doesn't comply with the language standard

  1. Talk to the offender: Ask him to use the official language; also by talking with or observing him, find out whether he is sufficiently fluent in the official language, if not, maybe suggest help or encourage him to solve this. The remaining steps partly assume the offender is able to speak the official language well enough.
  2. Escalate to higher management: Depending on how important you think the issue is and how approachable higher management is, you might want to skip this, but at some point you definitely should make them aware (repeatedly) that there is a problem currently
  3. Apply pain: Whenever you are in a system where you have no direct authority to change it, but you feel it works in an inefficient way, where you have to work around an issue (thus you feeling the pain), you need to make sure to forward that pain towards the person with authority.

In this case, you, the team, need to do your work properly. To do that everyone needs to understand what boss tells you to do. Currently you work around the issue by translating/clarifying after the meeting (as I understood the question). You need to make sure that at least some of the additional effort is felt by the lead.

To do that repeatedly interrupt the lead to ask for clarification (in English). If he is unwilling to provide an English clarification, have someone of you explain the last sentences to the guys who don't speak the local language. If the lead gets annoyed by this, because it drags out the meeting, there is a simple solution - he can speak English. At least, if he voices his annoyance that's an entry point to discuss the issue again as a team.

Example Lorenzo Donati provided a little example for that approach in a comment:

(boss) blah blah bl..

(eng#1) excuse me boss, I didn't understand well, did you mean we should defrost the defrobulator after cleaning the turbine? Or we should have defrosted it in advance?

(boss) blah defrobulator blih bloh bl...

(eng#2) Ah, so I didn't understand it well before: we should definitely defrost the defrobulator, now I got it.

(eng#3)Wait a moment, I thought the defrobulator shouldn't be part of this procedure, did I get it wrong then?

However, make sure it's not irrelevant teasing but relevant questions to do your job right. This is not about being petty and annoying someone unreasonably, it is about directing existing issues to the person that can change the problem.

  1. Escalate the pain if he takes pain killers If lead still doesn't acknowledge the problem or forces you to keep quiet when he's talking, you can escalate the problem. At this point you should definitely inform higher management that you as a team think there is a problem and you should make sure that you have some paper trail of this decision, e.g. that lead thinks you as a team instead of him are responsible to distribute the information to the guys who don't speak the local language. Once these steps are taken and are to no avail, higher management needs to see the consequences of bad communication. Whenever you are behind in schedule or some feature cannot be completed, because you are loosing time running back-and-forth between non-local devs and lead or lead discovers late that something isn't the way he likes it, this needs to be voiced to the respective stakeholders, e.g. the higher management representative present at the Sprint review/responsible for your development department or the CTO or CEO (depending on company size). Typically you want to make sure though that this stays inside the company.

Limits of the general approach

When applying this "pain redirection approach", you should always make sure that the pain you feel is a structural problem someone actually has the authority/possibility to change and it's not just your own working style that causes the pain for you. Also never conflate it with being petty or revengeful. In addition, sometimes as a team (or team lead) you decide that certain aspects/tasks simply are a pain in the ass and there is (currently) no cost-effective way to solve the problem. In that case there typically is some position whose task it is to take the pain and deal with it (e.g. do some annoying task) and shield the rest of the team from it. Please always remember those distinctions. (If something goes against company policy and causes your team additional pain, that's a good indication though^^)

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    (+1) I'm glad you took my example as inspiration. You expressed my intentions very nicely in your explanation: that tactic should not be petty or revengeful, as you said, but should concentrate on real difficult points in communication. – Lorenzo Donati -- Codidact.com Nov 11 '17 at 20:44
  • To be more specific: if eng#1 has somewhat understood the thing, but not quite, he should really behave as he didn't understand it at all, and not take upon himself or upon the rest of the team the responsibility of coping with a bottleneck caused by the boss. It's the boss who's violating the company's rules, after all! That would be borderline ok if it made the work go smoother, it's unacceptable if it's a PITA for everyone and the project suffers! – Lorenzo Donati -- Codidact.com Nov 11 '17 at 20:45
  • "repeatedly interrupt the lead to ask for clarification (in English)" Might I suggest instead: "repeatedly interrupt the lead to ask (in English) for clarification in English"? – Phil Nov 16 '17 at 7:23
  • @Phil Hmm, first, thanks for the suggestion! I thought about that (and I know that it would grammatically be the better place), but I feel the brackets would distract from the main action emphasized in bold. I'd consider the "in English" as implicitly given but just to be sure everyone gets that as well I added it in brackets. So I'd stick with the current version unless a couple of native speakers support your suggestion as the one better for readability because it's just soo awkward as it is ;) – Frank Hopkins Nov 17 '17 at 17:16

It is not clear what have you tried so far to convince him, but there are several things you can try.

First, during those meetings, when he starts talking in the other language you could say something in the lines of "Hey, would you mind saying that in English, I think not everyone here understood what you said." If he is not doing this on purpose he will surely come to reason and change his language.

You could also try to summarize and translate what he says in the foreign language, something like "So translating, what you say is we should do ...". This may become boring in the long run though, but would help your coworkers understand what is said in that moment and perhaps address the language problem after.

If this continues, and you consider it is a problem, then I suggest you escalate this to your manager or the person in charge, so you can come to an agreement to this.

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    About the boring part, the trick is to make it boring/annoying to the offender: If you need something to change the one that needs to change needs to feel the pain of the current situation. So after each sentence interrupt him and ask for translation. If he doesn't translate himself then one of you does it. Only let him continue to speak when the whole team got the sentence. If he complains that this is dragging out the meeting, the solution is obvious - he should just use English. But also escalate to higher management once in a while, so they are aware there is a problem. – Frank Hopkins Nov 10 '17 at 17:43
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    @Darkwing yes, translating also has a side benefit that it may annoy the offender. Thus, making it more likely he will prefer to speak in English instead of being interrupted every sentence for translation. – DarkCygnus Nov 10 '17 at 17:48
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    Assuming the boss's English is good enough to notice, you could also do a very shallow job of translating, so that he is forced to correct or elaborate on the translation. My guess is that this is happening sometimes, anyway (e.g., he lists five points and whoever is stuck translating forgets point 2), so it would be good if he has to acknowledge the problem. – 1006a Nov 10 '17 at 22:31
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    @Darkwing For example: (boss) blah blah bl.., (eng#1) excuse me boss, I didn't understand well, did you mean we should defrost the defrobulator after cleaning the turbine? Or we should have defrosted it in advance? (boss) blah defrobulator blih bloh bl... (eng#2) Ah, so I didn't understand it well before: we should definitely defrost the defrobulator, now I got it. (eng#3)Wait a moment, I thought the defrobulator shouldn't be part of this procedure, did I get it wrong then? ... etc. :-) Wait for 10 min then rinse and repeat! :-D – Lorenzo Donati -- Codidact.com Nov 11 '17 at 10:50
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    However, maybe try the other way around. Do not translate his words. Instead, even if he speaks native and even if you understand native, be stubborn, always keep responding in English. The more active you are in the discussion, the better. If a 2-3 other native speakers in the team could be talked into it at first, it should catch on pretty quick and the boss would be the only one using native language. I think group pressure would do the trick quickly. Even if it fails, the foreigners will at least catch the context from English parts. – quetzalcoatl Nov 13 '17 at 12:36

It sounds like the real problem with this is that people are sitting through a meeting and not understanding the content discussed, and that the project manager doesn't realize the impact.

Why not include the language spoken in the meeting schedule/memo/agenda?

If a meeting is being planned that's in a language an individual doesn't speak, they should abstain from the meeting citing they don't speak the language. If someone in the meeting drifts from the planned language stop them there and ask they repeat it in the planned language.

This way, the project manager can observe clearly that they are not communicating with certain people. If the PM wants to communicate with them in a meeting, they'd have to schedule a meeting in [local language] and English. I'm sure they'd see quickly it's less effective to use a language that's not shared by all members.

As for getting this inforced, it doesn't really have to be. You can always ask when a meeting invite/memo/agenda is sent out what language the meeting will be in, and abstain if you don't speak the language. You could recommend those that only speak English do so.

This seems like a good policy for any company that operates in multiple languages.

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Houston, we have a problem!

Do we have any intel on his intent to remain adamant on using the local language? Is it language chauvinism and cultural pride? Is it some weakness in English communication and hence the reluctance?

Whatever the underlying reason is, the first logical action is to talk to the Lead in a peaceful, stress free environment. Brief him about the situation respectfully and tell him that the participants are having tough time fathoming the meeting agenda. Persuade him in using the language that all can understand and the benefits of doing it.

If there is no change in behavior then contact the upper echelons and the Human Resources and hand over the matter to them. There should always be a unified voice and a unified language for a healthy collaborative environment. All the best!

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How to tackle this successfully depends on a good degree on just what the underlying reason for the PL's behavior is.

To me it sounds like the PL considers ability to communicate in local language seminal for working in this team as a peer while HR hired people on the understanding that the team would be fine communicating in English.

As a result, the PL engages in passive-aggressive behavior towards HR with the newly hired engineers as collateral for proving his point about local language skills being necessary for efficient work in his team.

The key to turning the situation around is to make the PL feel responsible for the non-English speaking engineers' progress: at the current point of time he considers throwing them under the bus the option most consistent with his own personal views.

One way would be to cede his point about the local language being more efficient and make him responsible for teaching the local language to the non-English speaking engineers. Allocate a few hours a week. The results will be not just that the respective engineers will progress in the local language: it might also be that the PL considers himself responsible for them understanding the discussions (thus likely translating to English after all when necessary).

I am not saying that this would be the best way to tackle what amounts to passive-aggressive language chauvinism: if there were universally working recipes for this problem, we'd be living in a better world than we do.

But the least common denominator for any solution will likely involve undermining the "somebody else's problem" stance of the project lead.

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  • Apparently it's not just HR with which the PL disagrees... Management has told the PL to hold meetings in English and the PL has decided to move the meetings to a different location and still conduct them in the local language in response. – reirab Nov 12 '17 at 10:07
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    Unless the PL is a trained language teacher, trying to get them to teach the language is unlikely to go very smoothly, or be very successful. – curiousdannii Nov 13 '17 at 11:02
  • I feel the engineers also have a passive-aggressive stance by not trying to learn the local language. They're basically saying : "I'm not interested in your culture or your language. You should make the effort if you want to talk to me". – Eric Duminil Nov 13 '17 at 13:36
  • @EricDuminil Have you ever tried to work in a foreign language? I used to regard myself as reasonably fluent in German until I started to work in it. It is hugely beyond the level you need to be able to talk politics in a bar. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Nov 13 '17 at 15:07
  • This is vanishingly unlikely to work. "Being able to speak a language as a native speaker", and "being able to teach it" are completely different abilities. I quite often get asked the correct way to say something in English, and I can give a sensible answer for a particular sentence - but I cannot explain why. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Nov 13 '17 at 15:09

Communication is important. If it's not happening escalate to whoever can enforce it.

There are a few common resolutions. We get this quite a lot here because a lot of top people are family appointments rather than professional ones and do not have good English. One good one is to have someone translate the salient points to anyone who needs to know them periodically.

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  • The OP said "somebody else has then to translate the content of the meeting" so this clearly didn't fix their problem. – Qsigma Nov 11 '17 at 11:00

Switching language is awkward.

I have multiple foreign colleagues colleagues in my team which understand the local language very good, but often switch to English because it's easier to find the right words. So we're starting the meeting in local language, but after some English contributions everyone automatically switches to English. The foreign colleagues stated multiple times that it's perfectly fine to use the local language, but answering in a different language than the question feels awkward.

Therefore try to engage the English speaking colleagues:

  • If the topic is relevant for them, ask them for their opinion.
  • Translate important information in the meeting not afterwards. This also makes clear that using the local languages is not more efficient.
  • Ask your peers to use English even if the team lead doesn't.
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There is always a reason for an action. This colleague that is stubborn about using English is "afraid" of something.... Either he is not fluent enough in English to feel he can get his point across or understand answers to his questions, or he has some other personal issue that isn't being addressed. What's considered by some in this post to be "bullying" is probably a hidden problem that's not being addressed. Someone close to this individual may help uncover the true reason for him/her not wanting to converse in English. If it is a lack of completely understanding the language, than ESL course requirements could be a solution?

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