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My company, a start up, has recently hired 3 new people to work in my team (I am a part of the team, not the boss or even a team leader, I've simply been there for longer and integrated quite fast). The thing is, they all come from the same foreign country (They may have known each other prior I'm not certain but they were all sponsored by the same visa-sponsor company).

The problem:

They aren't hostile per se (although I've noticed they're getting increasingly confrontational with another co-worker who is particularly intransigent to mistakes, but he's so with any and everyone, it is not targeted), but they are segregating themselves more and more.

  • They now often take abrupt breaks all together
  • They only speak their own language to each other, rendering it impossible to even help them if we could when they are stuck on some issue or another
  • They, to the exception of one of them, take no steps towards integrating with the team (the other two don't even say good morning or good bye to the rest of the team half the time)
  • They don't talk much at team meetings, even when encouraged, except again for the one.

The company being a start up means things around here are actually quite cheery and not too corporate. Which means that team cohesion is actually quite important if we want efficiency.

Looking forward to your suggestions to change those tides. Keeping in mind that we probably can't really ask them to stop speaking their language without alienating them (especially since they aren't completely fluent in the home language here).

Edit :

thank you for the answers.

How often do the natives try to engage with them

Maybe not as much as we should, but it's hard to gauge. It happens but it's mostly work-related. it's not rare for us to crack a joke in between talking about something serious, but now I realize that if they aren't perfectly comfortable with the language, and maybe they don't quite catch them or are unsure if it's safe for them to take things lightly.

I will see what I can do about helping them with the language( I don't have the power or standing to propose a language formation, but if i'll pay attention and if they are really struggling I will float the idea to superiors I'm friendly with ).

I've seen the idea to try and learn bits of their language, I will try that as I am pretty comfortable with many languages.

I have read all the other advises and am considering how I can implement those too, I'm not mentioning them in particular because they require some more thinking.

Thanks again for the answers, I'll keep reading if more comes.

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    Lot of company can grant formation to their employees. Would it be possible to give them language lesson? – Kepotx Aug 2 '18 at 9:56
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    How often do the native people try to engage with them? – enderland Aug 2 '18 at 11:41
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    Are their group breaks driven by some outside motivation? Here we have subgroups of the "coffee break" folks, the "smoke break" folks, the "workout break" folks, and the "time to go pray" folks. If they have an outside driver like that for their group breaks, that may be an area where you can't expect change--which at least will help you focus your efforts elsewhere. – user3067860 Aug 2 '18 at 15:17
  • Noting your edit is unnecessary; in general, your question should stand as if it always was the best version of the question (same with answers), as people can consult the revision history to see whether/how it was edited. Also, the excessive "thanks" notes are unnecessary fluff. And finally, you should not edit information about which answers you found helpful into the post itself; instead, you should accept the answer whose advice you followed and optionally explain the outcome of following that advice in a comment on that answer. – V2Blast Aug 3 '18 at 10:19
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I work with colleagues where for many, English is not their first language. There are a few who come from the same foreign country and if they meet on their lunch breaks, will talk in their native languages. We do not discourage this as they are not discussing work-related issues and they find it relaxing and pleasing to use their first language every so often.

Given that our company is based in the UK, our company's "official" language is English. Anyone who joins the company must be fluent in English and in communicating to colleagues (verbal, email, etc.), it must be in English so as to ensure everyone understands them. Even as a start-up, it would be wise to specify a language that all employees must be fluent in - or willing to learn - before starting their employment. There are a few things that you can try to remedy the situation for your current employees:

  • Speak to your superior about arranging tasks where the three colleagues you mentioned are not grouped together. Have them work on projects where interacting with those outside their circle is mandated. This will help them integrate with your colleagues and encourage them to use the more common tongue more frequently.
  • Emphasise that as the company grows (and inevitably becomes more 'corporate'), communication is key and that official policies may soon come into effect regarding language proficiency. If you recruited an additional 50 members but these three still stick together exclusively, things will only worsen. Offer some in-house (and ideally on the company's time and dime) linguistics lessons. Care should be taken, even in a small group, to ensure that the three are not being singled out for this. You could even show your support by going along yourself.
  • Encourage them to contribute more at meetings. In our team, we have daily stand-up meetings where everyone talks about what they have been doing, however trivial it might be. It may sound harsh but the longer you allow them to not communicate with the rest of the team, the tougher it will be to integrate them. They have to be willing to join in and if this continues, they would have to be informed that it can jeopardise their long-term stay at the company.
  • Once you become more friendly with them, depending on their culture, they may be happy to return the favour and teach you some of their language. It would help with team integration if nobody shied away from these offers.

In all these cases, you're not asking them to flat-out STOP speaking their language. It's good of you to want them to feel more included and they should in time realise that these efforts are for their benefit.

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    "We do not discourage this as they are not discussing work-related issues and they find it relaxing and pleasing to use their first language every so often." How can you be sure if you don't understand the language? – Pharap Aug 2 '18 at 14:51
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    @Pharap Because they told me so, and we trust each other personally and professionally. They're not likely to be lying. – user34587 Aug 2 '18 at 15:04
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    " rendering it impossible to even help them if we could when they are stuck on some issue or another" - these people ARE discussing work in their language though; or at least OP thinks they are. This means that their not using the companies primary language is potentially costing the company money – UKMonkey Aug 2 '18 at 16:02
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Particularly when people are newly arrived they'll be under quite a bit of language- and culture-shock. The two are closely linked. Even with excellent language skills, anything short of true fluency makes everyday conversations hard work. Combine this with an unfamiliar culure and people will seek out the easy and familiar option of chatting mainly to people who use the same language. Some individuals may also be overly worried about making silly little language mistakes and so keep quiet.

You should maintain your efforts to include and support them, but some people will keep themselves to themselves (or prefer to spend time with people from the same background) for quite a long time. This doesn't have to be a problem if they do a good job.

One thing that I've found helps is to be careful of how I speak. A little clearer and less colloquial can be a lot more helpful, whether on technical matters or social. In your "quite cheery and not too corporate" workplace, this may seem a bit more formal than you'd like, but the chances are that's how they learnt your language. Certainly that's been my experience in academia in the UK -- colleagues for whom English is a third or 4th language have only really encountered the English of textbooks and lectures, and don't find some of our idiomatic uses very easy to repsond to.

A specific cultural factor that sometimes causes issues is alcohol. People from cultures without much drinking can be left out if any work-related socialising involves drinking. Even going out for a pub lunch without drinking can be uncomfortable (especially if the pub that does good burgers is a little raucous, for example).

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    There are people who don't drink alcohol who are from cultures with drinking, also, so making socializing without drinking easy is just good practice. – David Thornley Aug 2 '18 at 15:04
  • @DavidThornley absolutely. Most British non-drinkers I know would be fine with having a meal in a pub, but some are less comfortable with going there just to hang out while others drink. – Chris H Aug 2 '18 at 15:07
  • @Chris H: And some of us don't mind a bit of drinking, but don't care to do it in the noise & crowds of a typical pub. – jamesqf Aug 2 '18 at 16:51
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    @solarflare I regard imposing a drinking culture on others as tantamount to religious discrimination. It can also be generally unwelcoming given the behaviour of some people when they've been drinking. I'm not suggesting that all social events are changed, just that some consideration is given to whether people are being excluded, and what we can do about it. – Chris H Aug 3 '18 at 7:13
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    @solarflare: Just what culture is "ours", though? Unless you've been deliberately selective in your hiring process, I dare say that you might find a good number of people from your own culture don't really care for drinking as a social event. – jamesqf Aug 4 '18 at 17:32
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Chris H and Kozaky have made good points and I think they are definitely right on that.

I'll just add a bit from personnal experience on the opposite side, as I work in another country in a small tech company where I and 2 other co-workers, are foreigner. The main issues you face when working abroad is basically the cultural barrier, even before language. I work in Central Europe where people have a different approach to work and to relations than where I come from (Latin culture country).

Something normal for them can be interpretted as rude by some people even without them realizing it and vice versa

E.g. here people don't really take breaks and just go to see each other in offices and informally chat, while with our group of foreigner we were taking a 15mn break and a bit shut ourselves and work the rest of the time. This can have a negative image of people cutting themselves during normal socializing situation in your country without them realizing it.

From my experience, we integrated better via these means :

  • A good approach would be to have someone that could help them integrate better in the company, like a new joiner or somebody of their age. One way of them getting to know better people is often to go to after work event like having a coffee outside of the office or a drink, casual meetings outside of office is generally a good way to integrate people without the stress of work and the tasks at hand

  • Another approach as said above is giving them language lessons, this can definitely make people feel more at ease with the local culture (language lessons usually give you a perspective about how the people interact), especially if the language you use in the company is not English

  • A bit trickier, but trying to learn a bit of their language sometime helps. A few of the people in our company started to learn simple words or sentences in our language and it made us more included and more willing to talk to them, this doesn't mean you should take a full course of a new language, but it always helps in term of inclusion

Edit Some people during meetings are silent as to gauge what to expect and how people discuss and interacts between each other’s (that is what I do), they might eventually speak once they feel more comfortable with the environment of your workplace

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This is perfectly normal for minority groups with a different language, the more of them you get the closer they huddle together especially if there is some hostility towards them but even without.

Mitigate against it if you must by the simple expedient of separating them. This forces them to interact with others apart from their peer group and is generally a good idea.

But at the end of the day, unless it's affecting the work, then it's a non issue. If it is affecting work there are numerous avenues to otherwise handle it without worrying about their social aspects.

Once you start messing with peoples social interactions it can quickly become a slippery slope, these are people, no one-size-fits-all. Particularly foreigners with a different language, they're not the same people they were at home. Understand that and make it work for you if you're the boss, if not, mind your own business, be friendly and helpful when you can.

Insight, foreigners are usually on contract and will eventually go home, they just want things to be as comfortable and 'normal' for themselves for the duration as possible. Quite often they see no need to integrate socially (or even think about it). They may even see it as dangerous for many excellent reasons.

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I have been in these people's situation (was one of a group of foreigners of the same country in the same company/project). I would say I was quite integrated in the team professionally, contributing to meetings, working with natives... but integrating at a personal level is very culture specific: In my country is normal to make very good friends with your work colleagues and do stuff together outside of work. This wasn't the situation in my host country, and although I had a very good relationship with natives, I wouldn't say we were friends. Neither did I have the feeling they were friends to each other (nobody would invite colleagues to his/her wedding and such...) So integrating in a team might mean different things to different cultures. What I can advice is:

  • respect their time together: maybe they don't need to go alone for lunch all the time, but it was nice for me to sometimes go for lunch with just my fellow countrymen, to discuss stuff happening at home and to express freely in my own language. Having to speak 95% of the time in a foreign language really takes a toll, independently of how well you speak it.
  • ask them how to act when they make a language error: I preferred people to correct me politely right away, but I found that if you're in a meeting with 10 people, this slows it down and makes you feel embarassed, so maybe leave it for later. This might depend on their attitude, so better ask
  • Don't always ask them about stuff from their country: People would ask me about anything that happened back home, even if it was 1000km from my home or 'how do you celebrate xmas'?, 'do you eat this and that?'... Understand they're also huge cultural and individual differences, and nobody can speak for his whole country, neither is he/she responsible for things happening there. Don't make all the conversations about 'we here..' and 'do people in your country...?'
  • Don't try to hard: I'm sure some of your native team members are harder to work with that others, so this also applies to the others. Some of them might not be interested at all in integrating, some might just want to do their job and go home, maybe other is just planning on going back home next year... If it gets in work's way, they you'll have to react to this, but some people can get a lot of work done without integrating that much, and you'll have to leave it at that. Some of my compatriots just wanted to do their work and go their private lives, they didn't have the urge to engage as much, but performed good. Doesn't have to be a problem.
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I feel your attempts to enforce your "startup" cultural identify on the "foreigners" is misplaced. You might want to have a workplace that's full of beer pong and sleep pods, but many of us just want to show up, do the job, and go home.

@Yann G I would suggest just concentrating on doing your own job and leave them alone? If anything "social" is going to happen, it will happen organically or it will not happen at all. Let it be.

As for your perfectionist coworker, he needs some anger management and sensitivity training otherwise he will cause issues with productivity and delivery in the long run (seen that many times before). If anything, dealing with that (regardless of how talented he is) should be your focus if you want your company to be around in 3 years.

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