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I spent a lot of time thinking on this question so that it can have an answer, so please inform me if it needs modification since I really need help with this problem.

I am one of 10 team leads for small teams of engineers that specialize in various products our parent company sells/makes. There was a professional disagreement almost a year ago involving 8 teams based in Caucasian majority countries and Latin America, arguing with 2 teams based in Asia on the best technical solution to a problem that impacts all teams. I manage one of the Asian teams.

The problem was escalated when the other Asian team put in a solution to the problem without first getting approval of the other teams, except for mine.

The solution made their product easier to finish on time, but created a lot of extra work for all the non-Asian teams. This had an impact in their lead times causing them to miss deadlines. The only reason the solution was implemented was because their lead convinced senior leadership it was the "best" solution, and by the time the other teams were able to escalate it, there was no turning back.

Now we have a problem: The other teams have a much stronger command of the English language. Ever since this dispute "ended", the non-Asian teams won't help with simple tasks they are able to help with (i.e. they are the only people with knowledge of certain tasks and how to execute them), but most importantly, they use increasingly complex language. This includes uncommon words which I imagine most native English speakers wouldn't know (i.e. "Supercilious", "specious", "esoteric", etc.), and they are making our teams unable to complete certain projects due to the complexity of the language they use. We've asked them for clarification on certain requests in the past, but they reply "the requests are clear. Get a dictionary if need be". This feels very racist.

How can I raise this issue with them and/or HR? They're not technically breaking any company rules, but they are being intentionally not helpful.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – user44108 Oct 16 '18 at 5:32
  • You mention wanting to solve it with them and HR. Are you opposed to bringing upper management into the picture? The actions of both sides are hurting the larger organization which sounds like a management issue. – Myles Oct 16 '18 at 18:35
  • @Xian, can you follow up and tell us what happened next, what did you decide to do? – teego1967 Jan 15 at 13:45
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I am surprised that none of the answers has yet suggested what should be (and will be) the only solution to this mess.

Forget about HR, making complaints to management, investing in dictionaries or ESL courses, none of those will solve the problem.

Someone in a lead position needs to step up, unilaterally, and offer an "olive branch". This means, eventually, that all the people involved will need to apologize and demonstrate their trust across teams.

Consider that no one enjoys being blind-sided by surprise decisions made without their consent. The english-speaking folks certainly have a right to be upset, but acting out childishly by alienating the others with obscure language only hurts both sides. Both sides are at fault here now. The OP may be in a position to fix things and doing so will be a really good move for his career.

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The language use here is a symptom of the real issue, that from the perspective of the non-Asian teams the two Asian teams screwed them over for their own gains.

And frankly I can see their point.

The other teams not only had to do "a lot of extra work" but also missed deadlines. Depending on your organisation's policies that could likely have resulted in extra hours of unpaid work, lost bonuses or other consequences from missing deadlines.

In other words the actions of the two Asian teams in making their own deadline easier to meet will quite probably have had real negative effects on the lives of the members of the other teams.

I say this not to make you feel bad or to say that what they are doing is okay but to point out that this isn't a case of the other teams being a bit put out about not being consulted about the decision but that they have suffered legitimate hurt.

So it looks as if now they are taking the position that if the Asian teams are going to make their lives difficult then why should they help them out?

Is it petty? Probably. Would I do the same thing in their place? I'd like to say that I wouldn't, but to be brutally honest I can't promise that. If the impacts on me personally from the original situation were severe enough I'd at the very least be not going out of my way to help those I saw as being responsible.

The example words you give might not be in common usage across the full spectrum of native English speakers but engineers are typically from a more educated background where such words would be commonly understood and used. That they are aware that such language is unlikely to be understood by non-native speakers is very probable but toning down their more "natural" vocabulary might be something they aren't inclined to do right now.

they are making our teams unable to complete certain projects due to the complexity of the language they use

Sorry, but put that excuse back on the shelf because I'm not buying it. Even in the absurd situation where there were 1000 different words in a document that your teams didn't understand assuming they have access to google it's going to take at most a day to look up every word. And that's ignoring the existence of Google translate.

How can I raise this issue with them and/or HR? They're not technically breaking any company rules, but they are being intentionally not helpful.

Even if you do this and were successful in doing this all you would be doing is prolonging the conflict and they will find other ways to be uncooperative. What you need to do is resolve the underlying conflict - really you and the other Asian team manger need to get together and speak to the managers of the other team and admit that what you did was wrong and that you didn't mean to cause problems for the other teams, that it won't happen again and you want to get back to having a cooperative relationship with them and hope they take the olive branch.

PS:

This feels very racist.

It's really not. And playing the race card here would be a blatant move to try and deflect from taking responsibility for the Asian teams' part in creating this mess so please drop that.

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    Another possibility: the Japanese teams have problems with English, and the English-speaking teams were putting effort into dumbing down the English for the Japanese teams, and are no longer willing to put in that effort. I know that I'd casually use words like "specious" and "esoteric" and expect them to be understood by any educated English speaker. – David Thornley Oct 15 '18 at 20:26
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This feels very racist.

It isn't. Racism is using the concept of "race" to attribute properties to people they don't have. Like saying "all Asians are...". Grasp of a language is not something you can be racist about. Because it's a skill. The only thing that would be racist is assuming Asians are worse at English because they are Asians.

They're not technically breaking any company rules, but they are being intentionally not helpful.

Well, team "I" has screwed them for personal gain. How could you possibly expect them to be helpful anymore? Team "J" is probably seen as complicit, as you did approve their solution and did not get caught in the fallout later. So again, why would you expect them to be helpful, when you have proven you are not?

How can I raise this issue with them and/or HR?

You could get together with the other team leads and start with "Hey guys, I'm sorry what happened with that issue. It wasn't exactly my idea to throw you under the bus like that." Apologize. Make it clear that team "I" is team "I" and you are "J".

If you really want to go to HR, you need to take a more indirect route. Do not complain. Ask for additional training for your team because the requirements for English got more complex. You will either get more training (good thing, might solve the problem) or HR will investigate why all of a sudden your English is no longer sufficient. That's a good thing too, because you did not point fingers or complained. You asked for something positive. If something negative like a company wide standard of less complex English comes out of it, that's not your fault. That's not what you asked for.

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    Racism isn't just about making false assumptions about people. It could also be showing animosity towards someone simply because of their race. In this case, if the engineers are using excessively complex language intentionally in order to make their Asian colleagues lives more difficult, this could be considered racism. The OP hasn't demonstrated either way whether race is a driving factor here, but if it were, that would be racism. – David K Oct 15 '18 at 13:06
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    "Hey guys, I'm sorry about what happened" is great. "It wasn't exactly my idea" sounds like victim mentality and finger pointing. "I went along with it and shouldn't have" more subtly points out that I'm not the originator of the idea but I'm still willing to be mature enough to accept responsibility for a bad decision. – FreeMan Oct 15 '18 at 13:31
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    @DavidK Unless the animosity existed prior to the original issue, I don't think we can come to the conclusion that it is due to their race, but rather their actions. It's not racist to hold a grudge because of someone's actions. Claiming "racism" here is likely to only further deteriorate the situation and should be avoided at all costs. – Jeff Lambert Oct 15 '18 at 13:38
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    @DavidK But that would imply that they send easier English to their (for example) South American colleagues. I'm under the impression that they just increased the complexity of their communication, regardless of receiver (probably knowing fully well that they will hurt teams I and J the most). That would not be racist. – nvoigt Oct 15 '18 at 13:46
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    It's not racist, it's jerkist, defined as, "treating someone badly because they are jerks". Here in the US we call that payback. – Nolo Problemo Oct 15 '18 at 18:06
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You ask a question - but this question has a context. Team I made an engineering decision without consulting A to H. They bamboozled the management higher up to accept this engineering decision. The result was that team I saved some time while creating a major problem for A to H. As a result, teams A to H are majorly pissed off with team I. Team I demonstrated that they are not team players, and other teams paid the price. You cannot expect no comeback.

As far as the wording is concerned, yes, you can use a dictionary. All three words are in the dictionary, with their meaning nicely explained. And at least two of them are quite common and should be known to someone knowing the word "pretentious".

But your problem is that team A-H suffered, and now it's payback time. Your team seems to be a mostly innocent bystander caught in the fire. You are not going to convince these teams to stop their behaviour. If they do stop, they will start something else.

I think your best move would be to convince the team leader of team I to publicly apologise and publicly admit that their actions were wrong, including informing management that their idea was bad for the company. Until that happens I expect there to be trouble.

If you go to HR, what I expect to happen is this: You say "please make them stop using complex language". They say "Team I's selfish behaviour cost the company lots of money and made us look bad". You say "but this complex language makes life hard for us". They say "Team I's selfish behaviour cost the company lots of money and made us look bad". Whatever you say, they say "Team I's selfish behaviour cost the company lots of money and made us look bad". Eight against one. You have no chance.

@Summer: You are missing the whole point. Team I pissed off teams A-H. Now it's payback - teams A-H doing their best to piss off team I. That's the whole point - annoying team I as much as they can.

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    I disagree OP's team is an "innocent bystander". From the wording, it sounds like they got advance notice of the solution. They didn't bother mentioning it to the other teams, nor did they mention to management the problems that would arise. Even though they got no benefit from the solution they cast their vote for the solution. It's not surprising they are getting tarred-and-feathered together with the troublemaker team. – Chan-Ho Suh Oct 14 '18 at 20:55
  • @Chan-HoSuh True. – gnasher729 Oct 14 '18 at 21:03
  • Seems pretty unnecessary to use all these fancy words, grabbing a dictionary every time a task needs to be done is slowing everyone down. Using simpler language is slowing nobody down. I also wonder if you're perhaps a native English speaker as I'm still looking for these two words 'that are quite common' you mention. – Summer Oct 15 '18 at 11:26
  • @gnasher729 I think the last part confuses the reaction of HR with that of the other teams. Sure, the other teams will blame team I (and J) for the incident, but in the eyes of a reasonable HR department that's no ground to start to fuck up their team work even more and thus sabotage future projects as well. A sane HR would have them use adequate language and/or make sure the Asian teams increase their language level. A sane HR would also try to have a meeting where the underlying causes could be brought forward and resolved. – Frank Hopkins Oct 15 '18 at 11:38
  • @gnasher729 That being said, you're right that trying to target the other teams through HR, without revealing the bigger picture, will likely lead to a trench war / negative comeback and the other teams eventually bringing up the issue - or retaliating in other forms if HR simply tells them to use simpler language. – Frank Hopkins Oct 15 '18 at 11:39
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If the situation is as clear cut as you describe - i.e. their language has become significantly more obscure following the incident than it was before, then evidencing this to senior management should be straightforward.

That said, I am always a fan of trying to resolve issues more directly first, and given they must know your English will be weaker than theirs, it wouldn't be rude or unexpected to respond to their communication asking them to use clearer language. Should this not get the result you want, then escalating it further to management is the only real solution. I would avoid suggesting that you believe it is some form of retaliation for the previous incident and focus on restoring good communication.

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    Unfortunetly will we have one side of the argument here one team causing extra work for several others is the core of the problem here. – Neuromancer Oct 14 '18 at 19:42

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