Raising the topic of English pronunciation in the workplace.

Jul 15, 2018 | Blog

Georgie Taylor

Speech Pathologist



Something managers often ask me is ‘How should I raise the issue of unclear English with a staff member?’. Typically this scenario includes a staff member who speaks English as a second (or third or fourth) language, who is very good at their work but has difficulty with English pronunciation. These pronunciation difficulties mean they’re not easily understood by their colleagues or clients.

Have you had staff you thought were held back because of unclear English?
What did you do? Discuss the issue with them? Avoid raising the issue?  Perhaps you avoided it because you weren’t sure how to bring it up, or once raised what to do next!

I am writing this because I believe passionately that assisting people who have unclear English to speak clear English changes their life. Going from unclear speech to clear speech means a life with more positive interactions, less frustration and loads more confidence. Life is easier when you are understood the first time! How do I know? Because I hear it from my clients over and over again.

Most people want to succeed at work, consequently they want and need, to know what’s holding them back. I have assisted hundreds of job seekers who failed to get past the first job interview for months before someone said “you need to improve your spoken English”. Similarly I’ve worked with even more professionals who feel constantly worried that their colleagues won’t understand them. Who then employ coping techniques like emailing instead of  talking on the phone or face-to-face.

So, I’d like to share my thoughts with people-managers about English Pronunciation Training, raising pronunciation in the workplace and when, if, and how it can help staff from non-English speaking backgrounds. During my 10 years of working with HR department’s, training managers, direct with CEO’s and line managers I have seen the issue of English pronunciation difficulties handled very well and very poorly!

Before we go any further I’d like to highlight that this isn’t about getting rid of a person’s accent. Accents are wonderful and everyone on earth has one. Some people have very strong accents and can still be easily understood by listeners. This is about people being easily understood by others so they are not held back in their personal and professional lives by unclear speech. This is the same as an English speaker needing to speak Mandarin or French clearly to successfully use it at a professional level in China or France. It’s about ‘yes, gotcha’ rather than ‘sorry, what was that?’.

So – let’s say you have a good, motivated, hard working team member but they have unclear English pronunciation that IS causing problems for them when communicating at work.

Practise opening your mouth!

Photograph by Bigstockphoto

Step 1. Understand the difference between accent and pronunciation

I often hear HR professionals talk about an employee’s accent. I encourage you to stop talking about accents and start talking about English pronunciation.

What is important here is not ‘accent’, as I mentioned earlier. The issue is about how clear they are. So what we are focusing on is not ‘accent’ it is how clear their ‘English pronunciation’ is.

So, rather than referring to a person’s accent you should refer to their English pronunciation skills.

If your team member is ready, you could provide some training options as follows:

Step 2.  Awareness. Is the employee aware that they are sometimes unclear?

Most managers have a performance review process in place, and most reviews contain an element of communication. If your review template doesn’t, perhaps it’s time to include one. During the discussion about communication, ask the individual for their thoughts on their communication skills, and raise the topic of spoken communication skills.

You can start with positive framing; ‘So you’ve been speaking English a long time and your English is very good. How do you feel about it?’ or ‘Obviously your understanding of English is excellent. How do you feel about your spoken English?’ or ‘You are doing so well using English as a 2nd language everyday! How is it going for you? Is there anything you find challenging?’.

Introduce the concept of clarity by saying things like ‘Do people ever ask you to repeat what you’ve said?’ or ‘How do you feel about your pronunciation skills in English?’, ‘ English Pronunciation in the workplace is often challenging for people who speak English as a 2nd language. How are you going with it?’ or ‘Do you feel like people understand you easily?

If they identify that sometimes people don’t understand them easily, discuss when it happens – ‘Does this happen in certain situations? For example if you are on the phone or if you are nervous or speak fast?’

If the person is just starting to become aware they have difficulties with pronunciation set a few goals around paying more attention to it over the coming weeks. For example ‘So, you mentioned sometimes you feel like people don’t understand you easily. Between now and our next meeting I’d like you to think about what situations this happens in and think about which words people find it difficult to understand’.

By doing this you’re engineering pronunciation awareness. And a critical first step is giving the person time to become aware of the problem.

The ideal scenario is for the staff member to come to the realisation that they want to improve their English pronunciation themselves. Your role is to guide and steer them down the path of realisation. If the motivation to improve comes from the staff member rather than from a manager they achieve much better results from training.

Step 3. Offering assistance

At the next review what have the learned? If the person is having to repeat themselves often and people aren’t able able to understand them regularly they will have become much more aware of this occurring.

Once clarity is identified as an issue, in most cases the person will want to discuss potential solutions or they may have looked into some possibilities themselves.

Many people who research training find only general English courses which aren’t suitable for professionals with high level English. They’re not aware that English pronunciation training for professionals is available.

If your team member is ready, you could provide some training options as follows:

‘So you’ve identified that English pronunciation is an area you’d like to improve. That’s great. Here is some English pronunciation courses I know of. Have a look at these and see if there’s something you would like to do. We’d like to support you by providing you with time and / or funding for training. Remember that improving English pronunciation takes time and effort, so you’ll need to do around 15 minutes a day of practice for a period of time. Have a think about it.’

Employers can support their staff by offering part or full funding of English pronunciation training and or suggesting they complete their lessons during work hours.  Comprehensive courses by Star Pronunciation start from $409 per course. These are available online so people can study in the privacy of their own homes or online from work in a quiet office space.

If your workplace has lots of ESL speakers, posters with “support for English language improvement, just ask your manager” can have a big impact as well.

In the past we’ve written articles, provided presentations and even arranged to do assessments in the office to raise pronunciation in the workplace in a manner that allows the individual to opt-in and raise the topic in a friendly context.

Resistance to engage in training

If the staff member has unclear speech but does not view it as something that needs improvement after this process, there’s probably not that much that can be done.

I have worked with staff who have been made by their employees to engage in the training. This is damaging to both parties. The employee is annoyed at having to complete the training and feels undermined. As a result they don’t do the practice, so they don’t improve. This makes the employer frustrated because there is no change occurring.

Keep promoting their awareness of their spoken communication and continue to be open to talking about it. One day the penny may drop – they may realise that unclear speech is holding them back and that they want to do something about it.

Step 4. Respect Privacy

I have often been asked by managers if they should suggest that colleagues correct the person engaged in training. It is recommended that if an employee engages in English pronunciation training that it be kept confidential. This will avoid unwanted attention being drawn to the person’s pronunciation. It is far better that they are able to work on improving without unwanted scrutiny from their colleagues.

It is for privacy reasons also that online training suits many people. Allowing them to complete their lessons and listen-and-repeat exercises from the privacy of their own home.

Step 5. Make it happen

If someone is being held back by their pronunciation, in the vast majority of cases they will want to do something about it. If you’re a people-manager or recruiter, giving people that help is very rewarding. Managers in the past have told me helping a staff member to speak clearly was hugely satisfying  because of how it impacted on their career and relationships with colleagues. That’s my ultimate advice; start the conversation and you’ll see the benefits.

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