Challenge: US-based multinationals too frequently issue all-hands global employee communications in English, their would-be "official company language." But this can violate local laws.

In the old days — say, 15 years ago and beyond — multinationals tended to run their global human resources as "siloed" operations, with little intervention from corporate headquarters. In that bygone era, almost all employer communications to the local employees at a plant in, say, Montreal, would come from local Canadian HR, in French. Work rules for an office in, say, Tokyo, would be issued by local Japanese HR, in Japanese. And benefit plans for employees in São Paulo were generated by local Brazilian HR, in Portuguese.

In many respects, this regime continues today. At many overseas offices of US-based multinationals, local HR continues to issue routine HR communications to local work forces in the local language. The main difference these days is that, layered on top of these local communications, US multinational headquarters now proactively use intranets, e-mail and all-employee document distributions to issue certain global employee communications to their affiliates employees worldwide — in English. Think, for example, of a multinational headquarters that posts English-language global HR policies on a company intranet or that issues an English-language global code of conduct and whistleblower hotline communication, or that distributes English language global or regional compensation and benefits documents.

To facilitate these headquarters-issued global employee communications, some multinationals have gone so far as to designate English as their "official company language." After all (these multinationals reason), English fluency is necessary in todays globalized business world — particularly for employees who work for a US-based multinational (indeed, sometimes it may seem as if all of a multinationals employees worldwide, speak English anyway). In fact, even some multinationals headquartered in non-English-speaking countries have embraced this English-as-official-company-language model.

Unfortunately, though, a companys designation of English as its "official company language" is for the most part legally meaningless. Employers need to comply with the language laws in each country where they operate. Even if English were a viable lingua franca for business (and in many respects it is not; most people in the world, including many business leaders, do not speak fluent English), there are three legal doctrines that block a multinational whose headquarters communicates with its affiliates employees worldwide in English: (1) flat prohibitions, (2) enforceability barriers and (3) reception in local courts.

Best Practices Tip: Account for overseas local laws on language of employee communications before delivering any global employee communications, policies or codes of conduct.

1. Flat prohibitions: France, which sponsors an academy dedicated to upholding the integrity of the French language, has a statute called the Loi Toubon that in effect commands to French employers "Thou Shalt Communicate with Thy Local Employees Exclusively in French." In 2006, a US Fortune 10 multinational got fined about US$800,000 (halved on appeal from an initial fine of about US$1.6 million) for violating the Loi Toubon when its US headquarters issued English-language HR and benefits documents to subsidiary employees in France.

Quebec and Belgium have similar laws. Belgiums law grows out of the uniquely Belgian tension between Flemish Dutch and Waloon French, and requires employee communications in the local regional language. Quebecs law permits some employee opt-outs. In Spain, some "Autonomous Communities" mandate that certain employee communications be in both Spanish and the co-official local language (such as Catalan or Basque).

2. Enforceability barriers: The number of countries that actually can fine an employer for the offense of issuing an employee communication in a foreign language is relatively low. More common is a second tier of non-English-speaking countries whose statutes impose rules that in effect render foreign-language employee communications void. In these countries — which include Chile, Poland, Russia and Vietnam — an employer that tries to enforce (for example) an English-language global code of conduct against a local violator could find the codes rules per se unenforceable, as having been written in a foreign language.

A number of Central American countries, including Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, impose laws that actively invalidate work rules not issued in Spanish. Those laws are said to be a legacy of the era when monolingual American plantation bosses barked English-language orders at local banana workers, and fired hapless locals who did not obey. Other countries (including Mali, Mozambique, Nicaragua and Ukraine) affirmatively require that employment agreements be in the local language or in dual-language format.

3. Reception in local proceedings: In the rest of the non-English-speaking world — countries not in the previous two categories — local statutes tend not to regulate the language of employee communications at all. In these countries, English-language communications will not be per se illegal. But English communications will not likely be readily enforceable in local proceedings.

To understand the dynamic here, imagine the reverse situation. Hypothetically, think of Toyotas auto plant in Georgetown, Kentucky. Imagine if Toyota headquarters in Japan were to issue a global code of conduct in its own language — Japanese. If Toyota someday disciplined a Kentucky autoworker for violating a provision in that code, and if the autoworkers obligation to follow the code became an issue in local litigation, no Kentucky judge would hold a local Kentucky autoworker responsible for comprehending a Japanese-language text. This same analysis applies in the local courts and agencies of non-English-speaking countries, when an American multinational argues that a local employee should have adhered to some English-language policy or should have understood some English-language offering issued by American headquarters.

Indeed, this analysis comes up abroad even before a dispute makes its way into court. Outside the US, certain employer-issued policies and plans must be formally notified to local government agencies or local employee representatives (trade unions, works councils, health/safety committees). To be accepted, English-language policies and plans will almost invariably need to be translated. For example, in Haiti, Panama, Peru, Niger and many other countries, the law requires that employment agreements be filed with local agencies — in the local language.

Any employer can designate English as its official company language. Unfortunately, to translate all of a company's global HR communications — in this age of intranets, e-mails and global Human Resources Information Systems — can be especially impractical, although translating will always be a good HR practice.