When a supervisor at a Colorado potato plant was accused of sexual harassment, the company claimed it wasn’t liable since it had taken “reasonable care” to prevent the behavior. According to the Spud Seller Inc., the employee hadn’t taken advantage of the employer’s protections outlined in its HR policies. But a judge dismissed the argument because the handbook that outlined the Spud Seller’s anti-harassment policy was written in English. The alleged victim only spoke Spanish.
“The issue is whether these efforts constituted ‘reasonable care’ to prevent sexual harassment,” Judge Marcia Krieger wrote in her 2012 decision.
So, the Spud Seller ended up paying out a $255,000 settlement “to avoid the cost and uncertainty of a trial and to buy its peace” – a cautionary tale about overlooking the importance of translation when drafting HR policies, codes of conduct and manuals.
“One of the defenses employers have against sexual harassments is a well published sexual harassment policy,” said Donna Ballman, an employee-side employment law attorney and author of Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired.
“But if your employees can’t understand the policy, you could lose that defence.”
Employee policies have become a focus for professional translators as of late, with multinationals continuing to standardize their approach to HR management across the globe.
“We see all this effort put into the English version. A lot of legal hours go into these polices,” said Matt Heenan with Eriksen Translations. “If all that effort isn’t replicated in the translation, you’ve got problems.”
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Regulatory Hot Water
In a research paper titled “English is Not Your Exclusive Company Language,” law firm White & Case noted that “in the old days … multinationals ran global HR as siloed operations, with little day-to-day co-ordination from headquarters.”
But now, with HR personnel at a centralized headquarters issuing global communications in English to cut down on translation costs and misinterpretations of company policies, White & Case cautioned that English-only communications can land multinationals in regulatory hot water.
“Translating key employee communications is usually a good HR practice and often makes good business sense,” reads the White and Case study. “A multinational trying to launch a global code of conduct, a global whistleblower hotline or a global pandemic policy can find itself under a de facto duty to translate in many jurisdictions.”
Countries like France, Belgium and Mongolia – as well as the Canadian province of Quebec – prohibit all employee communications that aren’t written in the native language. And the punishments for breaking those laws can be substantial, with a major US corporation fined $800,000 by the French government for issuing English health and safety documents to employees in France.
“It is a common and legitimate concern,” said Heenan, director of client services at Eriksen, who added that improper translations can also pose a risk of liability.
“You need to be a translator that understands employment law,” he said.