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Recruiting and Retaining Bilingual Staff

Submitted by Andrea Bodkin and Estelle Duchon, HC Link

I Introduction

II Background

III Recruiting bilingual staff

IV Retaining bilingual staff

V When bilingual staff leave

VI Case Study

VII References and further resources


I Introduction

Recruiting staff in general can often be challenging. Finding just the right person with the ideal skill set, personality and experience can be difficult. Adding a specific and somewhat rare skill, such as an additional language, makes the difficult task even more so. This article is based on the resource “Finders Keepers: Recruiting and Retaining Bilingual Staff”, (PDF) which was developed in response to questions that we often hear: how do we find bilingual staff, and how do we retain them? While this resource was developed as part of our French Language Services Capacity Building series, it is important to note that the principles and steps in this article would apply to any language, community and culture.

II Background

It has become increasingly clear that the “causes of the causes” of poor health – the social determinants of health – must be addressed in order to improve individual, community and population health. Language and culture are one such determinant of health. Evidence strongly suggests that clients who receive services in their language follow health advice and instructions more closely, have less need for hospital services and stay healthier. Service-providers who offer services in French have a better understanding of their Francophone clients and can offer higher quality services that are more closely suited to their needs. However, a willingness and desire to be able to provide services in French is not enough: a number of factors and components must be in place in order for an organization to effectively develop and deliver French languages services (FLS) and ultimately, improve the health of Francophone communities.

Offering quality and effective services in French (or any language) is not solely dependent on having bilingual staff to deliver services. There are a variety of interrelated factors, such as: understanding Francophone contexts and their effects on health; engaging with Francophone communities; developing a comprehensive FLS plan; and building a bilingual organizational culture. While all of these pieces are important in creating an environment that supports FLS, in order to actually be able to deliver services in French you will need French-speaking and/or bilingual staff. We often hear from organizations that we work with that finding bilingual staff can be difficult, that hiring is complex and that retaining bilingual staff is even more challenging. In this article, we will discuss three important steps that improve the chances of success for organizations: recruiting bilingual staff, retaining them, and developing strategies to keep bilingual staff in your organization.

III Recruiting bilingual staff

Identifying the precise needs of your organization, developing a thorough recruitment strategy and assessing the French competency of candidates are integral steps in effectively recruiting bilingual staff.

Assess the needs of your organization

Clearly identify the human resources requiredto achieve your bilingual service delivery objectives. Be specific about the duties of the position and the level of Frenchnecessary to complete them. For example, a front-line positionmay require advanced oral skills and moderate written skills whereas a technical support position may require the opposite. You can then determine if the position should be designated bilingual or not. Having designated positions allows for consistency if/when the position becomes vacant –and the Francophone community and your partners will know the position is here to stay.

Also consider if you need a French-speaking person or a Francophone. Will this person do community outreach? Does this person need to understand Francophone cultures? Does she or he need an established Francophone network? What level of English proficiency (written and oral) does your organization/team require?

You may need to determine what, if anything, you are ready to compromise on. Finding the perfect candidate with the expertise and language skills might not be possible in the short-term. Consider if you are willing to provide additional training to a prospective candidate in order to bring their skills to the level that you need.

Recruiting candidates

It is simply not enough to indicate on an English job posting that the successful applicant must be bilingual. In order to attract bilingual candidates:

  • Post the ad in both languages (including on the French sides of websites such as Monster and Workopolis).
  • Post the French advertisement in French-language media, websites, listservs, etc.
  • Network by reaching out to your French partners and French organizations. Go to Francophone events with recruitment flyers.
  • Find bilingual candidates on bilingual groups on LinkedIn or bilingual job fairs.
  • In the English ad, include a line in French that the position is open to bilingual applicants.

Assess the competency of applicants

This is necessary for designated positions, but it may also be helpful to get an external assessment of the skills of candidates for non-designated positions. An assessment will also identify the current level of competency in both oral and written, as well as how the candidate could improve their French skills. It’s important to remember that assessing competency goes beyond language: if knowledge of Francophone culture and stakeholders is necessary for the position, include questions in the interview to determine the applicant’scapability. If you aren’t familiar with these contexts, consider asking a Francophone stakeholder or partner to be a part of the discussion or interview.

IV Retaining bilingual staff

It’s often thought that recruiting and hiring bilingual staff is the most difficult part of the equation. In reality, finding and recruiting just the right person is only the first step; once you have found them, you must keep them. There are two very important factors in retaining bilingual staff: building an environment that supports staff who work in two languages, and developing or maintaining a bilingual culture. While these might sound like the same concept, they are actually two separate (though related) concepts.

Build an environment where working bilingually is supported

Maintain a welcoming workplace:Make it clear that bilingual staff are welcome to speak French whenever appropriate.

Inclusion and collaboration:Make sure that your bilingual staff do not feel isolated and that they are included in the team. If there is the opportunity, allow staff to shadow someone in a similar position (even from another agency, a different service or a partner organization )for a few days.

Incentives: Some organizations offer bonuses to their bilingual staff in recognition of the additional work and skills required for the position.

Work in partnership: This is critical, particularly if there are no other Francophone/FLS staff in your organization. Working with partner organizations who do have bilingual staff will allow sharing of challenges and opportunities with colleagues in similar roles, in addition to providing an opportunity to speak French.

Policies and procedures:Consider what documentation must be available in French and include this in your organizational policies and procedures. A translation policy may also be helpful, outlining what translation work is done in-house versus externally. Consider limiting in-house translation to informal and small texts (e.g., 200 or 300 words) so as to not overextend your bilingual staff.

Tools: Ensure that bilingual staff haveaccess to the tools that they need, such as a French keyboard and dictionary and any materials needed to work with clients in French. Determine if you will need French administration and communication support.

Develop and maintain a bilingual organizational culture

In order to retain bilingual staff, it’s important to show that your organization has leadership, engagement and commitment to deliver FLS. Fully integrating FLS into the overall strategic planning of the organization is important. Often times, FLS is an “after thought” that is tacked onto existing plans. It’s also important that all staff (not just bilingual staff) are aware of the organization’s commitment and approach to FLS. To learn more about creating a bilingual organizational culture, read HC Link’s resource on the topic (PDF).

V When bilingual staff leave

It is quite common to have a high turnover amongst French-speaking/bilingual staff. There are a wide variety of reasons for this, from job descriptions not accurately reflecting the staff person’s actual tasks, to lack of recognition of the unique skills and attributes of bilingual staff.

HC Link has developed a checklist to aid organizations in identifying existing/potential conditions that may make it difficult to retain bilingual staff. The checklist can also be used as a planning tool to proactively create positive working conditions and can help you work through the questions and identify actions to take around some of these points. When asking these questions, it’s important to ask your bilingual staff directly for their perspective, and it may also be helpful to include non-French speaking staff. The checklist can be found in HC Link’s “Finders Keepers: Recruiting and Retaining Bilingual Staff” resource (PDF).

VI Case Study

Health Nexus Santé has been offering French language services in the health promotion sector for more than 25 years. As a designated bilingual organization, French is embedded into strategic and program planning and all levels of the organization’s structure. This includes designating several positions as bilingual, from the administrative to management level. To recruit bilingual staff, Health Nexus uses the methods mentioned in this resource and additionally works with a recruitment company that specializes in bilingual and French-speaking staff. Health Nexus assesses the French competency of candidates for designated bilingual positions and offers incentives for staff who conduct a specific percentage of their work in French. The organization also provides support for staff who are seeking to improve their French skills and Francophone staff are supportive of their colleagues’ efforts. Health Nexus is proud of its bilingual culture, where French can be heard spoken in meetings, in the hallways and in the lunchroom.

VII References and further resources

Work Together With Francophones In Ontario: Understanding The Context And Using Promising Practices, HC Link (2011) 

HR Support Kit: Pathway to Bilingual Services, RIFSSSO (2012) 

Resource Kit: Moving Toward a Bilingual Organization, Health Nexus and Reflet Salvéo, 2014 

HC Link’s resource series to develop organizational capacity to deliver French Language Services:

Working Together With Francophones in Ontario - Part One: Understanding the Context (2012) 

Working Together With Francophones in Ontario - Part Two: Legislation and Institutional Support (2012) 

How to Engage Francophones…When You Don’t Speak French! (2012) 

Creating a Bilingual Organizational Culture (2013) 

Finders Keepers: Recruiting and Retaining Bilingual Staff (2014) 

Additional resources from HC Link on Engaging and Working with Francophones: in English / in French