Updated: Feb 24
The recruitment manager’s statement “you are not a native English speaker”, took me by surprise.
You see, I had applied for a Human Resources Business Partner (HRBP) role that to me, seemed like a standard role. I was confident that I would get a call back for an interview.
In addition to the standard criterion of – X years’ experience in the field at management level, the vacancy required one to be willing to travel (covering Nordic and some Scandinavian countries) and fluent in English at native level. I seriously thought I had all this in the bag, as I ticked all the boxes from the get-go.
Three months later, I received a generic email "Unfortunately, we will not be moving forward with your application. Best of luck in your career endeavours", wrote the recruiter in part.
As a job seeker, it was really frustrating to take the time to complete an application but not receive any constructive feedback about the application. I really wanted to know where I fell short, and any feedback was welcome. Thankfully, the recruiter had listed a contact number which I called immediately.
I gave a brief explanation for my call - feedback on my application for the HRBP role advertised on LinkedIn for the Nordic region reporting to X. My call was transferred to the recruiting manager who quickly questioned the purpose of my call because the application process had concluded. My call was put on hold after a “pleading like explanation” requesting for feedback.
The manager returned to the phone and stated that I did not meet one of the requirements that other candidates met. I pressed hard to understand the requirement I fell short of to be listed for an interview.
The manager’s statement “you are not a native English speaker”, took me by surprise. I was momentarily stunned and didn't respond immediately.
After picking my jaw off the floor, I asked whether up to this point, the manager had had any difficulty communicating with me. The sighing amidst half sentences finally culminated into a no. I politely asked where the impression that I was not a native English speaker had originated from, and whether this was evident in my application.
The manager could not provide an answer, but of course, I knew by then that my name and nationality truthfully included on my application, formed the basis for conclusions made about me. I expressed gratitude for the recruiter’s time before hanging up the phone.
The problematic concept of "native speaker"
The term "native speaker" has several definitions, and according to psycholinguistics the concept of native speaker is - vague and harmful terminology.
I do believe we need to question this job requirement or, at the very least, it’s phrasing. Because, what does it really mean to be a native speaker? What knowledge does it guarantee?
Are we (jobseekers) to presume recruiters want anglophone candidates who are from countries where the majority speaks English - filtering the pool of candidates down to seven countries - the United States of America, Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom?
So, to insist on white, native speakers smacks of ignorance when British imperialism has left behind vast numbers of people who are proficient in English across the world. Evidenced with English being a global language today.
I have often referred to the Oxford languages´ definition of a native speaker - "a person who has spoken the language in question from earliest childhood."
It does not necessarily mean that it is the speakers only language, but it means it is and has been the primary means of concept formation and communication.
Being native does not equate to fluency.
When organisations post job adverts “must speak English at native level”, they are assuming non-native speakers are not qualified, lack fluency in the dominant language and therefore lack the skills to do the job. Being native does not equate to fluency. That is a fallacy!
Equally, there is an unjustified bias against “people who speak with an accent”, and which causes contentious views about who is a native speaker and who isn’t. Everyone has an accent because an accent is simply how you sound when you speak.
Everyone has an accent because an accent is simply how you sound when you speak.
I am not suggesting that organisations exclude asking for necessary skills for the job. After all, language is part of communication skills that is pertinent to the job, just like computer skills are likely to be a skill requirement.
My point is that, the level of proficiency needs to be realistic and justifiable. For instance, the job description is inclusive if the requirement for “Spanish only speakers" is for translators or negotiators. It includes everyone who can speak Spanish, not just the natives.
As for me, I was born in a multilingual country colonized by the British. Meaning that the national curriculum is taught in English.
I have a master’s degree in Human Resources and Development studied in the UK. The latter was highlighted on my application for the HRBP role which I was not shortlisted for.
I am taking it that if you have managed to read this article up to this point, then my language skills are proficient. I do not have to be a “native English speaker” – whatever that means!
I believe organisations need to think about social responsibility issues. Job seekers need to be treated with respect and consideration after all, they have taken the time to fill out long applications.
It’s not enough for organisations to make statements on their websites about how inclusive they are or doing all the right things that are obliged, when in reality there are discrepancies between the statements and the behaviours. Organisations and recruiters need to do better!