More Companies Recruit Bilingual Employees

Employers and staffing agencies get creative to find capable bilingual workers.

Whether it’s parlez-vous français, habla español or você fala português, more American companies are looking to recruit and hire bilingual employees. Several factors contribute to this trend, but there are two primary reasons for the increased need to recruit multilingual employees. They are (1) a growing immigrant population in the United States that is not fluent in English, and (2) American companies are becoming more global—expanding their operations oversees, which requires employees to speak another language.

“Over the past two to three years, we have seen an increase in companies asking us for employees that have a language besides English,” says Teresa Setting, vice president, recruiting and retention, at Troy, Mich.-based Kelly Services, a temporary employment and staffing firm. “We’re finding that more companies are becoming global, and, as the U.S. population diversifies, companies want to market to these ethnic groups.”

As requests for bilingual employees grow, demand is primarily increasing within the pharmaceutical, life sciences, technology and financial services sectors for managerial candidates with bilingual skills, according to Chris van Someren, president, global markets, at Los Angeles-based Korn/Ferry International, which specializes in executive recruitment. This need can be attributed to the increasing global presence of U.S. companies. More American firms have divisions or manufacturing facilities overseas.

In the United States, the greatest need for bilingual employees is occurring in the consumer services sector in such areas as banking, retailing and telecommunications. Within these industries, bilingual employees are needed to fill positions such as call or customer service center personnel, receptionists and secretaries, and medical and legal administrative staff.

Customer Assistance Employees

“The majority of our bilingual staffing needs are for customer call-in centers,” says Jeanne Pardo, regional director for South Florida at Atlanta-based Randstad North America, an employment services firm. “Depending on the call center, 15 to 20 percent of a center’s staff is working in a bilingual capacity.”

The need for bilingual customer assistance workers can vary depending on what area of the country a company serves. In general, Spanish is the most highly requested language, due to the 40 million-plus Hispanic population, which is still growing. However, there is an increasing need for Chinese and Vietnamese on the West Coast and for French and Portuguese on the East Coast, due to increasing populations from these immigrant groups. Haitians and many African immigrants speak French, while Brazilians speak Portuguese. At the managerial level, if a company requests that a candidate have foreign language skills, Western European languages, such as French and German, still remain desirable, van Someren says. Japanese also is requested at times.

“(However) Spanish is usually the first choice for companies requesting a bilingual employee,” says Luis Rodriguez , branch manager at Manpower Inc. “And as the Hispanic population grows, there is, and will continue to be, a need for Spanish-speaking employees.”

One company that is marketing to Hispanics is Atlanta-based HomeBanc. Due to the large growth in the Hispanic population in the Atlanta area, HomeBanc, which provides mortgage services, is targeting Spanish speakers. To attract and service this sector, HomeBanc is recruiting bilingual employees. The bank’s recruitment efforts focus on such positions as loan officers, administrative staff, and closing and mortgage processing personal.

“We have had tremendous success recruiting Spanish-speaking staff,” says Heidi Stevens, sales recruiter at HomeBanc. “And by having staff that speak Spanish, we have been able to attract and market to the Hispanic population.”

Finding the Bilingual Candidate

Yet, finding a bilingual candidate at times is not an easy task. Languages such as Spanish, French, and even Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese have a larger candidate base to hire from than such languages as French Creole or Tagalog, which is spoken in the Philippines.

“We receive requests for many unique languages,” says Kelly Services’ Setting, “and finding a candidate that speaks Chinese with a certain dialect, for example, is difficult.”

To fulfill a client’s request for a language for which it is difficult to find a speaker, Kelly Services has collaborated with translation firms. For those unique languages, Setting explains, it does not make sense to have a full-time employee on the payroll.

Creative Recruiting

To find employees who have a sales background and are fluent in Spanish, HomeBanc recruiters have become resourceful. HomeBanc has joined and now participates in such organizations as the Latin American Association of Atlanta, the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the National Society of Hispanic MBAs. All of these organizations, according to HomeBanc’s Stevens, are a rich resource since they not only have fluent Spanish speakers, but candidates with the required educational background and business skills needed. In addition, through membership, recruiters also have the ability to post job announcements in the organization’s newsletter.

At Manpower’s Miami office, “open houses” for bilinguals are held, allowing the company the ability to target a specific group for their language skills. For example, due to the growing Brazilian population in South Florida, Manpower might conduct an open house for Portuguese speakers.

Salary can vary depending on the geographical market and what additional skills are required for the job. For example, some call centers will pay 50 cents to one dollar more an hour, according to Randstad’s Pardo.

Manpower’s Rodriguez says that, in the South Florida market, employers don’t usually pay more for a bilingual employee. “It’s a given that being bilingual is part of the job requirement.”

Testing for Language Capabilities

Many candidates say they are bilingual, but are they bilingual in financial transactions or technical terminology? To verify that a bilingual employee not only speaks a second language fluently with knowledge of the proper vocabulary for the position, many recruiters test candidates during the interview process. At Kelly Services, the company has created in-house validated tests, both oral and written, for 37 languages.

“We do all of our interviews in the language that is requested,” says Manpower’s Rodriguez. “And it doesn’t matter if they are native or fluent in that language. If they are applying for a job that requires bilingual skills, we test orally, as well as administer a written test.”

As Stevens points out, even though a prospective employee might be fluent in the language needed, it does not mean they have the necessary skills required for the position. At HomeBanc, prospective employees not only have to be fluent in Spanish, but they also must speak English, along with having previous sales experience.

The Future

As the purchasing power of immigrants across the United States grows along with globalization of markets, companies are recognizing that they have to have a workforce that reflects their consumer bases, both language and cultural awareness-wise, explains Mark Bailey, director of staffing at Minneapolis-based General Mills. “Our objective is to find the best talent that we can for any position that is open … and knowing a second language does create an advantage,” Bailey says.

Tips for Recruiting Bilingual Employees


  • Know the specific language requirements needed before starting any search for a bilingual employee. Does the client want the employee to be proficient in both English and Spanish, for example? Do employees need to have proficiency in business or medical Spanish vocabulary?
  • Have the prospective bilingual employee take an oral exam given by a native speaker of the particular language needed. The oral exam should be on the required subject matter for the position. For example, if working at a customer call center for a credit card company, the oral exam should include questions that deal with credit card transactions.
  • Administer a written test in addition to an oral exam. Again, this test should reflect the subject matter of the employee’s work. Another method to test if a candidate is fluent in a language is to provide the candidate with an employment application in that language.


  • For example, at Atlanta-based Randstad North America, an employment services firm, employees applying for positions that require Spanish must fill out a job application in Spanish. “If they can’t fill out the application in Spanish, then that’s a good indication that they don’t speak the language fluently,” states Jeanne Pardo, regional director for South Florida for Randstad.
  • Use traditional and nontraditional methods to find bilingual applicants. The traditional method to find bilingual applicants is placing an employment announcement in the newspaper. However, other methods that recruiters often try are participating in an ethnic group’s local organizations, joining their Chamber of Commerce, supporting their service organizations or even recruiting at their churches. When going the traditional route, place ads in newspapers that serve particular ethnic groups, for example, a local Spanish language newspaper.
  • Hold a diversity job fair. Job fairs allow recruiters to bring together a larger group of prospective employees.
  • Collaborate with English as a second language programs. These programs tend to have individuals from several ethnic groups and can provide a greater language base.

How Many Foreign Languages
Do Executives Speak?

Korn/Ferry International asked visitors to its web site the following question: “How many languages do you speak?” Of the 12,562 responses they received, the answers were:

  • One language (36 percent)
  • Two languages (31 percent)
  • Three languages (20 percent)
  • Four languages (9 percent)
  • More than five languages (4 percent)
    Source: Korn/Ferry






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