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How to Create a Bilingual Pay Differential Policy

In a diverse and globalized world, many organizations provide additional compensation to employees who have the skills to communicate with clients and partners in more than one language. This pay incentive for a specific skill – in this case a language skill – is known as a pay differential. Pay differentials for language skills are common in government agencies, law enforcement, foreign service, healthcare, defense and intelligence, and customer service. Salaries are generally 5-20 percent higher for bilingual employees.

Why Create a Bilingual Pay Differential Policy?

Organizations use pay differentials for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Relationships: A bilingual pay differential helps your organization serve diverse customers, members or residents. It may also develop or strengthen international relationships by way of multilingual employees.
  • Hiring: A bilingual pay differential helps to attract and retain employees who speak the languages you need.
  • Compliance: A pay differential may ensure compliance with laws and regulations mandating that people have equal access to services, regardless of their language of preference. Title VI of the Civil Rights of 1964 is one such standard. Regulations may also mandate that a bilingual position receive more compensation.

Questions to Ask When Implementing a Bilingual Pay Differential

While establishing a bilingual pay differential might seem overwhelming, the process has well-defined steps. Before you develop a final program and policy, it may be wise to seek input from your HR department, labor organizations, and local or professional legal authorities. After reading this guide, you may still need to brainstorm, research, make a list and contact pertinent associates or authorities.

When establishing designated bilingual positions with extra compensation, ask yourself:

  • What positions need to be bilingual?
  • What languages might you need? Are there records indicating which languages?
  • What language skills does the position require?
  • What level of language proficiency is needed in the position?
  • Do you already have any employees who speak those languages?
  • What percent of work will be conducted in other languages?
  • Who will draft and finalize the pay differential policy?
  • Who will need to approve the policy?
  • What information must be gathered for these individuals?

Some of these questions will be more straightforward to answer than others. One question of particular importance to establish is: What language skills does the position require?

Language Skills and Testing

Languages have four major skills and other important skill considerations. Reading, writing, listening and speaking are the four broad skill categories. Pronunciation is sometimes delineated. Industry, governmental or academic standards make language skills transparent and comparable.

The questions below will help you establish the necessary language skills for a position and should be answered before developing a bilingual pay policy.

  • What combination of the four abilities do you need?
  • What proficiency level is needed for each skill?
  • Will the employee need to perform intermediate and advanced language tasks? These may include persuading clients or describing abstract concepts like a liability.
  • Will they convert language via interpretation or translation? This can take a higher level of proficiency, as well as more industry-specific vocabulary or language conversion experience. Translation or interpretation can require formal training, especially in the legal or medical fields.
  • Are there legal, medical or monetary risks of incorrect language conversions?
  • Must pronunciation be excellent from the hire date, or is there room to develop it?
  • What tasks do they need to perform in that language? For example, collecting patient histories, selling parking permits or writing emails?
  • How will you test proficiency in these skills?

It’s important to use a third party to test language proficiency. To find an employee who can do the job correctly and award them an appropriate pay differential, use a language testing company that meets or exceeds industry standards. They will administer tests that have the following attributes:

  • objectiveness – (unbiased) measures of language skills
  • validity – the test truly measures the skills it claims to measure
  • reliability – the test yields consistent results

Selecting Cut Scores for Pay Differentials

As an employer, once you’ve decided what skills you need to test, you’ll also need to decide on or consult with a company on, the cut score (or minimum acceptable passing score) for each skill. Designating cut scores helps you hire candidates with the right combination of language skills. Again, the skills might be all or a combination of these four: reading, writing, listening and speaking.

To help create cut scores, ALTA can provide a job analysis to determine the type of skills and level of skill needed in a particular position. Otherwise, we recommend consulting our ALTA scale to determine the skill level at each score, and which score level is right for your position.

Finally, in addition to determining what score is necessary to hire a candidate, determine what happens if a candidate does not pass. Will retesting be allowed? Decide on a retesting interval and who will cover the cost. Can they retest during work hours?

Creating a Written Bilingual Pay Differential Policy

The process for setting up a bilingual employee program varies based on your organization. One way to speed up the process is to check your preparation by consulting with an organization comparable to yours that already has a bilingual pay program. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Note measures you need to implement or eliminate unnecessary setup steps or policy components. Most considerations are detailed above and especially below, but check your action-step list against comparable organizations’ existing differential programs before taking massive action.

Most organizations, except perhaps small businesses, will need a written policy. It should outline the necessary steps. We have included below the section headings for two sample policies. Beyond deciding on a testing service, remember to develop testing policies.

When creating new bilingual-titled and differential-compensated positions, there may be many steps. Bilingual-designated specifications shall need to appear in many layers of the organization: in the hiring processes, payroll, training, timekeeping and organizational charts. Brainstorming early can save you from doubling back later.

A bilingual employee differential is often calculated as a percentage added to a monolingual position’s salary. A flat sum could be added per pay period or per monthly salary as well. Often, the extra compensation is prorated if the employee works part-time. Usually, a differential isn’t paid if they’re not actively working. For example, it’s not added to sick pay or vacation compensation.

Basic Structures for Sample Written Policies:

Below are two sample structures for written differential policies.

Sample 1:

  • Introduction of policy and basic explanation of the rationale for, and scope of, policy
  • Eligibility requirements based on position
  • The process to designate current employees as bilingual
  • The process to hire new employees
  • Language proficiency requirements & testing process
  • Bilingual pay specifications
  • Operating as a bilingual employee: considerations

Sample 2:

  • Purpose of bilingual policy
  • Percentage of pay and list of compensated languages
  • Eligible Positions
  • Testing requirements
  • Retesting and missed testing policies
  • Language usage authorization (can write documents, unofficial translation or interpretation)
  • General language communication expectations in the Workplace

Why Companies Choose ALTA for Bilingual Employee Testing

ALTA Language Services has been in the language business since 1980 and has provided language testing services since 1996. We have language tests available for all major industries. We’re also knowledgeable about the language needs and practices of many industries.
We help solve organizations’ bilingual hiring problems by handling the testing.

ALTA language tests are a valuable tool in the recruitment and training processes for government agencies, healthcare entities, school districts, major airlines, financial institutions and non-profits. Our thorough job analysis process defines the language requirements for any job in any industry, recommends the best test and sets a legally defensible cut score. We deliver thorough, sensitive and transparent (easy-to-understand) scores that enable organizations’ managers and compliance officers to make fast, informed bilingual hiring decisions.

Setting us apart from other affordable language solutions, our assessments are scored by trained expert evaluators who are educated native speakers of the target language. They’re not English speakers who learned it as a second language. Our evaluator training program and strict quality assurance system provide the highest levels of inter-rater reliability in the language testing industry. With little or no scheduling time required, and results guaranteed within two business days or sooner, our unparalleled suite of language testing tools will provide value to your organization as you define and implement your bilingual pay differential.

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