How To Help ESL Employees Prepare For Performance Reviews

Last Updated on August 16, 2019 by Estrella

How to help ESL employees prepare for performance reviews
How to help ESL employees prepare for performance reviews. Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst.

Have you ever done a performance review for an employee from another culture that takes way too little time? Especially the parts that indicate how they have improved themselves. There may be cultural reasons for this. And there are also solutions if you want more participation from the employee. Here are some ideas on how to help ESL employees prepare for performance reviews.

Ways to prepare ESL employees for performance reviews

How does cultural beliefs influence performance reviews?

Once a company asked me to help their immigrant employees get ready for performance reviews. The supervisors were not getting much input from these employees. Especially the part where they could let the company know that they have learned new skills and can offer more value now.

In some cultures, this is a matter of humility. In fact, there is an old saying in the tradition that I grew up in that says something like this. “If a flower smells fragrant, you don’t have to wave it around. People will naturally smell its lovely fragrance.” Translation? If you’ve done something of value, you don’t have to tell others. They will see it for themselves.

Can you see why this cultural belief could influence how someone presents herself in a performance review? Or an interview?

But that doesn’t help the company or the employee. Both miss out on potential opportunities.

Show ESL employees how they can advance through performance reviews

So what can you do about the cultural belief? Nothing. If this is what they grew up with, you are not going to change it in 5 minutes. All you can do is to share your experience. For example, you can share stories of how one person got a promotion because of what they wrote in their performance review. Or how someone got a raise.

Since these are results that employees want, there is no interference with their cultural belief system. In fact, it is in alignment with their beliefs. So you would not be creating an internal conflict by asking for this new behavior.

Then give some specific examples of what others have written that got them those great results. And depending on the English fluency of the employee, you may need to be more specific with the wording that they could imitate.

And reassure the employee that writing down her achievements would not be perceived as bragging or boasting in this context. In fact, it helps the company. Because supervisors are often busy with many tasks, they can’t always keep up with who is taking classes to learn new skills. And the company would benefit from their new skills if only the supervisors know about it.

Help ESL employees with writing specifics

One of the differences in writing styles I notice when working with ESL clients from some parts of the world is general vs. specific. When I taught college writing, these ESL students often write general statements. They don’t include specific examples. So, show ESL employees how to write specifics so the company can recognize the value. Instead of “improved English skills”, write “completed class in technical writing.” This could make a difference in their value to the company.

Hire a trainer to help ESL employees prepare for reviews

All this preparation is a lot of work. For both you and your employees. If you don’t have the time to do it, hire someone to do this for you. Or find someone in the company who is really good in helping others practice a new skill. Doing this in a small group will be more effective than a large one. Since bragging about one’s accomplishments is unacceptable in some cultures, working with a smaller group would feel more comfortable. One-by-one is an alternative too, if you have the time and staff to do so.

To summarize, if you can help your ESL employees perceive benefits of writing about their achievements in performance reviews, you’ll have a more productive meeting. By not creating an internal conflict with their belief system, you’ll make the new behavior easier to adopt. Have a trainer who can help ESL employees write specific details and prepare for performance reviews. By providing these tools, your supervisors will gain a lot more from these meetings. And so will your ESL employees.

If you find this article helpful, here is one on How to facilitate meetings with international colleagues.

Estrella Chan coaches immigrants and international professionals in English fluency, interview skills, and public speaking.    To schedule a session with her, please email

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