Language Services Pilot program aimed at making FAS workplace more inclusive

According to the American Community Survey (ASC) conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2019, more than 35% of Texas residents were speakers of a non-English language (higher than the national average of 22%). That life experience is reflected in Financial and Administrative Service’s (FAS) multilingual workforce and customer base, and for some staff and customers, being able to communicate at work in a language they easily understand can be a challenge. To start addressing this linguistic need, FAS recently launched a translation and transcription pilot program as a complement to the use of Google Translate on the portfolio’s webpages. Although the pilot will not fully meet all of FAS’s language needs, it is a good first step toward better understanding the workplace while encouraging positive interactions and relationships between coworkers, employees, and managers, as well as between service providers and customers.

“Equity, diversity, and inclusion remain mission-critical to the FAS culture,” wrote Senior Vice President and CFO Darrell Bazzell in an email launching the program. “Our responsibility to each other is to create conditions that reflect our core values and support the growth and inclusion of all FAS employees. Our workplace is more multilingual than it has been traditionally, and our operations, business practices, and systems need to adapt accordingly.”

The pilot program, housed in FAS Business Services (FBS), is centrally funded and provides translation and interpreter services to FAS employees so they can have access to various FAS and university content, including policies, programs, and trainings.

“There's a basic need for just staff to be able to communicate, and communicate in the languages that they understand,” said Tatiana Calliham, FBS assistant vice president. “We want people to show up as their true authentic self every day. And being able to communicate is a pretty basic need.”

The initial rollout includes leadership messages and other communications as requested by departmental leadership and arranged by FBS via the FAS Human Resources Support Services’ (HRSS) ServiceNow Portal. Department leadership can use the portal to request translation of written materials and staff can request translation service for meetings with FAS HRSS. Services offered include translation of written documents, transcription of recorded audio/video, translation of recorded audio/video with captioning, and live translation via phone or video. The current supported languages include:

  • Arabic
  • English
  • Farsi/Persian
  • French
  • Kinyarwanda
  • Spanish
  • Swahili
  • Turkish
  • Vietnamese

Researching and developing the pilot program and rollout involved the coordinated efforts of a number of individuals across several FAS business units and characterizes FAS’s core value of teamwork. FBS, FAS HRSS, and FAS Communications all collaborated to explore the needs of units and individuals in order to create the pilot program.

“We spent a lot of time researching what language services were already available on campus,” said Calliham. “We contacted business contracts and the Dell Medical School to see what they were doing because Dell Med provides translation services to patients. We knew Spanish was a need but suspected that other languages were also in demand.”

Calliham said the team met with several FAS business units with large staff populations where English wasn't their first language and asked them for input. One thing the team quickly realized was that translation was just a small piece of what is needed.

“At the same time, we understood we could provide translation services quickly and that it was a good place to start addressing the portfolio’s language needs,” said Calliham.

In addition to the translation and transcription services, the FAS Communications team has been rolling out Google Translate as a free tool for translating some written text and webpages. Visitors to 10 FAS business unit websites now have the option of using a Google Translate button placed prominently at the top of the page to toggle the language setting to their preferred choice. James Buratti, FAS Communications digital strategy manager, settled on Google Translate because of advances in machine translation.

“I did a deep dive into programmatic language translation, which really follows two methods, traditional statistical machine translation and neural machine translation,” said Buratti. “Statistical machine translation uses models to create translations of word pairs and works well for short, simple translations but is less accurate with longer, more complex sentences and grammar rules. Neural machine translation examines entire sentences, still applying mathematical models, but with much more complexity examining words in the relation to all the other words in the sentence. Google Translate employs both methods depending on the content being translated to create a highly accurate translation.”

Buratti also had Spanish and Japanese native speakers test Google’s webpage translation precision and found that the tool did an accurate job of translating the pages. Buratti’s review of the academic literature available about the accuracy of various other language translations done by Google showed an accuracy of 70% to 95%+ depending on the language.

FAS will continue to assess the pilot program as it rolls out across the portfolio, and data collected will determine the future format and scope of language services in the portfolio. All of this feedback will help FAS assess language preferences and needs to form a long-term strategy that fully addresses employee linguistic inclusion.

“We hope to continue offering the translation and transcription services we are testing, and to expand their use to other spaces,” said Mary Kemp, administrative manager. “Some other programs we have seen across campus include language classes and full-time translation staff. Depending on what we learn from the pilot, these could be invaluable additions to our portfolio.”

According to Binta Brown, director of diversity and talent management, other future areas that might benefit from increased language resources include meetings, social media, marketing, hiring, and onboarding practices.

Brown summed up the spirit and purpose of the pilot program—to perform our roles successfully, we all need to be able to read, write, speak, and listen—these are fundamental communication skills.

“We operate in a space in which employees have different language competencies, which reflects linguistic diversity,” said Brown. “Any language barriers will inherently impact how employees show up and interact with colleagues, customers, and their work.”

Employees are encouraged to share their feedback about the pilot program via the Idea Catcher.