Language skills in business: the case of Unibail-Rodamco

Jules Robert-Le Hérissé is HR Manager at Unibail-Rodamco, the European leader in commercial real estate. In this interview, he sheds some light on the stakes of language skills in the business world.

Language skills in business: the case of Unibail-Rodamco

In the era of globalization, linguistic diversity has become a central economic issue. Do you see language skills as an added value for the company?

More than an added value, language skills are often a hiring prerequisite, especially for European companies like Unibail-Rodamco. We highly value international profiles, which explains why we exclusively recruit, through our young graduates programme, people who have lived abroad and speak at least two to three languages (French and English are the basis, followed by Spanish and German). These profiles are an asset for the company because they allow for a cross-functional approach and a high degree of mobility, which will be important throughout the entire career management process.

In December 2017, we acquired Westfield, an Australian company which was our main competitor in the industry, and operates primarily in the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy. Unibail-Rodamco is therefore set to become the world leader in commercial real estate: more than ever, an international profile will be a hiring prerequisite.

However, to date, there are few studies that measure the economic benefit of these profiles for à company: it would be interesting for us to explore this dimension in the future.

Some people believe that monolingualism - speaking only one language - is on the verge of becoming 21st century’s illiteracy. Do you think that the labour market will be increasingly demanding multilingual and international skills, to the point where profiles that do not have these skills will be pushed aside?

Indeed, in a context of globalisation of exchanges, speaking only one language can be a discriminating factor on the labour market, because monolingualism is often associated with a lack of education or, worse, a lack of openness. I am saying this as an HR manager: a profile of this type sends up a few red flags.

But the importance of the linguistic factor depends on the scale to which we refer: I represent the point of view of a large international group, which can distort my judgment. Local dynamics obviously remain central to the recruitment process.

English, which is often perceived as the only international lingua franca, is gradually losing ground to languages such as Chinese, Arabic and Hindi. From the point of view of business, is English still invincible or at least indispensable?

In a group such as Unibail-Rodamco, English reigns supreme as the working language of all employees: all documents are produced in English, three-quarters of meetings are held in English and so are all communications with our stakeholders, whether Polish or Spanish. Since we are still a Franco-Dutch group, we translate some documents into French when necessary.

This adoption of English as the only language is part of a process of harmonizing processes and employee mobility between departments: our objective is that one of our French employees, for example, be able to integrate into our investment department in Sweden, then become a shopping centre manager in Germany, and so on, without great difficulty.

Although it is an economic asset, linguistic diversity also poses a number of challenges for the company. In your company, how do you approach these challenges?

To overcome this challenge, the role of training is central. At Unibail-Rodamco, with the help of external experts, we have developed a two-tiered language training policy: personalised face-to-face courses and e-learning courses, which enable learners to master their progression. All of our branches use the same mechanisms, which have proven to be effective.

In addition to this language component, we have recently developed intercultural training for our senior managers to develop their intercultural skills in an international negotiation framework, and for our expatriates to help them integrate into their host countries.

These training courses are conducted in a spirit of internationalisation, which is one of the four pillars of our HR policy. More generally, the human resources of the future will necessarily have to integrate this notion of diversity and internationalisation: we are working on it every day.