Language learning insights for companies

Unilever’s Success Story: Wake up call for English proficiency

The role of English proficiency in business growth and career development is undeniable in the era of globalization. International organizations today, are focusing more on developing a new set of skills to remain competitive in the future.

One of these organizations that focus their efforts on developing their talent, is Unilever.

Unilever is a consumer goods company founded in 1885. Since then, the organization has evolved incredibly owning today over 400 brands with a presence in 190 countries around the world.

Their range of products in food, refreshment, home, and personal care is used by 2.5 billion people every day.

We had the pleasure to interview Gina Soto, Learning Manager for Latin America and Home Care at Unilever, who after 16 years in the organization, has seen an unprecedented change in the way they do business: an increasing collaboration across borders and a crucial need to close the communication gap between different countries and regions.

From local to global

With over 155,000 employees across 68 locations, effective communication across borders is a crucial business need for Unilever.

“With so many functions spread around the world, we have numerous roles within the organization that require efficient communication with one another in one common language, English. It’s not enough today to sit in a local hub anymore, only working in your local market. You still need to interact with colleagues abroad that don’t share the same native language as you.

For example, in Latin America, we have interactions with people from our headquarters in Europe and other countries, where English is the primary language. Therefore, the most relevant and effective language for us to communicate as an organization is English.”

Change is a constant phenomenon within Unilever. The company’s efforts are focused on transforming their ways of working, generating new roles and positions and incorporating digitalization into their everyday ways of working. Unilever continuously tries to systematize processes, become more innovative, agile and more importantly, to be more connected globally.

“With that constant transformation, we need our people to simultaneously develop new skills in order to continue accomplishing our strategic goals as an organization”

We’ve seen a significant change in the skills that are required today, which are much different from the past. Before, there were only a few roles within the company that required proficiency in a second language. Today, the roles have reversed. Many of our employment positions will require the use of English, regardless of location.”

Developing the skills of the future: English Proficiency

As Unilever continues expanding, so does their need to develop their own talent, to ensure their workforce is equipped with the skills of the future. Traditionally, English was not an essential skill requested during the hiring process, and therefore many of their current employees lack English proficiency. The hiring process today looks much different. Companies look for fluency in a second language or third language as a top skill to have.

“We’ve seen a significant switch in the skills required to continue progressing professionally. We’ve had cases in Unilever where employees that have English as the second language can participate in global projects and expand their career opportunities in other countries.”

“That’s why we are constantly our efforts into developing our own talent. Instead of preparing them once they are ready to move into a focussing new position, we want to ensure all of our staff members are equipped with these new sets of skills.”

With an increasing need for English proficiency, Unilever has been running an English language training program to more than 1,160 employees, to help them address their present challenges. Also, the company is planning to provide the opportunity for all employees to continue learning and working in their professional development, helping to nurture their own workforce.

Times of change

When it comes to the modality of training, many learners have preferred the traditional way of learning: face to face. However, this preference is changing with the willingness to use digital tools.

“Most of our employees in Latin America are based in major locations. Traveling from A to B can take a long time, and consequently, many employees might miss training opportunities due to lack of time.

After we’ve introduced a flexible, adaptable and customized online training program, we could see a higher adoption rate from our employees and a significant change of mindset.

In Colombia, we had fewer than 20 employees enrolled in our English training program last year. The number raised to over 140 this year. Our employees don’t think of English proficiency as a “nice-to-have” skill anymore. They treat it as a priority that is essential in their careers.

Unilever is now training close to 400 employees a year in Latin America, with an 81% adoption rate, meaning most employees are making use of their learning platform. The results are already visible as the company now holds professional meetings and training in their local offices in English, with great engagement from their staff members.

“I am very happy to see the tangible results of our corporate training program so quickly. We are now able to hold training with foreign speakers”.

“The support we’ve received from EF from day one has been incredible and essential in this journey. We needed a strategic partnership with a supplier that is as innovative as Unilever and always a step ahead of the latest trends. And that’s what we have with EF”.

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