How to deal with a coworker whose first language is not English?
July 11, 2017 12:05 AM   Subscribe

I have been asked to review a coworker's very important standard operating procedure document. Difficulty: I am a middle-aged white gentleman, and she is a member of a traditionally underrepresented group in our industry, and her work in this case is egregious. Seriously, the only revision I can think to make to this document is to completely rewrite it myself.

Rosa is a nice lady from a South American country who came to the United States about 12 years ago to study engineering. She is smart and dedicated. A couple of months ago Rosa was assigned to work on The Difficult Standard Operating Procedure Document.

I realize that Rosa's first language is not English, but the document Rosa produced is the most egregious synonym of egregious written work you could possibly imagine. My stomach hurts just reading it. Aside from not being usable, there is no way this document will pass an external configuration review. I am the most experienced member of the team who is not a manager, so my manager assigned me to review Rosa's document, and work on the new version of the document. I'm really dreading it for a few reasons.

The first is that Rosa is a member of a traditionally underrepresented group in our industry, and we work for an entity that values diversity more than any other entity ever. While you could say the diversity I bring to our team is age and more experience than half the team put together, the truth of the matter is I am a white middle-aged cishet male and people like me are regraded as the devil, personally responsible for 10,000 years of oppression and patriarchy as far as the diverse entity we work for is concerned.

The second reason is Rosa previously asked me to review a document she wrote. I reviewed that document and made some suggestions. One was that she remove the stupid picture of a dude scratching his head that she had in her document twice. She didn't incorporate any of my suggestions, and that's fine, when the document goes for the external configuration review she can defend it.

The third is Rosa wrote this very important document, and actually thinks her document is good. What is supposed to be a step by step Standard Operating Procedure Document is largely incomprehensible gibberish that will need to be heavily edited.

My concern is that I will flip out on Rosa while working on the new revision of her document, which in turn will lead me to appearing before HR as an uncivil person who does not appreciate the diversity a non-native English speaker brings to very important documents.

So Mefites, especially those traditionally underrepresented peoples working in a field like engineering, can you offer me any advice? I have about a week before Rosa, my boss, and I will be back at work at the same time, so I have some time to think about what to do. I just want to have a document that is usable without causing any hard feelings for Rosa.

Right now my plan is to completely re-write this document on my own time (even if it means my vacation will be a busman's holiday) and then run it by my manager and Rosa. I'm even willing to put only her name on it if it means that our Difficult Standard Operating Procedure Document won't be egregious.

I also have a wall of text email to send to my manager stating the problems with this document, but I wanted to get some advice here before I sent it.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (35 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think you just to reframe how you think about, and how you present this task. Take the old white guy versus "visible minority" dichotomy out of it. Because this is leading you down the route of catastrophic thinking.

Reframe the way you feel about this **draft** document. You use the word "egregious" at least twice. That's pretty strong language. It's also negative.

Reframe the way you think things are going to go, specifically "My concern is that I will flip out on Rosa while working on the new revision of her document." How you react is something you can most definitely control.

Reframe the way you think about Rosa. Of course she thinks this document she has probably spent a ton of time on is going to be good. My guess is that she didn't get where she is without some self-confidence. But you're encountering a challenge **all** editors must face: how to improve a document without alienating the original writer. It's a fucking pain in the ass, but totally normal.

I'd also suggest taking Rosa out of the picture, and just focus on the document. Make sure all communications with your supervisor focus **just** on the draft, and not her at all.

I would also suggest deleting your wall of text email, and just send very short emails of 1-2 sentences to your supervisor. Wall-of-text emails are a pain in the ass for the recipient to have to read, and do nothing to help improve your position. You just become part of the problem.

My suggested approach is for you to create a bulleted list of 3-5 things that need to be improved. If it's a five-point list, 3 of the points should be things that are straightforward to fix ("include a new intro", "rearrange X, Y and Z"), and 1 or 2 bullet points should be very broad ("revise and rewrite to improve overall flow of document"). The goal is to present your collaborator with things she should be able to address easily. If she doesn't, you at least have a place to start from when escalating to your supervisor.

Be sure to cc you supervisor on that first email, to demonstrate your concrete feedback, and your clear, impartial, collegial communication style.

If the article needs to be rewritten, and you're the person that has to do it, then discuss with your supervisor and get the extra time. This is not the end of the world, but then again I'm a professional writer, and I am quite used to quickly and efficiently rewriting the shit out of complicated documents written by other people.

I also have experience working with people whose first language is not English, and I admire them. I can't write at all in Spanish, for example. So I try to let them know how much respect I have for them for getting this far.
posted by My Dad at 12:31 AM on July 11, 2017 [77 favorites]


Ugh. Speaking as both a manager and someone who is a member of an underrepresented group in engineering -- this situation is your manager's fault, not Rosa's. It is inappropriate of your manager to assign work to someone who is unqualified to do it, and who they presumably knew was unqualified to do it, and it is also inappropriate of them to put someone on their team in the involuntary position of being the bad guy who has to deliver the negative feedback about the quality of the work -- which your manager clearly hasn't done because Rosa thinks the document is good.

Tell your manager (nicely, in person, and not over email if you can help it) that your personal feeling is that it doesn't make much sense for you to review the document because it needs so much work that it would be faster to rewrite it from scratch, and the last time you reviewed Rosa's written work she didn't incorporate any of your feedback, so what would your manager like you to do -- edit the document anyway, rewrite it from scratch, or what? And do what your manager wants.

Then (if you really feel the way you say you do in the post and aren't just exaggerating out of frustration) maybe start looking for a job at an entity where you feel valued as a contributor.
posted by phoenixy at 12:36 AM on July 11, 2017 [56 favorites]


Yes, is your manager generally incompetent or did they just misjudge this situation badly? Ideally, they should be delivering the feedback and they should own the solution, whatever that turns out to be. What i mean by that is that they decide what the next steps are going to be.

I'd ask the manager for a conversation, explain the problems with the document (i.e. not that it is difficult to read, contains silly pictures or whatever but the reasons, why it will not pass the external review in its current form), explain that previous feedback was ignored by Rosa and ask them how they would like to proceed. Once they have decided you execute, if that is part of the solution they decided. If they want to risk failure in the external review that is their choice. And if you are asked to fix the document or redo it don't do it in your spare time.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:13 AM on July 11, 2017 [2 favorites]


I would suggest putting any opinions about the policies of your employer aside for now, and just revise this document as if it had been written by a "smart and dedicated" colleague. That's your specific task here. Now, I may be reaching here, but it sounds like a value that your employer would appreciate is empathy. So perhaps be empathetic instead of patronising, generous instead of frustrated, and instructive instead of exasperated. If that's proving to be too difficult, aim for unemotional at the very worst.

Here's an exercise in empathy: if a version of you five/ten years ago had written this document, what advice would you give to yourself? How would you like this to be handled? If your boss threw away your work and re-wrote it from scratch without giving you the chance to improve your work, would you appreciate it?

I'd definitely suggest not sending that wall of text email. Emotional over-investment like this looks very unprofessional from another party's perspective.

I'm hesitant to over-analyse, but your exaggerated comments about the diversity policies of your employer slightly concern me too. It suggests that either you are deeply sceptical of the notion of diverse employment, or that you honestly believe that you aren't able to offer fair and unemotional criticism based on the professional experience for which you were employed. If it's the former, then I'd suggest meditating on how much empathy you're actually giving and how open-minded you're actually being. If it's the latter, then I'd raise it to your manager, but completely detached of any specific person/task.
posted by Magnakai at 1:30 AM on July 11, 2017 [36 favorites]


Genuine question/request for information:

Is the main problem with the document the writing, or the ideas it presents? That is, if you just stripped out all verbiage and looked at a bare-bones outline of the steps and information being documented, is everything that needs to be there present and accounted for, does it exist in a logical order, is there extraneous information, etc.?

I ask because I've been in the situation of being overcome by the sheer horror of someone's writing, and then finding, as I rewrite, that the basic substance being presented is actually okay, it's just the presentation that's a pit of despair. If that's the situation you're in, that might have a lot of bearing on how you can handle things and make a case to Rosa and your boss.

(And if not, the problems with substance are those that you need to be talking about, rather than matters of composition and style.)
posted by trig at 1:41 AM on July 11, 2017 [17 favorites]


If it makes you feel any better, I'm going to tell you a Hollywood screen writing insider secret: When someone is brought in to "polish," or "edit," or "punch up" a script - the only right way to do this is completely rewriting the script. This usually means dual credit, or single credit for the first writer with significant financial reward for the real writer that really wrote the script. In other words, total rewrites without credit are A Thing.

It's not right, and it's not fair, and Rosa's written product will not improve via this system, but it is A Thing that happens. I do not know about your industry, but this is A Thing that you are implicitly being asked to do.

I just want you to know this task you have been assigned is likely representative of this existing paradigm. What is the best response in the system you work in?
posted by jbenben at 1:43 AM on July 11, 2017 [7 favorites]


Here's some advice: Be a good person and don't "flip out." That's bullshit, as is your cis-het white men are "regarded as the devil" victim canard.

Be the professional you claim you are; offer the appropriate amount of feedback and advice; don't "flip out" if she doesn't take it; don't make basic job shit into monumentalized good vs. evil narratives; go home and have a beer/vermouth/cocoa/vicodin/oatmeal/colonic/whatevs.

(If, of course, "the appropriate amount of feedback" is to rewrite the whole thing, then go 'head with that. But it's unclear whether or not that's the case.)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 2:33 AM on July 11, 2017 [72 favorites]


If I were you I'd do whatever was necessary to navigate the process as smoothly as possible, track all the extra time it took, and when the dust settles, politely and firmly inform Those Who Matter that you will never do it again. And tell them why, and explain the level of effort it took, and try to frame it as a learning opportunity for management so they can avoid causing such drama in the future.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 2:36 AM on July 11, 2017


You've been asked to review the text, so you have a mandate. That makes things easier, actually. Don't let yourself be side-tracked by anything else than concentrating on

a) helping Rosa understand that what she wrote isn't good yet.
b) improving the document.

Any type of writing needs editing. Writing by non-native speakers typically needs much editing--overwhelmingly much. Not everyone understands that they don't write well; some are defensive about that last bit, for which one can have a lot of sympathy. Imagine yourself in another country, actually having managed to write a standard operating procedure document in the local language, and your native co-workers are all over you for not doing it right. I imagine you'd expect some praise from them before their criticism starts, because you actually did well, from your perspective.
To make lesser writers understand that improvement is necessary and possible is part of the process of editing. Your basic methodology here needs to be informed by pedagogy.

The important thing: although a bad text hurts, it is not the product of an evil act of the writer; the sweetest person can end up writing a Text From Mordor without even realizing it. To flip out isn't the right answer. Your task should be to find the pedagogical approach that works best for Rosa, to get better at explaining things so she understands what you mean.
posted by Namlit at 2:59 AM on July 11, 2017 [4 favorites]


> I have been asked to review

Then review. I understand the need to vent, and I'm glad you've done it here not at work, but everything else is superfluous to the problem at hand.

> My concern is that I will flip out

Dude. Self-control. I am confident you can clear the (very low) bar of not actively yelling at people.

But I do think that to cover your own back you should ask for clarification of what "review" means. Are you even being asked to make changes? Who gets the final decision about any changes you make?
"Person in change, I've had a very quick look and I think there's a fair bit of work still to be done. Do you want me to kick it back to Rosa with notes, or do you want me to go ahead and edit directly? If so, how deep do you want me to go - a light pass for grammar and spelling, or structural changes? If you want me to edit directly, I'd prefer Rosa to have final say over any changes I suggest, so she can confirm I haven't screwed up any of her work."
I'm giving up two scenarios there but they're Hobson's choice really, because in both final responsibility for the document doesn't land with you. If you do end up editing directly, make sure it's in a tool where the edits can be easily accepted/rejected by Rosa ("Hi Rosa, I've made a bunch of changes but they're just suggestions, please feel free to accept/reject as you see fit").
posted by Leon at 3:34 AM on July 11, 2017 [24 favorites]


I've been Rosa (of a sort*) and let me tell you it sucks to be her (or me sometimes). I've managed to get myself to a point in my career where sometimes (thankfully not that often) I have to write memos or very brief reports in my non-native language simply because of the position I am in/job title. I've developed a few coping strategies but in the end somebody else usually has to rewrite my work unless it is internal to our team. This is deeply embarrassing to me, and I am eternally grateful to the people who do it, let me know in a neutral way that they had to do it, and then move on. Everybody else I work with knows that others have to take up the slack for me in that way. I often alternate between shame and a feeling of "Hey, they knew my limitations when they hired me. So why even ask me?" And, then try to work on it.

Embarrassment may have something to do with her seeming unresponsiveness to your initial suggestions (OK. I hate bad clip art too, but...) Speaking from my own experience, she may not really know how to act on feedback without asking you to explain it (taking up even more of your time) or asking for even more help.

You wrote that, "She is smart and dedicated." She must do something right.

Before you put in the time and effort to pursue any of the strategies above, I'd suggest it might help you to not flip out (Please don't. You will not feel better after you do.) or feel resentful if you can come up with a few positive things that Rosa does contribute to your team and keep them in mind. Even write them down on a post it or something.

*Caveat, I'm the middle-aged cis-het white guy in this scenario and that position of privilege is a large part of why I have advanced in my career. Just my my written Japanese still sucks.
posted by Gotanda at 3:59 AM on July 11, 2017 [12 favorites]


I had Trig's question too - is the problem the writing itself, or the ideas being presented?

If her ideas are sound, but are just really poorly written, then you don't have as bad a problem as you think. (Except for the whole fear you have about "flipping out" at her... why would you do that?). And a good way I've found to commenton writing is to ask a lot of questions - "this part here is not very clear, what is it you are trying to say?"...."I think what you're trying to say is [blah], but your use of the word [blah] suggests something else, which is it?..."

It would also help to know what kind of document you're talking about, becuase you may be able to use that ("this picture is funny! However, for presentations like this, this kind of funny picture isn't usually allowed, and you may want to take it out. I'm glad I saw it, though!").

If it really is just the writing that's the bad bit, then try really hard to make your comments strictly about the writing. She has ideas and you are trying to tell her about how she is conveying those ideas. If you are not sure what her ideas are, then that is the issue, not the ideas themselves.

If you are finding fault with her ideas themselves, however, then that's an entirely different problem. So it would help to know what the problems are.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:27 AM on July 11, 2017 [2 favorites]


If the ideas are bad, there's not much you can do. She's the one who was assigned to write it - they obviously wanted her ideas. One thing I've learned over the course of my career is that some ideas I thought were self-evidently bad were often exactly what my employer was looking for, and some ideas I thought were revolutionarily great were dismissed without second thought. So just because you disagree with them doesn't make them awful. And if they truly are awful, all you can do is register your opinion. Tell Rosa you disagree, tell your boss you told Rosa you disagree, and that's the end. Your boss has the final say, and your opinion probably won't affect it.

If it's spelling and grammar that's the problem, well, that's to be expected to some extent with a non-native speaker. If you can understand what they're trying to say, you owe it to Rosa to correct those mistakes. It's hardly her fault. Communicating in a different language is extremely difficult. When I was in high school, I was the AP French student of the year. One summer, my family took a trip to Niagara Falls, and the family in the room next to us was from Quebec. I saw this as a chance to show off my French skills, and I ended up having several confusing, stop-and-start conversations... with their three-year-old. I was the best French student in my entire school, and I could barely carry on a conversation with a barely-verbal toddler. Rosa is most likely not making spelling and grammar mistakes in a foreign language because she's lazy, or because she likes creating more work for her editors. Clean up what you can, and move on.

If the problem is more organizational, that she doesn't know how to structure a document of this nature, that's a more serious problem. Before you rewrite the whole thing, though, maybe share with her some materials about structure and outlining. It's possible she just never learned this. I'm always surprised when I meet co-workers from highly-rated suburban school systems in the US who don't know how to structure paragraphs with topic sentences, and then how to structure those paragraphs into an essay. People who write well can take it for granted that this is common knowledge, when it's actually not. And who knows what Rosa's education in composition was like.

If the document is truly egregious, as you say, that's more on Rosa than you. It wasn't your responsibility, and you shouldn't take on that burden unless you're asked. Just give her your feedback (as others have said, do it calmly, and make it only about the writing itself, not about her ideas or her personally), let your boss know about those concerns, and be done. You might also gently suggest that Rosa not be assigned similar projects going forward.

I may be reading too much into your question, but it sounds to me like you might be feeling underappreciated at work, that other people are getting more credit than you are despite inferior skills. If that's the case, don't make yourself into a martyr. Just look for another job.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:10 AM on July 11, 2017 [6 favorites]


Would it be possible for Rosa to submit her work in Spanish and for the company hire a translator?
posted by brujita at 5:11 AM on July 11, 2017 [4 favorites]


I'm Nthing the idea to separate the content from the presentation IN YOUR COMMENTS to her. In practice, poor writing is often a symptom of unclear thinking so the two things are not so seperable, but especially since Rosa is proud of her work, it'd be a lot easier to start addressing the issues if you say, "Hey, the ideas here are solid, I just wonder if we can tweak the language a bit..." than it would be if you think/say "the whole thing is awful."

The latter is what you are saying right now and it'd be nearly impossible not to hear this as an invalidating personal attack, whether or not the racial and gender politics are mediating the power dynamics between you and Rosa.

It's also a rather aggressive silencing to just rewrite the whole thing on your own, and this silencing will not go unnoticed by Rosa. It'd be profoundly humiliating, and frankly, it'd be a deep-cutting form of oppression that HR probably won't be able to address but Rosa will never forget.

I wonder if you can actually put some of your workplace's diversity principles to work-- find out why Rosa thinks the document is good. She must have her reasons. Find out her rationale.
If you have the right kind of rapport, you can rewrite together. You can still deal with most of the writing, the grammar, the mechanics, but doing it together will give Rosa a sense of agency and the opportunity to explain herself or to push back on things with which she doesn't agree.

I am willing to bet that Rosa already knows that there are some language issues, and she might even be ashamed or defensive about it. I used to be Rosa. Sometimes I still am.

I think you have an opportunity to handle this with respect and care to her effort without compromising your review work, and to really demonstrate what it means to embrace diversity. It's okay for you to feel frustrated. Find an outlet for those emotions, and approach Rosa when you are emotionally ready.
posted by redwaterman at 5:12 AM on July 11, 2017 [2 favorites]


[A couple deleted. Constructive criticism is usually fine; straight up cursing insults are not. Cut it out.]
posted by taz (staff) at 5:46 AM on July 11, 2017 [2 favorites]


Send Rosa a copy of a successfully submitted SOP.

Tell her, "Rosa thanks for all the hard work you've put into this SOP, i really appreciate it. The review team have a template that they like followed, I'm sorry you didn't get a heads up about this earlier. Could you please edit your SOP so it follows the same template and length of what's attached? Thank you.

"While you're doing that, just a couple of other changes please:

1) the review board always asks about X, so make sure it's really called out in the SOP.

2) I noticed you referred to Y, actually it's Z that is the right one in this particular case.

3) the review board typically goes through a few of these in one session, so keeping the steps short and clear (even just one para or double spaced) helps them understand what we're proposing.

"Could you please make those changes and send back to me by COB on Day? I'll send you an invite for the following morning and we can go through together.

"Thanks again, Rosa, really appreciate the hard work your putting in. "

That's it. No more than three or four pieces of feedback at a time, always positive, always impersonal. Don't put your name on her work, don't rewrite it, don't flip out.
posted by smoke at 5:53 AM on July 11, 2017 [31 favorites]


Also, if you believe in your orgs diversity values, this is your opportunity to demonstrate that belief, by helping a minority colleague develop their career and skillsets (probably why this situation happened, and why you've been asked to guide).

If you don't believe in it, what are you doing working there??

Even old, cishet, white men got breaks and generosity and forbearance from more experienced people some time in their careers. Pay it forwards, dude.
posted by smoke at 5:57 AM on July 11, 2017 [28 favorites]


I am confused. You're an engineer, correct? If so, you're not an editor. I would read the document carefully for content, your area of expertise, comment that it includes everything, or is missing x,y and/or z and move on. If the issue with the document is the writing style or grammar or punctuation, other than being a native english speaker, you have no expertise in that area and the company's editor should work with Rosa.
posted by AugustWest at 6:29 AM on July 11, 2017 [3 favorites]


Don't make this personal.

From My Dad's excellent advice, I want to highlight that it's not just Rosa and her feminine/South American ways making her bullish about this document. *Everyone* gets prickly about making changes. Copy editing, as a profession, is (imho) 90% about dancing around egos, about devising new and subtle ways to make suggested changes understandable and palatable to authors. (As a point of reference, in a copy editing course I took, we spent *two weeks* on "author relations". It's an inherently frustrating job. Tons of emotional labour involved.)

Swallow your feels/pride, and take the good advice you got above.

(You might want to at least skim Amy Einsohn's The Copyeditor's Handbook for more detailed and concrete advice on how to do that.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:43 AM on July 11, 2017 [12 favorites]


As someone who has written an anonymous question and then had it go REALLY not how I thought, let me at least say that I understand your quandary here and it is not an easy one.

In a perfect world, your workplace wouldn't have asked you to edit your coworker's work, or they would have hired a translator, or they would have a grammarian/copyeditor on staff to pretty up the words and manage egos, or you would have the ability to sit down with Rosa for a heart-to-heart where you both learned something new and made a connection, or you could decline to do the work, or you could just do the review that the document deserves and everyone would understand your good intentions.

In real life, you have to decide between doing what you think is a half-cooked review (leaving a bad document and your own reputation at stake) in order to avoid conflict with coworkers or doing it all the way and creating HR/morale issues that could be significant for your own career. Both are less-than-appetizing.

When I have been here in the past (I worked for a company with really really smart people whose first language was French), I have generally done a three-quarters-cooked review. I cleaned up much of the grammar/phrasing awkwardness but did my damndest to let the original ideas and organization stand. She is an engineer too; just help her document say more clearly what she wants it to say.
posted by AgentRocket at 6:50 AM on July 11, 2017 [4 favorites]


Smoke has it. This is perfect, I think.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:04 AM on July 11, 2017 [2 favorites]


I would create a numbered list of things that the document is supposed to communicate to the reader. Then you have concrete things she (or you) can fix, ie "In the section on X, it wasn't clear when I should do A or instead B". This is good for you, because you can stick to the facts and not get emotional; it is good for her because now she has guidance on how to improve it.
posted by 445supermag at 7:07 AM on July 11, 2017 [3 favorites]


I have been in your position in terms of having to check and in some cases sign off the work of other people. I also used to get very "intense" about things not being written properly or the grammar being off or whatever. I used to rewrite letters and reports all the time - until I realised that in a lot of cases, what was being written wasn't always wrong per se, but just wasn't the way I would have put it. Typos, spelling mistakes, egregious grammar cockups, fine. Big mistakes in factual information, of course. Anything else - as long as the meaning was clear, the fact that it was expressed in a way I wouldn't have written it was not my place to change unless I'd been specifically tasked with doing so. That was just me meddling.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 7:26 AM on July 11, 2017 [4 favorites]


The one example I noticed in your wall-of-text ask of Rosa's incompetence was that she used a clip-art image twice in the same document.

I also notice that you feel deamonized and that Rosa is sainted by your organization - are you perhaps taking too much emotion into your review of your work with her?

I agree with the people saying delete your wall of text email to your manager; go into this review with an open mind. It's one thing if it's actual gibberish, "word back next putting on." It's another thing if the grammar is legitiamtely poor but ultimately comprehensible. It's still a third thing if it's understandable, but not how *you*'d do it.

If it's the latter, limit yourself to 3-5 broad suggestions. If it's the mid, suggest going through with a grammar checker, and limit yourself to again 3-5 broad and/or technical suggestions. If it's the former, don't address this with Rosa / defer saying that you're still working on reviewing it, and forward it to your manager saying, "I'm sorry, but this is the doc as Rosa has submitted it. I'm afraid that her English is not strong enough to offer usable work product. I'd like your permission to do this document from scratch, and failing that I'm afraid that there's no advice I can offer Rosa to help fix this."

Note that if you do that last option and it's not actually that bad, this will really make you look bad. Really re-examine your feelings, because to my read, your feelings are jumping out of your ask.
posted by nobeagle at 7:36 AM on July 11, 2017 [11 favorites]


"I ask because I've been in the situation of being overcome by the sheer horror of someone's writing, and then finding, as I rewrite, that the basic substance being presented is actually okay, it's just the presentation that's a pit of despair."

Yes, I've taught taught writing to non-native speakers, and I learned to mistrust my first impression of their work: often I found that my first impression was overly influenced by repeated occurrence of some common english-as-a-second-language errors, and that in fact the content was pretty good. Writing is more than grammar and style.

A large part of the work of writing a technical document is collecting together the necessary information and putting it in the right order. And I think it's actually a common arrangement to have that done by one person, then heavily edited by another engineer with better english skills. (And then maybe even edited again by non-engineers with actual professional editing skills.)
posted by floppyroofing at 7:56 AM on July 11, 2017 [5 favorites]


My concern is that I will flip out on Rosa while working on the new revision of her document, which in turn will lead me to appearing before HR as an uncivil person who does not appreciate the diversity a non-native English speaker brings to very important documents.

As well it should! "Flip out?" You did just emphasize how mature and experienced you are, right? Do you think mature, experienced people lack the self-control not to engage in HR-visit-worthy behavior over copy-editing?

Right now, for whatever reasons, you seem to be at "bitch eating crackers" level with Rosa. There's no way what sounds like it would be an arduous process anyway is going to go at all well as long as you are projecting all the intense sufferings of the middle management educated white male onto her. You need to put that nonsense aside, like the mature, experienced professional you purport yourself to be.
posted by praemunire at 8:24 AM on July 11, 2017 [12 favorites]


Stick to the details. Carrying out brutal edits are the job you've been assigned. (Not bringing weird self-pitying whinging about how annoyed you are that your company values diversity to the table is also an implicit part of the job.)

Tear the text apart, rewrite every line. Make it clear to yourself and the person you're editing that your goal is to produce excellent text and not carry out weird grudges. Fix the errors. Do the job. Be nice when you can.
posted by eotvos at 9:05 AM on July 11, 2017 [3 favorites]


You are a valuable resource at work. So is Rosa. You will need to step back from the baggage that this whole transaction is bringing with it, and focus on what you and she can do together to create a document that works for the users. If your manager allows you the time to do this task, and values your contribution, you should proceed.

Work along side Rosa to teach her technical English writing skills. Many people need this but sadly do not have it.

I work at a business where most of the employees speak Spanish. I do not. A coworker translates financial statements into English. He often asks me to proof read his results, and they usually need significant polishing. I show him the changes and explain why I made them. He is getting better, and I am viewed as a team player by the department. From one older white gender-typical guy to another, there are far worse things to be than that guy who knows how to do stuff.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 9:51 AM on July 11, 2017 [13 favorites]


For the love of Pete, do not rewrite the document. You were not asked to do that and that's far more insulting than giving someone constructive feedback. Midnight Skulker has great advice.

I don't see why "flipping out" is even an option on the table. Professionals don't flip out. (I mean, sometimes they do, but no one ever looks upon that with admiration and sometimes people get fired for it.)

Some questions to consider:
-Was Rosa given a template to follow?
-Are the ideas there, and in an order that makes sense?
-What format do reviews ususally take? (This instance seems like a good one for a sit down meeting with Rosa, with pre-prepared notes for you both to look at.)
-Another idea: cc your boss with the edits you send to Rosa?
-Did you ever get in over your head earlier in your career?

If the document is in Word, use track changes and make the edits there rather than giving her a long page of notes on what to change.

One last thing: technical writing is WEIRD, man. Think about it. When do you ever talk like a procedural manual? What things, besides are procedural document, sound like one? Pretty close to nothing. You can talk to her about improving the writing in this document without ever mentioning her language skills. You could say something like, "I can imagine you saying this to someone, but when we write it in the document, it needs to be more formal." Then give an example.
posted by purple_bird at 10:42 AM on July 11, 2017 [4 favorites]


I'm going to take your talk about the workplace culture at face value, because I've seen workplaces that would reflexively side with Rosa if you were to make too many waves over this situation. I've also dealt with legal writing by people whose first language wasn't English. I don't think you're having an unreasonable emotional response to this situation.

Some dynamics you may be seeing play out:

1. Supervisor thinks Rosa's work is better than it actually is, based on how it's turned out in the past, after heavy revision by somebody else
2. Rosa's English isn't good enough for this task
3. Rosa's thinking isn't clear enough for this task
4. You got this assignment because you're viewed as someone with the experience and expertise to turn this crappy work product into something that will pass external review
5. You're viewed as someone who can work with younger, difficult engineers to develop them professionally


Those last two things maybe aren't what you think of as the Kind of Worker You Are, but they may still be factually accurate beliefs about your abilities. If your soul aches at the prospect of being a senior engineer type, then look for a new company, but it's also a more mature, advanced, and valuable skill set. Junior professionals, by contrast, are easy to come by, almost fungible.

The way forward may be to prepare a plan to get the work product to final form and to advance Rosa as a young professional. You'd be justified in putting together a budget for this--hours you'd need to spend reviewing/revising, meeting with Rosa, books you'd like her to have in her library and continuing professional education you'd like her to go to. Convince the boss that it's worth the investment. Make sure boss knows that this project is going to take more time than it otherwise would and may delay projects E, F, and G. Then...as much emotional labor as it will involve...execute the plan. Just remind yourself that you were a boneheaded, terrified young professional once upon a time, too. I sure was.
posted by radicalawyer at 11:27 AM on July 11, 2017 [7 favorites]


I'm a member of a couple of traditionally underrepresented groups working in (software) engineering. I have also worked with many non-native speakers of English in the course of my technical career, and have further often taken on an unofficial editor role with respect to written work produced by my team members.

The problem here is not that Rosa is part of a minority group, and the problem here is certainly not that as a senior staff member, you have been asked to provide review and guidance for a more junior staff member who is part of a minority group. The problem here is also not really that the document was written by a non-native English speaker. Some of my ESL-speaker colleagues have been highly skilled and fluent English-language writers, able to discuss the finer points of usage and tone with me. They might still make writing mistakes that a native speaker usually would not, but these are easy to flag and correct. Likewise, I have reviewed writing by native speakers that employed a completely inappropriate tone for the context (like using stupid clip art in a formal document), had grammar, usage, and structural errors that required substantial cleanup, or that reflected a disordered and incoherent thought process. It's worth remembering that technical writing is a specialized skill requiring fluency in a particular speech register in which many writers don't receive formal instruction.

The problem is that the document, as it currently stands, does not meet the standards and requirements for a Standard Operating Procedure at your company. That's it. The goal is to bring the document into alignment with those standards and requirements. Ideally, a junior employee receives guidance and feedback that helps her improve her professional skills along the way.

It's appropriate to discuss the state of the document with your manager and seek his/her guidance about how to proceed as long as you confine the discussion to the document and leave your feelings about Rosa out of it. As a manager, if a piece of work is way below expectations or out of alignment with requirements I'd like to know about it, as that informs how other work proceeds and how tasks are allocated in the future. You can discuss schedule constraints, goals for the document, and expectations for your role in providing feedback or authoring corrections. You can also discuss the process of how these documents are produced more generally. Are authors receiving appropriate training? Are templates and examples available? If it turns out that the document has to be ready tomorrow you may have no choice but to do a complete rewrite on your own, but that's close to a worst-case outcome and should not be the default.

It's also appropriate for you to seek guidance from your manager about how to conduct reviews and give feedback in a way that is specific, constructive, and non-punishing. Again, speaking as a manager this is part of my expectation for a senior engineer but not everyone receives guidance on how to do this and cultural differences, whether stemming from country of origin or different professional background, absolutely can be a complicating factor. Notwithstanding the above I certainly expect that senior staff can give feedback without "flipping out" on junior team members. This is a professional development opportunity for you.

Regarding the document itself, I concur with advice above to focus on procedural coherence, technical correctness and completeness, and alignment to established standards. When I edit for ESL-speakers specifically I do sometimes also give feedback that addresses English-language writing skills and translation issues. It's nice to do this in a way that encourages discussion at least some of the time—"In English we usually say 'foo' here, how does it work in $YourNativeLanguage?"—since that's an opportunity to build connection and I get to learn something along the way myself.
posted by 4rtemis at 1:29 PM on July 11, 2017 [8 favorites]


As a professional writer and editor I have absolutely seen pieces of shit writing from native speakers because writing well is not as common a talent as many writers seem to believe. That said, I have also learned not to completely rewrite things according to my perfectionist tendencies but to hew closely to my actual brief. So what smoke and others have said, for sure.

It's really hard not to make everything better (i.e. perfect). But that's not realistic. Also, this is how people learn. Finally, if/when you spot things that are well-expressed, useful, or smart in the document, comment (in a non-patronising way). When I was a staff editor the freelance writers loved me in part because I was the only editor who ever noted the stuff they did well. Everyone else tended to go with the totally human "point out the wrong stuff and only the wrong stuff." Sharing some love, when appropriate, demonstrates that you are being a professional, that the review isn't personal, and is usually much appreciated.

This is a difficult situation you're in. Make your manager set the priorities and approach if you possibly can. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 3:29 PM on July 11, 2017 [1 favorite]


I hope you're on the verge of flipping out* because you've been put in the position where you feel you need to work on your vacation, and Rosa just happens to be the poor soul in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because feeling compelled to work on your vacation is a sucky thing, but that's not Rosa's fault. That's whoever assigned it to a a first time writer of the SOP (regardless of language skills) and didn't leave enough time for revision.

I agree with everyone that just rewriting it is a bad idea for a multitude be of reasons. But I also know sometimes stuff has to be done on a certain timeline. If there's no significant consequences beyond someone gets cranky, follow smoke's advice. But if you feel the timeline is firm and you need to take it on (i.e. you guys will lose on a contract or something), I suggest you run it by your boss "Hey, I think we didn't give Rosa enough support/information for a first timer to do this in such a short time frame. There's some very specific information/formatting/magic incantations that we need to have in here that didn't make it to her final draft. If no one else can take it on I'll redo it on my vacation because time is of the essence, but then we need to work on a good template so anyone has access to this information."

*Because of course HR needs to talk to people flipping out on co-workers. It's unprofessional, and even giving everyone the benefit of the doubt means something isn't working well.
posted by ghost phoneme at 3:49 PM on July 11, 2017 [3 favorites]


Lots of good advice here. It seems very unfair that you are being put in this situation while on your vacation when you're not even Rosa's boss. I agree with the advice to check in with your mutual manager and say something along the lines of what ghost phoneme above proposes. The key message is that Rosa needs more support to get this done to standard and your boss needs to decide if they want you to a) give up your vacation to rewrite it and submit suggested revisions to both of them (and here I'd recommend saying you will do it if you are willing but that you estimate it will take XX days of your vacation and so you will be returning XX days later) or b) make some broad suggestions to her on the understanding that she will probably need to take a couple more cracks at it before it is ready for prime time.

Then let the manager manage the situation by making the decision. After you've carried out your instructions, let it go. Keep your comments, and your thoughts (where possible, I know it can be rough) focussed on the document, and cc your boss on anything you send Rosa. Keep any e-mails short, structured, and factual.It's up to your boss to figure out the best way of dealing with it.
posted by rpfields at 7:28 PM on July 11, 2017 [2 favorites]


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