Everyone agrees that if your company is located overseas, it pays to have a cleared American who speaks the language on your staff. Better yet, if that cleared American is also your security officer, he’ll be able to personally interact with your intelligence, police, and security counterparts of the foreign government, as well as those of local companies. Yet, should learning something of the language of a foreign land be a job requirement for a cleared employee? Let’s consider.

Companies want to make a profit, and to do so means cutting unnecessary expenses, as any first year economics student knows. Could it be a value add if your employee knows the language, and you aren’t relying on a foreign national with limited access authority for translating and interpreting? Limited Access Authority (LAA) is a type of limited access to specific, identified classified information normally granted for specific needs when Americans are not available. Often, this is because language skills are hard to prepare for, and only local skills can handle the need. The concept for granting this LAA is ‘compelling need and unique ability’. Your LAA recipient must meet other requirements if he is to translate for an engineer, say, or for a scientific program. The compelling and unique need for this LAA must be reviewed annually. For instance, in that year you might have sent your own American engineer to class to learn the language, or found a fluent American engineer in the meantime. Remember this above all else: a LAA is NOT a security clearance.

Knowing the obvious limitations of LAA, should cleared companies and government agencies expend the money and time to train workers in a foreign language? If your company wins a multiple year overseas contract, then yes. Quite simply, it answers a basic human need. If you want your staff to remain on station, away from the massive international move costs, then consider helping him or her to feel as much ‘at home’ as you can.

The benefits of language proficiency for your cleared contractors

Language allows your employees to feel safe in the community as well. Imagine you are travelling on the subway and there is a warning on what to do if you see or are involved in a mugging. Would you know how to call the foreign country’s version of 911? What would you expect your employees to do if they needed the police, or emergency repairs at home because of a natural disaster, electric failure, or a doctor? Any employee could benefit from some limited language and cultural training thus far, but let’s consider a cleared engineer specifically.

He’s at a meeting, and the foreign counterparts go into ‘foreign language secure’ mode. This is an expression long used by our military overseas. Soldiers in Saudi Arabia often lamented when their Saudi counterparts went ‘Arab secure’. The soldiers had no idea what their counterpart was saying. In one lucky case, a soldier was able to discover a major misunderstanding and correct it because he overheard what the colleagues were saying to one another, and understood Arabic. To arrive in a country prepared to speak to the locals, or to show a desire to learn, ingratiates your employees immediately. The foreign language speakers find themselves invited to meetings, activities, and social functions only dreamed of by other staff. Their world expands, and so does their value to your company. In particular, your employee becomes valuable by knowing the local customs. When we Americans think of holidays, we often ‘work through’ them if our job is not finished. A simple bit of advice from your staff member could save you a major social failure with your local counterparts. Consider, if he advised you to honor local customs and celebrate the holiday, do so. Better yet, he could explain how you could make friends and earn respect as a result.

Your company also benefits when your new team member shows up speaking the language because it shows you care enough to train your own people to better understand local customs. It gives local counterparts a feeling you want to be a part of their culture to the extent you can. You are seen to value them enough that you sacrifice your time and effort to learn about them, and indeed from them. Arrogance has been the root of the downfall of empires, and so much more so of companies.

And what of the fraternization that will come about because your company member wants to deal with his counterparts? This is good. It has been noted that even in conflict areas, locals will respect a company member who respects them. They will tell him if they hear something dangerous might be in the wind. After all, they live among the population, and hear things everywhere. One local told an American at a bar that he heard some men were planning to rob their plant. The local bar visitor knew nothing more of the American than that he tried his best to communicate with others at this establishment, and was kind. This led to the arrest of several criminals.

When your cleared person learns enough of the local customs, he’ll be able to help tremendously in ways most Americans never even knew were major considerations. Dealings in Japan are manifestly different from those in the United Kingdom. Classified discussions are differently dealt with in every country you enter. ‘Shop talk’ is either taboo or easily joined, but you need to know as an American where you fit in. At what level do you operate with your colleagues? In fact, you’ll learn who your colleague is, and whom to avoid.

In time, a cleared employee is worth your company’s reputation. He will learn who to trust, what to best advise about customs, and will indeed be sought out for guidance about Americans and to help his fellow Americans. A good way to serve our country with a clearance is learning the language of the land we are in.

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John William Davis was commissioned an artillery officer and served as a counterintelligence officer and linguist. Thereafter he was counterintelligence officer for Space and Missile Defense Command, instructing the threat portion of the Department of the Army's Operations Security Course. Upon retirement, he wrote of his experiences in Rainy Street Stories.