Enhancing Workplace Communication With Language and Culture Training

With the current economic climate challenging many companies to find new ways to maximize productivity, providing their workforce with language training is not often at the top of the list. But, the financial and growth benefits that result from training should not be ignored.

According to the 2000 census, 18 percent of all U.S. citizens–nearly one in five–speak a language other than English at home. Current trends show growth of the Latino population reaching 200 percent or more in many communities across America, and a current census bureau projection estimates that Latinos will constitute approximately one-third of the total U.S. population by 2050.

How does this relate to your bottom line? Communication. Poor communication in any business negatively affects safety, productivity, engagement and turnover, all of which, in turn, will cost your business big bucks. Things are stressful as it is in the current economic climate. Add a language and culture barrier to the mix, and you have a poor recipe for success.

However, managed appropriately, the influx of immigrant employees benefits companies in our global economy. Time and again, studies find that businesses that work with diverse teams are the most equipped to survive and succeed, providing a broader scope in perspective, communication styles and ideas to meet tough challenges.

Turnover

A Cornell University study conservatively cites the total cost of replacing one employee as approximately one-third of his/her salary. That sum can actually reach 150 percent, according to the Saratoga Institute. Even the conservative estimate illustrates the negative financial impact the loss of one employee can have on an organization.

Studies show that communication problems and lack of advancement opportunities are among the leading causes of hourly employee turnover. English training not only improves communication, it also supports employee retention. The Chicago Marriott provides a great example. In an industry where turnover averages 100 percent, job-specific English training was one factor that helped to decrease turnover to four percent.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if managers and supervisors can learn basic phrases in the employees’ language, they can engage workers on a new level. Learning a new language is intimidating for anyone. But, if you are willing to stick your neck out and risk sounding silly in an employee’s native language, you’ll build trust. In turn, your workers will feel more comfortable making the effort to communicate in English.

In addition to offering opportunities that help your employees on the job and in their everyday lives, language training improves morale and engagement. If people accurately hear what they are being told, they better understand how to reach the goals you set for them. Their new understanding often encourages them to do a better job for you.

Productivity

If you have ever tried communicating with someone who speaks a language other than English, it should come as no surprise that it takes longer to explain your thoughts and ideas. It follows that improving communication in the workplace also enhances your company’s ability to operate more effectively.

For instance, Rapid Displays, a Chicago-based display company, found that targeted, onsite English training directly and positively affected productivity. Workplace discussions and meetings became much more productive as limited-English proficient employees gained the confidence and skills they needed to understand the directions given to them and to ask focused questions. In addition, employees began to draw better information from documents that explain job tasks and machine operating procedures, allowing them to take more initiative. With their newly acquired skills, employees earned more job flexibility on the manufacturing floor and eventually more responsibility in the form of promotions.

Studies show that communication problems and lack of advancement opportunities are among the leading causes of hourly employee turnover.

At Huron Paper, a small, Chicago-based recycling company, the vice president recognized the need for improved communication. He invested in Spanish language training for management. After completing his Level 1 class, he noted, “After one class, I am not fluent in the language, but I feel functional in the workplace. My employees have noticed a huge difference in my communication, and we have improved productivity by 15 percent. Employees that would rarely speak to me or ask questions now feel comfortable doing so to address concerns and know they will now be understood.”

Safety

Workplace language barriers create another disadvantage. They cost time, cause frustration and even endanger lives. In the construction industry, though general work-related fatality numbers are in decline, Latino workers were fatally injured at a rate 70 percent higher than that of their non-Hispanic counterparts. A HealthDay News study adds further support, identifying the language barrier as the cause of one in three construction fatalities among Latinos. A similar study by OSHA found that one out of every four accidents is language barrier-related.

A good grasp of English is critical for employees who must read warning labels/signs, and understand safety requirements for chemicals, operating procedures, industrial hygiene standards, and more.

In recent years, construction, manufacturing, meat packing, hospitality and many other industries have seen a sharp rise in the number of Latino, Eastern European and Asian workers. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures Fast Facts, one in every two new workers is an immigrant, with one third of those from Mexico. These industries present safety challenges to begin with. Add to that a language and culture barrier that causes poor training, understanding of safety standards, and employee-supervisor communication, and you have an accident waiting to happen. All too frequently, they do.

Injuries lower morale and affect the bottom line–but even worse, they can lead to serious injury or death. And, besides the obvious fallout–OSHA fines and expenses associated with insurance–accidents sideline injured workers on an average of 33 days per year. This has a direct effect on company productivity. You see similar stresses placed upon employee resources, elevating costs associated with overtime, etc.

So, what can you do to improve communication at your workplace?

Language Training

Don’t touch! Hard hat required! Be careful! Can you communicate these phrases–or other important information–to your employees in their language? If not, there are several possible solutions.

Academic Language Training 

Your local community college is a good resource for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, and other language classes such as Spanish, French, Arabic and Chinese. Most offer multiple levels of language training that can take learners all the way from beginner to advanced. Classes run year-round and cover the basics: reading, writing, grammar, listening and speaking.

English programs vary in focus, and there are standard options that offer the proficiency level you want to reach. These include basic life skills, citizenship ESL (EL/Civics), ESL for GED, family literacy, and academic ESL.

In addition to community colleges, English training is available through other education providers, correctional facilities, faith-based organizations and volunteer organizations. Employers considering these options should assess the curriculum, the preparation and experience of instructors, and any support services included.

Community colleges and local, private institutions (such as language schools) are also a good resource for your managers and supervisors to learn a language like Spanish or Chinese. A course curriculum typically follows a traditional approach to language training, with the focus primarily on grammar. Course offerings can range from basic language and grammar to lessons on civilization and literature. Courses that are more comprehensive give the learner the opportunity to achieve full competence in the target language, learn some history, and touch on general cultural customs, holidays and common traditions.

Occupational Language Training 

Another option is to offer onsite, job-specific language training. This allows employees to learn in a setting where they can practice skills and encourage their peers. In addition to ensuring more consistent attendance, onsite classes offer students the opportunity to learn key vocabulary and phrases that help them do their jobs, provide better customer service and increase their chances of promotion.

Within the option of occupational language training that targets the vocabulary and communication needed for workplace functioning, some training companies have the capability to further tailor training for specific roles within the company. Based on a needs assessment that employees take before enrolling in the course, the training provider can design class materials around employee needs. Though tailored to organizational needs, job descriptions and competence levels, the English lessons also help employees function outside of work. This is an added job benefit. 

Cross-Cultural Training

While language barriers often lead to miscommunication, a culture gap can also underlie miscommunication, work frustration and higher risk. It’s important to understand where your people come from–both literally and figuratively. For example, to anticipate how an employee will respond to U.S. workplace expectations, and find out what workplace safety expectations he or she is familiar with. This type of knowledge will improve your other management skills, too. Understanding why a gap exists between what you want employees to do and what they actually do is always helpful in identifying issues and developing strategies to address them.

So, what are some important cross-cultural topics to be aware of? While many other issues also impact the workplace, an employee’s experiences in cultures and workplaces outside the United States will likely influence their perspectives on:

  • Respect and hierarchy
  • Education and native literacy levels
  • Safety
  • Gender roles
  • Your role as a supervisor.

Cultural awareness can positively inform your approach to translation of company policies and safety materials; your manner of giving and requesting feedback; discipline; and perspectives on accepted workplace behavior. Given the impact and complexity of culture, it is important that both you and your employee understand each other, culturally and linguistically.

Since the language and culture gap in the workplace isn’t going to disappear, offering language training options to both managers and employees makes good financial and people sense. As the population trends continue, companies that provide proactive opportunities for their non-English-speaking employees and learn to leverage their talents will be best positioned to succeed. 

Luciana Tiberio is program manager for Workforce Language Services, LLC, an organization that provides translation and training in a wide range of languages and essential cross-cultural workplace issues. Contact her at luciana@workforcelang.com.

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