Bridging the Language Gap in Your Workforce

Bridging the Language Gap in Your WorkforceJohn Bonner

When in Rome, do as the Romans.  This frequently quoted snippet of wisdom is a reminder to newcomers and travelers that it is their responsibility to adapt to the host culture, not the other way around.  But a problem arises when this one-sided approach is carried into your own organization, producing—often without even realizing it—a costly ‘you should adapt to me’ mindset toward intercultural employees that short-circuits effective communication for your entire team.

Take for example a local manufacturing company that employs immigrant factory floor workers from Vietnam, China, Mexico and other countries—a common practice in Snohomish County.

‘When in Rome wisdom’ tells us that the onus is on these Limited English Proficient (LEP) employees to adapt to their work and cultural surroundings, and of course to learn and improve their English, which many of them indeed try to do.  The problem is that our approach often assumes management and native English-speaking employees have little direct role or responsibility themselves in helping bridge the performance gap.  Consequently, even well-intentioned management ‘solutions’ like offering an optional ESL class for LEP employees often produce disappointing results and communication problems like these persist:

  • Production floor supervisors receive a smiling nod when giving directions to an employee, only to later discover the employee never understood the directions in the first place.
  • Lean enterprise efforts unintentionally exclude LEP employees and their contributions are not considered or incorporated.
  • Custodial or housekeeping staff break off eye contact with customers instead of warmly greeting or assisting them in hotel hallways or on casino floors.

A better approach is to first recognize that substantial results in workplace English training can be cost-efficiently achieved, but only through a more intentional effort by management and all employees to create the necessary conditions for success.  Below are four best practices to support Limited English Proficient (LEP) employees (and the rest of your workforce) to improve team communication, performance, and service.   

1. Narrow Your Focus

Work-time English language training should be highly targeted. Often rapid results can be realized by focusing on helping LEP employees achieve language proficiency in a set of specific work contexts.  Is your goal to help employees interact effectively with their supervisor? Or is it to support them to negotiate an engineering solution with colleagues and customers?  In developing your goals, be sure to invest the time to interview employees and stakeholders on both sides of the communication divide, including leads and supervisors.  Then structure your program to directly address the frustrations and challenges you uncover. 

2. Make It All About You

Once you have defined your goals, you will likely find that many language training books and materials are too generic for your needs. This is because publishers need to reach a broad market to make a profit on a book. As a result, instead of learning how to bring production issues to their supervisor’s attention, your production floor employees will get plenty of practice role playing front desk reception dialogues or naming fruit—probably not the best use of their time or yours.   The point: work with a capable curriculum designer to develop materials that respect your employees’ time, align with company goals, and integrate with employee job expectations and handbooks.

3. Equip Employees with Smart Strategies

Your curriculum should include strategies to build employee confidence, as confidence is central to progress in language learning. One area employees can gain confidence quickly is through the development of what experts call compensatory language skills, which include techniques like using simple expressions to organize a thought to make it easier for the listener to follow and understand. The mastery of these techniques is perhaps the fastest route to improved language performance. Additionally, be sure to include self-learning strategies as part of the language training so employees will continue to practice life-long language learning habits on their own time.  To supplement their at-work training, provide information and resources for inexpensive long term English instruction that employees can pursue after hours. 

4. Build from the Other Side of the Divide

Another ‘short-cut’ to better communication is to help your native English-speaking employees—especially those leads and supervisors you involved at the beginning of the process—build intercultural awareness and communication skills through a short workshop. You want fluent English speakers to learn how to adjust their own speech and behaviors to improve and support better interactions with LEP team members.  Don’t confuse this with a standard HR diversity workshop, which often has a broader focus. One eye-opening and behavior changing workshop exercise is to conduct an activity in a language your fluent English-speaking employees do not understand to demonstrate to them what the experience is like.  The illustration is priceless and their openness to supporting LEP employees increases.  LEP employee confidence improves because they recognize the commitment the company is making to support their learning and integration into the organization.

John Bonner is Vice President of EvCC’s Corporate & Workforce Training.  He has earned a Master’s in Teaching English as a Second Language and has helped small and large companies improve employee language performance for more than 17 years.

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