Culture Clash

With nearly 7.8 million Hispanic workers employed in the U.S. — not to mention millions more from Asia, Africa, and other overseas locales — there’s a good chance that your staff includes workers for whom English is a second language. Making sure these employees understand their duties and your company’s policies is paramount to maintaining a happy, efficient workforce. Achieving that goal depends on your ability to communicate your needs and to help the employees express their own.

The first step is setting up parameters around what is and what is not an acceptable level of English comprehension. Social Studies School Service, a Culver City, CA-based cataloger of supplementary education material for elementary schools, hires only workers who can read English, says general manager Jeff Cohen. For operations staff, “the key is being able to read and evaluate the pick slips that circulate in the warehouse,” he says.

All applicants for distribution center jobs must pass a written test. But Social Studies School Service tries to accommodate those who have significant difficulty understanding spoken English or speaking it. “If they understand English but don’t speak it, they could still do a good job in picking and packing and receiving material, or in data entry and receiving,” says Cohen. At the company, which employs 18-40 people depending on the season, six of its current year-round workers are bilingual. Four of them are native Spanish speakers; Russian is the first language of the other two.

Help them help you

Employee orientation should, if possible, be handled in the worker’s native tongue, says Myelita Melton, president of Morrisville, NC-based occupational consultancy and training provider SpeakEasy Communications. “We see more and more employers looking for bilingual staff to serve in management areas, in human resources, or in supervisory positions to act as translators and provide demonstrations,” Melton says.

Given its proximity to Mexico, about 30% of Chandler, AZ-based Fairytale Brownies’ workforce are native Spanish speakers, says operations team leader Kim Silva. That includes eight of the baked goods cataloger’s year-round staff of about 25 and up to 20 workers during the holidays, when the staff swells to 68. In response, Fairytale Brownies offers signage and communication materials in Spanish and English.

Providing bilingual materials is the best way to avoid challenges from employees should a mishap such as an on-the-job accident occur, says Silva. If nothing else, be sure to translate any information detailing wages, benefits, and the company’s sexual harassment policies. It is also a good idea, Silva notes, to use a professional translator rather than a friend or a colleague. A nonprofessional, no matter how fluent, may not be able to translate with an eye for technical details and with the ability to effectively adapt English-language colloquialisms and vernacular.

On the other hand, you shouldn’t accept a translation from a professional without testing it on a bilingual friend or member of management to make sure it makes sense, advises Melissa Guerra, owner of the MacAllen, TX-based Mexican kitchenware and home decor cataloger that bears her name. “Look for references,” says Guerra. “Have Spanish speakers read the communication to see if they understand it, test it out on people, and see what they say.” Guerra hires professional translators to convert into Spanish a several-page packet explaining company policy; she says a standard fee is $10-$20 per page.

Give them class

Some companies build bilingual education skills by offering on-site language classes or by reimbursing them for classes taken at a local school. Melton favors classes held on-site because it prevents workers from not participating due to transportation problems and encourages learning a second language in a team environment.

San Francisco-based high-tech gifts cataloger/retailer Sharper Image Corp. may offer such classes for the 20-25 workers in its Ontario, CA, warehouse who speak English as a second language, says director of human resources Kathy Wright. Those workers account for more than 10% of the warehouse’s 200 staffers. The six- to eight-week course that the company is considering would cost around $1,000 but could accommodate up to 25 students at a time.

Melton also says it’s best if the employer can afford to offer classes in the predominant second language to English-speaking workers. “We love it when employers decide to invest in both sides of the training,” says Melton.

Indeed, understanding some Spanish would have helped a warehouse supervisor at Rochester, NY-based housewares cataloger Home Trends last April. The company terminated two Spanish-speaking warehouse workers for engaging in a fistfight. But had the supervisor understood the arguments that preceded the physical fighting, the situation could have been diffused. “It didn’t seem to the supervisor that they were fighting at first,” says human resources manager Julie Folkins. “Without understanding the language, body language didn’t come into play until it became physical violence.”

Translating U.S. customs

Merely translating sexual harassment and worker safety policies may not be enough. Kim Silva, operations team leader of Chandler, AZ-based Fairytale Brownies, says that you might need to explain in detail the policies to newly immigrated workers. For instance, one of her South American workers kept hugging his female coworkers. “In his eyes he was being friendly and didn’t understand that it could be bothersome,” Silva says.

The company provides videos demonstrating the kinds of behavior considered sexual harassment. But many workers simply don’t pay attention, Silva says. Therefore, when issues arise, the company has an older worker explain in the person’s own language why what he or she did is not accepted as the norm here.

On the safety front, new immigrants sometimes don’t understand that broken machinery in the U.S. workplace is taken seriously. Silva says that despite repeated urgings by management to let them know when a machine malfunctions, there are still workers who will try to fix it or just make do. “Sometimes they don’t tell because they think we’ll assume it’s their fault,” Silva says. The best thing you can do, she says, is to be patient and direct, explaining that you understand why the worker might have thought otherwisebut that not telling management can cause big trouble for the company.

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