Creating a Welcoming Workplace for Non-Native Speakers

Manufacturers face challenges finding, attracting, and retaining good workers who are non-native English speakers and from different cultural backgrounds. The primary reason is a lack of ability to communicate effectively in both directions. The communication barrier appears to be very large, when in actuality it is a small accommodation in exchange for access to the workforce.

What is often perceived as quiet disinterest by non-English-speaking team members is a defense mechanism to avoid drawing attention to what the person considers a weakness. Many really good workers originate from places where diversity is punished, and certain groups of people are openly diminished.

Consider the challenges refugees and other immigrants overcome on a daily basis. Imagine visiting your doctor, the pharmacy, grocery stores, the bank, meeting with your child’s school teacher and not being able to communicate. Even the simple reading of street signs and directions can be a substantial task for someone that is non-English=speaking.

When a company makes a sincere and deliberate effort to communicate and welcome team members who do not speak English, the relief felt by those affected is enormous. Communicating in other languages is a small investment with an immediate and big return. That investment is pales in comparison to the benefit a trusted team offers.

Noteworthy considerations:

1. The work ethic of many cultures is very strong. If you can tap into a specific culture and you support it, people will encourage their friends to join the team. People tend to enjoy working with their friends and family. This, combined with a company that welcomes and embraces cultural diversity, is a huge win for the company and the team member.

2. Hire a part time bilingual student (college or high school) and have them translate documents as you feed them to him/her. You will be shocked by how quickly and economically attractive this is. Translate everything. Start with the employee manual, then the work instructions, shop packets, specification sheets, quality documents and other documentation used daily.

3. Translate all employee and company announcements before they are released. Post the translation at the same time, and make it the same size and style as the English version. The first such announcement should explain what the company is doing relative to translation.

4. Add someone to the team who is fluently bilingual. It is essential that the person be overtly friendly and non-confrontational. This has a disarming effect during conversations. Have fun with the translation during company meetings. Don’t allow language to be a barrier.

5. Ask the leadership team to learn a few basic phrases. Greetings, simple questions, phrases of gratitude, etc. Make the effort and make it obvious. When people see the leadership and other team members attempting to communicate in non-English ways, there is a sign of relief. Note that leadership’s ability to speak the new language isn’t as important as the gesture from the attempt.

6. Cultural differences are many. Celebrate the diversity. Openly ask genuine questions about cultural differences. When earnest questions are posed, there is an opportunity to communicate.

7. Be certain that English-only-speaking people understand it is not OK to ignore those who do not speak English.

8. Encourage and train (but do not require) anyone interested in learning a new language.

9. When the effort to communicate is genuine and obvious, the perception of the company is positive. Team member trust in the company, essential to sustainable success, grows exponentially. Effective communication is in everyone’s best interest, but it is the responsibility of the company. For team member performance to excel, a corporate culture of trust must exist. People will not trust in those they do not understand. Communication is essential to creating a positive corporate culture.

As leaders we have the responsibility and privilege creating a safe and positive working environment. Several contributing factors contribute to the culture team members bring to work their first day. They include:

1. Geographical area where the person was raised and also where they are domiciled.

2. Family situation. Were they raised in a safe and supportive family environment or were they subjected to various abuses? People can’t focus on long term career objectives when they are worried where the next family meal will come from.

3. In some countries, certain groups of people are treated as if their life is less valuable than others. This is especially true of women who are prohibited from attending school and sometimes results in illiteracy.

4. Ethnicity, race, gender, spoken language, religion and sexual orientation influence personality and behavior. Recognize the challenges people in these circumstances face as it relates to communication but evaluate them based exclusively on their performance and skillset.

5. Be cognizant of physical limitations like long-term health issues, lack of dental and vision care and sometimes disabilities. Sometimes thing most people take for granted are luxuries to others.

Leaders bring out the best in others. To do that, we first have to understand who the other person is. We do it without prying in team members’ personal business; rather, we are aware and sensitive of the indicators.

Embrace and celebrate differences in cultural backgrounds. Take the time to learn about the different cultures and share yours. You will quickly find there is a thirst to understand more about the company and the team.

When we effectively communicate that people are trusted, everything in the work environment improves. This begins with newcomers feeling secure in their position on the team. Strong, effective bidirectional communication is essential to creating a positive corporate culture where people thrive.

Carl Livesay is the general manager at Mercury Plastics in Baltimore. Carl brings more than 40 years of operational leadership and manufacturing experience as a lean practitioner. He currently serves on the BOD for the Maryland World Class Consortia and is appointed to both the District Export Council and the Governor’s Workforce Development Board.

[Read More…]

Skip to content