Clear Language

By delivering workplace training in the language employees understand best, you can improve their productivity, compliance and morale.

By Kathryn Tyler Dec 1, 2005

HR Magazine, December 2005

At Heaviland Enterprises, a landscaping firm in San Diego, crew leaders, like most employees, speak Spanish as their native language. “English comprehension varies from individual to individual,” says HR executive Leeann Storino, SPHR. Yet there’s no language barrier when crew leaders are trained in areas such as leadership, problem-solving, customer service, interpersonal skills and Heaviland-specific financial matters.

That’s because all the workplace training is in Spanish.

The approach works, says field manager Martin Silva. “Crew leaders are not only making better decisions in the field, but their crew members are working better as a team.”

Adds Storino, who’s also the company’s controller: “These associates are the key drivers” of the firm’s success. “Developing a training program in their native language only makes sense. If they are more comfortable, they are more apt to learn, retain and participate.”

Like Heaviland, companies in many areas of the United States are providing training for their ESL workers—those who speak English as a second language—in their native language, usually Spanish. And employment trends indicate that the practice is here to stay.

Immigrants account for “an increasingly large share of the U.S. labor force and a growing share of low-wage workers,” according to A Profile of the Low-Wage Immigrant Workforce, issued by the Urban Institute in 2003. A summary of the report states that “nearly two-thirds of low-wage immigrant workers do not speak English proficiently,” and that U.S. census data show 46 percent of foreign-born workers have limited English proficiency (LEP) and 73 percent of LEP workers speak Spanish.

In fact, although other foreign languages crop up in U.S. workplaces, Spanish is by far the most prevalent. Thus, many employers are providing ESL language training. But those efforts, while admirable, fall short of the overall goal of developing a highly informed workforce. Some employers are starting to provide all workplace training in the employee population’s native tongue, recognizing that cultural differences and gaps in English language proficiency reduce comprehension of training programs.

Where the Need Arises

Most ESL employees are in entry-level jobs. (Management employees whose native language isn’t English typically became proficient in English early on—sometimes even before reaching the United States—because they knew it would be essential for career advancement.) And ESL employees are concentrated in certain industries, experts say, including manufacturing, construction, hospitality, restaurants and landscaping.

Even when ESL employees appear to understand training in English, many do not. “They may nod their heads when they haven’t a clue about what was being communicated,” says Joan Pasco, project manager for the InterCultural Coaching Institute, which prepares Portland, Ore., area residents to serve as job coaches and mentors for those not fluent in English.

In some cultures, too, assenting can simply mean the person heard what was said without necessarily understanding or agreeing with it.

Assenting without understanding, Pasco says, “leads to a lot of confusion, frustration and even firing of persons the employer believes are deliberately not following agreed-upon procedures.”

Another expert on multilingual workforces underscores the point. Mariah DeForest, vice president of Imberman and DeForest Inc., a consulting firm in Evanston, Ill., that designs employee incentive plans, says: “In an English training session, Spanish-speakers do not understand, are intimidated and soon tune out. Many of the problems that employers have with their [Spanish-speaking] workers are due to the fact that no one ever explained anything to them in Spanish.”

The Possible Payoffs

Employers who offer job training to ESL employees in their native language can expect various types of paybacks. Chief among them, some experts say, is employees’ greater understanding of aspects of their jobs, from benefits to workplace procedures. Improved compliance with workplace laws and regulations is particularly important, experts say, and it may help shield against litigation.

“Some of the classes, such as sexual harassment, are taught in the employees’ native tongue to ensure compliance and avoid potential lawsuits,” says Sergio Rosas, a trainer for Employee Training Institute (ETi), a customized training resource of the San Diego Community College District.

Productivity can also improve. For example, Woodruff Imberman, president and CEO of the Imberman and DeForest firm, cites the decline in quality problems reported by a coating manufacturer after it made its training aids bilingual. “The workforce was entirely [Latino],” he says, “but the supervisors could not speak Spanish. The instructions—spray to one millimeter thickness and bake for so long at a certain temperature—were all in English, and they couldn’t read it.” After the language change, productivity went up 14 percent and customer returns went down 90 percent.

Native-language training is especially important “when the information is complex,” as it can be at 401(k) enrollment time, notes Janelle M. Barlow, president of TMI US, a training company in Las Vegas. “You need to hear it in your mother tongue.”

In addition, delivering training in employees’ native language can boost morale and help with employee retention. Employees who receive training in their native language, Barlow says, “feel respected and appreciated for their differences.”

Jossie Aguilar Lugo, a bilingual trainer for TMI, agrees: “When they receive training in Spanish, my program participants feel cared for by their employers. They feel their contribution is meaningful and appreciated. It tightens bonds with the organization.”

A Cautionary Note

Some HR professionals have expressed concern that native-language training may be discriminatory to the extent that English-speakers and Spanish-speakers are separated for training purposes. But experts see little or no risk that employers who offer such training will be accused of discrimination against any employees.

Participants “are not singled out,” Lugo says, because “they are receiving the same program the rest of the organization is attending. In fact, some have attended the English version and sign up for the Spanish.”

Indeed, some experts recommend that while ESL employees should be encouraged to take training in their native language, they should always have the option of attending the training in English.

“Allowing them to choose is a good strategy,” says Melissa Burkhart, president of Futuro Solido USA, a Spanish workplace training, interpretation and translation services company in Denver. “But you would want to let them know that the material being presented is going to be slightly different”—for example, because it will discuss the information in light of Latino culture.

For instance, Burkhart conducted several 401(k) enrollment programs in Spanish for a business client of Wells Fargo Institutional Trust Services whose Spanish-speaking employees were not enrolling in the company’s 401(k) plan. “We addressed the misconceptions that the only safe way to save money is in cash,” says Burkhart. “We had paper enrollment forms—nobody was going on the Internet—and we had time for me to help them fill out the form. Almost everybody in the room signed up.”

Burkhart suggests keeping the training voluntary by saying: “For those of you who grew up in another country, we encourage you to come to this session, even if your English is great. We want you to hear the information in your first language.”

DeForest adds, “Even if training is divided by language, there should be an attempt, at the end of the training, to bring both language groups together for a final session, so they all will feel like members of the same company.” During the combined training session, she continues, the entire program should be delivered in both English and Spanish. “We have found that language—not country of origin, which would probably be discriminatory and hence illegal—is the main determinant of employee groupings for training purposes.”

Is This Language Necessary?

Before you decide to offer ESL employees training in their native language, do some internal research. “Conduct some focus groups” with your ESL employees “to discover what they understand and what needs to be explained,” says Beth Doroff, marketing consultant for the Minneapolis-based institutional trust services unit of Wells Fargo. The company administers health and retirement plans, and it offers its clients on-site employee meetings in Spanish to help employees understand how plans work.

Says DeForest: “If Spanish-speakers are over 30 percent of the workforce—and certainly if they are in the majority—training should be in their language.” Other signs that such training would be advisable, she says, include labor unrest, productivity slippage, and complaints about product or service quality.

If you decide to offer any training for ESL employees in their native tongue, many experts say, all of their training should be done in that manner. But for employers who can do only some of their training in employees’ native language, it is important to prioritize. Experts say safety training generally tops the list, followed by legal and regulatory compliance, quality management, culturally sensitive matters such as sexual harassment, and emotion-based training (brand training) so employees know how their service and products are different from the competition and can convey that message to customers. In addition, “programs which teach something subtle rather than skill-based” should be delivered in employees’ native language, says Barlow.

Steering Clear of Pitfalls

The most common mistake that companies make in training ESL employees is to cut corners by, for example, using employees to translate the message—“relying on a bilingual foreman,” as Burkhart puts it. “The English-speakers get the expert presenters, and the Spanish-speakers get the foreman, who they don’t necessarily like, is not an expert in the subject, and may not even buy into the information being presented.”

In some instances, though, it might be effective to have a bilingual employee explain routine practices to ESL workers, such as new hires who need to know how to do a time sheet, whom to call when they’re sick and where to eat lunch.

Another mistake, some experts say, is using poor translations, which can result from skimping on translators or using computer programs. “Poorly translated material gives the impression that this is not terribly important,” says Burkhart. “It’s better to have no translation than a bad translation.”

Moreover, Burkhart notes, simply translating written materials into another language may not be enough because in-person training helps comprehension no matter what language you speak. She recommends an oral presentation, with written materials supplied as a supplement.

In addition, experts say, it’s a colossal mistake to translate the training verbatim without addressing cultural issues that ESL employees may bring to the sessions. On the presumably straightforward topic of safety training, for example, characteristics within Latino culture can lead some Spanish-speaking workers to shrug off safety procedures, even after attending the training.

Burkhart gives an example: “We translated a 10-hour [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] safety presentation on a construction site,” but employees would listen to the training and then continue to disregard safety precautions. “They didn’t buy into the training. Spanish-speakers tend to be more accustomed to danger. They think, ‘Real men don’t whine about fall protection.’ They believe we cannot possibly be serious about safety precautions. Why would our government enforce laws to protect immigrant workers?

“We have to address their objections. We have to explain how much money the company loses when an employee gets hurt, and that we’re serious about safety. After the training”—a session that addressed cultural attitudes—“the company started seeing better compliance.”

And watch your language. Don’t use “business buzzwords, American slang, and examples drawn from baseball, football and the military” because the terms may be unfamiliar to the ESL employees, DeForest says. Explain concepts in terms familiar to them.

Last, don’t assume that an absence of questions from Spanish-speaking employees means they didn’t understand the training, Burkhart says. Based on her experience, “Spanish-speakers are reluctant to ask questions” because Latino culture discourages it, she says. “I gauge my success in a presentation by how many questions I am able to draw out.”

Lynda Ford, SPHR, president of the Ford Group consulting firm in Rome, N.Y., suggests making the program “interactive so the trainer can assess comprehension. This can be done with small-group problem-solving or ‘what would you do’ scenarios.”

Choosing a Provider

In most instances, you will need to hire an outside provider to deliver your training programs in Spanish or at least to translate them. Although a few consulting firms specialize in such training, most companies turn to nonprofit agencies or community colleges, which typically charge fees for their services. The ETi service at San Diego Community College charges $1,000 for a half-day of training and $2,000 to $2,500 for a full day.

“Many community colleges offer industry-specific language training or will develop a customized training program,” says the InterCultural Coaching Institute’s Pasco. For instance, ETi offers more than 700 training topics, many of them in Spanish, including sexual harassment, leadership and supervisory skills, customer service, team building, time management, communication, goal setting, and conflict resolution.

Trainers should be not only fluent in the target language but also well versed in the culture. “Bilingual skills are essential, but so are the trainer’s bicultural awareness and professional training experience,” says Robin Carvajal, dean and executive director of ETi. “It’s not easy to find dynamic trainers who have HR, organizational development and professional training backgrounds to serve the needs of a culturally diverse workforce in multiple industries.”

If you cannot find a bilingual, bicultural training provider, consider hiring a translator to work alongside the trainer. Professional translators charge around $35 an hour. “Translation is not bad,” says Barlow, “but it’s never as good as having the training delivered in their native tongue. There’s always a delay as the translation follows.”

When All Is Said and Done

Although employers find that delivering training in Spanish adds to their training expenses, many say it’s money well spent.

“When you measure the incremental costs against the benefits of productivity, a cohesive culture and a strong sense of loyalty among employees, it’s a worthwhile thing to do,” says Chris Arnold, spokesman for Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., a McDonald’s brand with about 6,000 employees in 43 franchises in 22 states. Chipotle offers workplace training in both English and Spanish.

Delivering a consistent message to all employees regardless of language “ensures a consistent guest experience across our restaurants,” says Arnold. “It’s more important to us to have our people on the same page, and not to have the ‘us-and-them’ mentality that can easily exist when you have people with different language capabilities from different cultures.

“The purpose of training is so that people understand what to do and how to do it. It’s silly to run the risk of people not understanding because of their language skills.”

Kathryn Tyler is a Wixom, Mich.-based freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer.


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