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Overcoming employee language barriers

  • SIMA
- Posted: April 4, 2012
By Cheryl Higley

If English isn’t the first language for many of your company’s employees and subcontractors, operational expectations can get lost in translation.

Bruce Moore Jr., vice president of operations for Eastern Land Management, says approximately 98% of the company’s workforce is Hispanic and it requires extra time and effort to make sure everyone is on the same page.

“It requires a lot of additional translation and information to be relayed to make sure our clients obtain an optimal product and service.”

Given the liability involved in the snow industry, employees and subcontractors have a clear understanding of what is being asked is paramount.

Miguel Botto, regional sales manager for The Brickman Group, has experienced the challenges presented by language barriers from both sides.

Originally from Peru, Botto grew up speaking Spanish and didn’t learn English until he was in high school. He was able to practice and expand his fluency while attending school and working in Pennsylvania. But even with Spanish as his first language, he sometimes has trouble communicating with other Spanish-speaking workers.

“When I moved to Georgia to work, the owner asked if I could translate during safety meetings. When I did, they looked at me like I was weird … my Spanish was similar but not the same. I had to learn their lingo and slang—a mixed Spanglish so to speak—that I didn’t know existed.”

Moore says ELM holds multiple training sessions that are translated to Spanish by one of its employees. “We try to standardize our training practices so that we are communicating the same message 12 months a year—just changing the specifics according to the season.”

Language classes

Whether its offering language-learning software like Rosetta Stone or offering the opportunity to learn English at a local school, trying to get the workers familiar with the language can be helpful.

Botto cautions, however, that many of those working in the landscape/snow trades may not even know how to read or write given that many only have a limited education.

Translated materials
Offering job details, route maps, handbooks, etc., in a native language can help make employees feel more comfortable, Botto says. But it’s important that qualified, professional translators prepare the materials.

“I’ve seen materials where words were misused, instructions weren’t clear, and the translations didn’t make sense. With the safety and liability issues in the industry, you have to make sure the translator understands how to convey that message properly,” he says.

Maggie Downer, CSP, owner of Northwest Snow Removal outside of Chicago, had all of the company’s paperwork professionally translated. More than half of her subs and employees speak Polish or Slovakian so it was important that the details of each site were clear.

“All of my contracts, route sheets and information sheets for each property are provided in three languages so nothing gets lost in translation and our service areas and expectations are clearly spelled out,” she says. “These are especially helpful during stressful larger events, where crews may have to cover lots they have never services. Little mistakes and their associated costs can really add up over the course of the winter.”

Moore takes it a step further with ELM’s snow operations manual. The company has implemented a universal color-coding system for their site maps, including outlining priority and snow stacking areas (see story image above).

Botto says that while the language barriers can be problematic, one word should have universal understanding—respect. “It’s about treating people with respect and caring for your employees. Just because someone doesn’t speak a language doesn’t mean they don’t care about learning or wanting to grow and make a positive contribution to the company. Show them the way and they can become great employees.”

Cheryl Higley is Editor of Snow Business Magazine.
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