Communication is always a challenge—U.S. businesses spend millions of dollars each year on classes aimed at improving internal communications. But it's a much bigger challenge when workers don't speak the language. And these days, managers at all levels—distribution and logistics executives included —find themselves bumping up against a language barrier as they try to communicate with workers born in places like Kazakhstan, Cambodia or Yemen.
Sometimes, verbal communication's not the problem, written communication is. Even if your workers speak English, you can't assume they can read it. The International Adult Literacy Survey in the mid 1990s found that at least 25 percent of adults in the United States and other industrialized countries failed to reach the minimum level of literacy proficiency needed to cope with everyday life and work. And it's unlikely things have changed much in the years since.
That makes things tough, certainly. But it doesn't make them unworkable. There are ways to dismantle these barriers. For example, if English is the second language for most of your workforce, the solution may be as simple as ESOL classes. Courses in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) are offered in nearly every community, very often for free. But many times, the people who would benefit the most miss out on the opportunity—either they have difficulty finding out when and where the classes are offered or they lack transportation. It could be well worth your time to provide that information for them and post it on the company bulletin boards (in English as well as the prevailing language in the area). You might even print paycheck inserts with the information to prevent embarrassment. If it's within your company's means, consider providing transportation to and from the classes or bringing in an instructor.
If, on the other hand, most of your communication problems stem from illiteracy or lack of education, the solution may be to help workers find appropriate adult education classes. Go through your staff records and find out if you have workers without high school diplomas. If so, post information on the GED classes available in your area (usually at the community college or county-sponsored technical schools). These classes are typically free or low cost. Encourage employees to sign up and help by arranging their schedules (if possible) so they can make it to class on time. Again, if your numbers warrant it, look into bringing an instructor in and offering the classes on the premises.
But what if there are no funds available to hire an instructor or provide materials? Try recruiting tutors from within the company. There are many people who have teaching ability—people who tutor underprivileged kids in their spare time, for example. Many of them may even volunteer for the workplace program (meaning you won't have to pay them). Others may agree to participate at their regular pay rate. If top management balks at paying for these services, point out that most organizations readily pay for staff members to attend other types of training aimed at increasing productivity and efficiency. Programs designed to help your employees understand you and their co-workers are no different.
If you can't find money in the budget for materials to begin your own program, look to the community. Local schools may be able to provide the necessary books and accessories. If not, a local literacy or educational foundation may underwrite the costs. If that fails, try the local houses of worship. If they don't already have a fund for these kinds of programs, they might adopt your project and raise the necessary dollars. A program that helps residents of a city become better educated benefits not just your company but also the community as a whole.