To hear the sounds of the global economy, all you have to do is walk through S&C Electric's Chicago facility, where 1,800 employees manufacture, handle, and ship electric-power transmission and distribution equipment. Workers, who hail from 66 different countries, are likely to be carrying out their work in English, Spanish, Russian, or Arabic, to name just a few of the languages spoken at the site. In fact, somewhere between two-thirds and threequarters of S&C Electric's workers are non-native speakers of English, says Gene Cottini, manager of training and development services.
The multilingual scene at S&C Electric's Chicago operation is hardly unique. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 15.3 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2006 was foreign-born. What's more, distribution and logistics occupations seem to be particularly attractive to these workers: 16.7 percent of foreign-born workers that year were employed in production, transportation, and materialmoving occupations, compared to 11.9 percent of their U.S.-born counterparts.
In fact, the distribution facility without any non-native English speakers may be an anomaly these days. "I think you would be hard-pressed to find a distribution center anywhere that has just one language being spoken. I don't think it exists," says Larry Sweeney, vice president of business development for Vocollect, a vendor of voice-recognition systems for warehouses and distribution centers.
A multilingual workforce raises all kinds of issues for DC managers, who need to know how to create a culturally sensitive workplace, prevent harassment and discrimination, and ensure that all employees have proper legal documentation. Underlying those concerns is the most fundamental one of all: language. How can you be sure you're comunicating clearly and consistently with all of your employees, regardless of their facility with English? Here are 10 ways to improve communications with multilingual workers and help them perform their best.
1. Assess communication skills. An interview is a good way to evaluate an applicant's communication skills, says Wanda Franks, human resources director of Aspen Distribution, a Utah-based third-party logistics service provider. At Aspen, the level of proficiency required depends on the job. "Being proficient in English doesn't necessarily mean that they can quote dictionary-correct definitions of words," Franks says. "But they do need to know what warehousing is all about and be able to understand in a few minutes our warehousing safety guidelines."
Ensuring that employees have the necessary language skills can be particularly difficult when it comes to hiring temporary workers. Franks advocates educating your temp agency about the work environment. "Having the agency walk through your facility to fully understand what job duties and skill levels are needed is a good starting point when they are recruiting from their office," she says. "Making sure the agency understands the communication skill level that is needed for those job functions will simplify the recruiting process for them and decrease the number of nonqualified applicants."
2. Match employees with the right job. A good rule of thumb is to match employees with jobs or tasks that are appropriate for their level of English competency. That's the approach adopted by service-conscious Pacific-American Services LLC (PACAM) at the free-trade zone facility it operates in Oakland, Calif.
"Our order profiles are very complex, with a lot of line items, SKUs [stock-keeping units], and regulatory requirements. And all of our documents are printed in English," President Scott Hothem explains. "If an employee is not able to read cartons or work with our WMS [warehouse management system], that opens us up to chargebacks and noncompliance claims." For that reason, the company assigns employees with limited English proficiency to positions where written communication is less important, such as unloading containers.
3. Sensitize your supervisors. Communication is a two-way street, and it will break down quickly if supervisors and managers are unfamiliar with the dos and don'ts of working with nonnative speakers—no matter how well they know the operational side of the business. Supervisors and managers may benefit from cultural sensitivity training that focuses on effective communication, says Bob Fittin, director of training for Chicago's Greater West Town Community Development Project. Learning and applying some simple measures, such as speaking more slowly and choosing words more carefully, can improve a supervisor's chances of being understood.
4. Hire bilingual supervisors. If some of your employees speak little English, you may want to hire bilingual supervisors to facilitate accurate, two-way communication. At PACAM, for example, about 50 percent of front-line supervisors are bilingual in English and Spanish. These managers provide the company with more flexibility in supervision and training, and their involvement can increase employees' productivity and work quality, says Hothem.
5. Use employees as translators. Language gaps can hamper the sharing of knowledge, so having employees communicate in their own language can raise competence levels.
Workers in S&C Electric's shipping and receiving area often handle items that have specific crating and packing requirements. Those procedures are passed down orally from experienced employees to newer colleagues. The company also uses written methods—safety posters with universal symbols, for example—to convey its messages, but only as supplements to oral communication. "Those satisfy our needs to some degree, but when it comes to specifics, such as handling dangerous materials, I still don't know how to do a better job of transferring information than to have one non-native speaker tell it to another in their own language," Cottini says.
6. Translate job-related information. If your employees depend on manuals, memos, training materials, safety posters, and similar documents to do their jobs correctly, you need to translate them—and not just into the most commonly spoken language. "If you do it for one, you have to do it for others," says Franks. "Don't just choose one language, such as Spanish, that you are going to translate into. Otherwise you risk others feeling neglected."
It's fairly easy nowadays to find training materials such as videos and manuals in several languages. You can also contract with an outside translator who is familiar with your business and its specialized lingo.
7. Encourage employees to speak up. You can't translate everything into every language for every situation. That's why you need to encourage employees to speak up if they don't understand something, says Fittin of the Greater West Town Community Development Project. His organization offers a 12-week training program in shipping and receiving for disadvantaged and unemployed residents in the Chicago area. One-quarter of those students are non-native speakers of English.
"We tell all our students, and especially non-native English speakers, if you don't understand, ask," he says. "One of the greatest challenges that they have to overcome is their reluctance to speak up because they are afraid they are not going to say it right. They have to know that the employer doesn't care how they say it."
8. Support ESL classes. It's in your best interest to help employees improve their English-language skills. When employees are more proficient, you're likely to see increased productivity, fewer accidents, and lower turnover. Cottini, for one, believes that S&C Electric's low employee-attrition rate is partly due to its English as a Second Language (ESL) program. His company offers onsite classes in conversational English as well as a more advanced course that includes written and technical language.
If you offer on-site classes, you may be eligible for state or local funding; S&C Electric's classes are partly underwritten by a grant from the state of Illinois. Or you might opt to partially or fully reimburse employees who attend outside programs. PACAM, for example, provides full tuition reimbursement for work-related education, including language classes.
9. Partner with outside organizations. Many social service organizations can help you hire, manage, and train employees with limited English proficiency. Partnering with a local training program like Fittin's is one way to ensure that you're hiring people with the right level of technical and communication skills. For ESL classes, adult education programs and community colleges can help. S&C Electric is working with Chicago's Center for Adult Learning to develop and lead its ESL classes. The center has customized the curriculum by incorporating job-specific internal documents, safety data, and work orders.
10. Consider multilingual technology. If you use any kind of technology in your warehouse or DC, find out if the vendors offer multilingual products. Vocollect, for example, currently supports 23 languages with its systems. Employees can even choose one language for listening to commands and another for responding to the system. (Interestingly, says Vocollect's Sweeney, in the United States, the majority of workers prefer to listen in English and respond in their native tongue.)
Multilingual technology can go a long way toward improving employees' performance and job satisfaction, says Sweeney. "If you're having difficulty with the language, then your productivity and accuracy can decrease. But if you can go back to a language that you are comfortable in, you can be as productive as the guy next to you who's speaking English," he says. "This helps build employees' confidence in the system and in their ability to work in that environment."
Diversity brings benefits
The number of warehouses and distribution centers with a multilingual workforce is certain to grow, particularly in regions with large immigrant populations. While communication in that type of environment can be more challenging, employing a diverse workforce does bring rewards. Fittin says that in his experience, the companies that have been most successful in developing a diverse workforce are also the most successful in business overall.
"When you talk about out-of-the-box thinking, people from different countries and different backgrounds approach problems differently," he says, "and the more ways you have to approach a problem, the more likely you're going to find a way to solve it."
Adopting fair and consistent hiring, management, and compensation practices is the right thing to do in any workplace. But staying on the right side of the labor laws is especially important for managers who oversee a multilingual workforce.
That's because the number of discrimination claims and lawsuits from the limited English proficiency (LEP) population is expected to increase, says Donna Roberts, an associate with the law firm Stites and Harbison in Nashville, Tenn. These lawsuits, which are typically settled out of court for amounts that may exceed $1 million, are often class-action suits instigated by attorneys who solicit participants. "Due to cultural differences, LEP employees may not realize they have [anti-discrimination] rights, and one way they get that education is from plaintiffs' lawyers," she says.
To reduce their exposure to lawsuits, Roberts recommends that companies exercise caution when writing job descriptions. She urges them to draft the descriptions in ways that focus on responsibilities and requirements rather than on specific levels of language competency. Examples include: "Your job will require you to communicate clearly with supervisors and coworkers" and "It is imperative that you be able to understand and follow safety regulations."
Roberts also cautions against publishing language restrictions unless a position is highly language-sensitive, such as handling hazardous materials or working with heavy machinery. Similarly, she strongly discourages companies from establishing "English only" policies in the workplace unless there is a legitimate business reason for doing so.
Other recommendations include: Consider carefully whether English is indeed required for management positions, promotions, and compensation; be consistent in how you apply standards to all employees; encourage continuing education, including English classes; and document employment decisions.
"You need to be very careful about minding your 'p's and q's,' particularly in regard to paperwork," Roberts warns. "Because of high turnover levels, some companies get really lazy about employment files. Or they are more focused on getting shipments out the door than on managing their employees. This is a mistake."