Communication is tough. It's even tougher when workers don't speak your language
Managing workers who don't speak English as their first language is tricky. Don't deal with it properly, and you risk problems ranging from poor customer service to diminished productivity to poor morale. "Organizations have to recognize that languages may be a potential problem," says Lisa Willis Johnson, chairwoman of the Society of Human Resource Management's workplace-diversity committee. "Lots of employees have very important skills, but they don't communicate in English well."
Semifreddi's, a $7.1-million artisan-bread bakery in Emeryville, Calif., bumped right up against the language barrier -- and decided to bump back, with a campaign mounted by CEO Tom Frainier. Frainier believed he had a track record "as an accessible, available, communicative guy," but he now realizes he was "delusional" in regard to his company's language barrier. Frainier speaks only English, unlike most of his 100 workers, who hail from Mexico, Laos, China, Peru, Cambodia, Yemen, and Vietnam.
One typical type of problem surfaced last year. Frainier had asked workers not to park on one side of the bakery because he wanted to reserve those spaces for customers' cars. Some employees misunderstood, thinking he was telling them not to drive to work. "I had made the classic Ugly American mistake of talking slowly and loudly, and assuming that people would understand me," Frainier says. But they hadn't.
The parking problem, however, paled in comparison with Frainier's next challenge: open-book management, which entailed regularly sharing detailed financial information about the company with his workers. "I would gather all of my employees from different shifts together for a big meeting, and I'd rattle off a bunch of numbers," Frainier recalls. "I would ask everybody if they understood the information, and everybody would nod. I didn't realize that they were just being polite."
When Frainier promoted two Latino employees to management posts, he asked them to help disseminate information to their fellow Spanish speakers. He also discontinued the practice of having big meetings. Now he speaks to small groups of workers who have similar English skills so that nobody feels intimidated about asking questions. Frainier has translators at every meeting, and he asks his managers to check in with him daily.
So far, so good. The CEO says that he's getting much more detailed feedback from his employees on everything from policy changes to individual career goals. And he says that the new language sensitivity has been a boon for company morale. In fact, he believes it has helped put the company on track to add $400,000 in new revenues this year.
MIKE HOFMAN was previously editor of Inc.com and a deputy editor at Inc. magazine, which he joined in 1996. The site was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Digital Media in 2010, and was named the best business website by Folio Magazine. In 2006, Hofman was part of a team of writers nominated for a Webby Award for best business blog. He lives in New York City. @mikehofman