Plaudits for the Buddy System
A meeting with the boss intimidates almost any employee, so imagine how stressful such a meeting can be when language is an impediment. At Ruiz Food Products, a Mexican-food company in Dinuba, Calif., president Tom Colesberry meets once a month with 24 employees to hear the comments their supervisors often edit. Many employees speak little English, but a few accommodations make them comfortable.
Colesberry structures the meetings, which are lunches, so that those familiar with the format can help newcomers. Half of the employees at each luncheon are attending for the second time; the other 12 are first-time attendees who then go to the next meeting, in turn bringing 12 first-timers.
Each meeting begins with introductions in English and Spanish. As employees coach one another, barriers fall. (Ruiz also maintains a staffed language lab, with books and tapes, for employees' off-hours use.) During the meeting all polite questions are allowed, as long as they don't raise problems about particular employees. Often Colesberry reviews Ruiz's financial performance, new products, and new clients. But just as often, talk turns to niggling details of company policy. All discussion is in Spanish and English; bilingual staffers help out when necessary.
In addition to providing unvarnished feedback, the meetings yield unexpected benefits. For instance, workers who live in Hispanic neighborhoods highlight blind spots in Ruiz's distribution. But the big benefit is camaraderie -- important for a staff that speaks more than one language and has in four years doubled to 1,200 workers.* * *
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