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STRATEGY

Found In Translation

How to make the multicultural work force work.
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At City Fresh Foods, CEO Glynn Lloyd likes to hire from the neighborhood. And because the 12-year-old food-service company is headquartered in Boston's polyglot Dorchester neighborhood, Lloyd's payroll resembles a mini-United Nations. Some 70 percent of his 65 employees are immigrants, from places like Trinidad, Brazil, Nigeria, the Dominican Republic, and Cape Verde, off the West Coast of Africa. They speak half a dozen languages, not to mention the myriad cultural differences. "Visitors can see that we're a community of people from all over. They pick up on it right away," says Lloyd, 38. "You walk in, and you can feel the vibe of all those places."

Immigrants will account for nearly two-thirds of the country's population growth between now and 2050, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Minority groups will constitute almost half of the population by then, meaning that successful managers will have to understand how to develop and retain employees who come from more cultures than any CEO could master. Indeed, while policymakers struggle to find an acceptable posture on border security, Lloyd has been working hard to figure out his own urgent question: How can managers best ensure that employees from so many different cultures work side by side productively?

He's come up with an ad hoc series of practices and processes that are achieving that aim. The highest hurdle, of course, has been communication. Lloyd tried overcoming it by providing about 40 hours of ESL classes to his workers so that all 65 of them would use English. But that bar seemed too high, so Lloyd has lowered it. Instead, he requires his employees to learn the more limited language of City Fresh Foods--terms like "delivery ticket," "checkout sheet," and "ice packs." "I spend a little extra time trying to help them read what they need to know," says Kurt Stegenga, the company's logistics manager, who grew up in Mexico. "It takes a bit of clarification so that they can reach into the refrigerator and know what it is they are grabbing--say, cream cheese and not cheese sticks." But once they know those terms, productivity begins humming, Lloyd says.

At monthly companywide meetings, meanwhile, multilingual employees volunteer to serve as translators. Rosemary De la Cruz, a 26-year-old administrator from the Dominican Republic, sits next to employees who need the Spanish version and translates. Delivery manager Jose Tavares makes notes about his department meetings; his assistant translates them into Portuguese and Spanish for the company's 26 drivers. He's also ready to jump on the phone and solve any problems that might occur when an immigrant driver cannot answer a customer's question. Cotumanama "Toby" Peña--many employees adopt nicknames to further the cause of simplification--learned English words such as "safe" and "out" by watching baseball in his native Dominican Republic and picked up the alphabet from Sesame Street. "The English I speak is broken," says Peña, a cook. "For me, it's sometimes better to write things down." (Nonetheless, he often finds himself translating for one of his fellow cooks who is among the 40 percent of employees who don't speak English.)

When it comes to company material that is typically communicated with words--training manuals, say--Lloyd sticks mainly to visual tools, an outgrowth of the knack he had to develop for using gestures to make himself understood. To learn how to stack a cooler, for instance, employees study photos of how the contents can be arranged so that drivers don't have to reach deep inside to grab any drinks. How does City Fresh pack bread? Employees take turns using a machine that pumps air into a bag, slipping a loaf inside the bag, and then using another machine to tape it up. "A demonstration is better than words," says Lloyd.

City Fresh also counts on numbers to serve as a universal language. For instance, Lloyd worked with his managers to design a checklist that employees use to keep track of how many meals still need to be produced--the company ships out 4,000 daily, mostly to institutional customers ranging from charter schools to nursing homes--and for which accounts. The bulk packers can tell how many pounds of green beans they'll need. The expediters who match the beverages and desserts to each meal know what time it has to leave and who will be delivering it. Everybody can use the document, no matter what language they speak, says Lloyd.

"Visitors can see that we're a community of people from all over. You walk in, and you can feel the vibe of all those different places."
--Glynn Lloyd, CEO, City Fresh Foods

But anybody with designs on rising into a management position has to master English. City Fresh will contribute up to $1,000 per person a year to help; it allocates $12,000 a year for education. These days, one assistant manager is getting 90 minutes of private tutoring a week. Rather than hauling everyone into a classroom, "we're going to start using this kind of learning more strategically," Lloyd says. "It will be a reward for the people who we think will get the most value from it." Otherwise, he says, ESL classes come and go without much to show for them. Nobody gets sufficiently immersed in English at work because "they don't need to know it," he says. "They can talk to each other in whatever language they want."

Lloyd goes to such lengths not just to ease communication but also because it's good for his customers. Many, especially the elderly, are from ethnic communities themselves and have "a taste for the authentic," as he puts it. Chefs from the Caribbean know how to whip up such specialties as mondongo (cow intestine), stewed goat, and salted codfish. And if employees sometimes run into problems with customers because they do not speak English, they've also been known to save the day when an English-speaking staffer encounters a customer from another country.

Still, there are limits to how open-minded folks can be. Want to put their tolerance to the ultimate test? Sneak into the production facility and switch the radio to a country music station. "We do not play that stuff around here," declares Lloyd, in a tone so chilly it could refrigerate the company's entire inventory of condiments. "Nobody likes that music." As a result, he says, "we've agreed to ban the stuff and that seems to work for everybody. We found the simplest way to handle the situation."

Resources

Visit www.inc.com/handson for more advice and insights on managing a multicultural work force. The American Institute for Managing Diversity, a nonprofit think tank, has articles, links, and discussion boards.
Last updated: Oct 1, 2006




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