Language and Cultural and Its Impact on a Company’s Success

We’ve all experienced difficulty at one time or another speaking a second language or understanding someone speaking English as a second language (ESL). Imagine that difficulty in the workplace and how it impacts a company’s operation. Misunderstandings can cause financial loss through errors or lost time.

Differences in language and culture impact business operations in many ways, on the plant floor, with customer service, on company morale or simply day-to-day operations.
We all use short hand or idioms in our speech.  We take them for granted however for individuals whose native tongue isn’t English they can be confusing.  Even between people whose primary language is English, misunderstandings or misinterpretations occur on a regular basis.  Questions such as “Do you understand” or “Call if you have questions” often don’t help because the person may believe they understand so don’t ask any questions.  Often the lack of questioning is a result of fear—looking less than competent, or because they genuinely believe they understand what is being asked of them.  In that case it is not until the task has been completed that the misunderstanding is realized.

Whether the ESL speaker is a company worker or customer it is important for companies to understand how to operate in a multi language or multicultural business environment.  As employers it is in our best interest to create a work environment that speaks to the challenges of a multi-language and cultural world.

NJMEP resource Sharlene Vichness shared a few of her experiences in how language had impacted her clients operations and the remedy used to improve the situation.  
  • One company was experiencing a low percentage of employees participating in its benefit plans.  Due to difficulty in understanding the open enrollment presentations, ESL workers weren’t enrolling. With the help of a bilingual facilitator, who answered questioned and assisted in completing forms, enrollment went from 20% to 70%.  

  • An upscale supermarket opened in a new location and hired employees that were not proficient in English.  When customers would approach them with questions about where to find product they would run away, creating a less than ideal situation for the shopper and long term, a disaster for the business.  Using the weekly flyer as the impetus for learning English, sessions were built around answering customers’ questions regarding material in the flyer. Employees developed confidence in their language skills and welcomed the opportunity to assist the customers.
Ms. Vichness pointed out that OSHA requires safety training be taught in a language that workers understand.  Image the challenge offered a non-English speaking/reading worker when confronted with “push” and “pull.”  These two words could easily be misinterpreted as they both begin with “pu” and are four letters.  Confusing these two actions could result in misunderstanding what action to take resulting in an incident or accident.

Cultural differences can also lend themselves to misunderstanding, creating difficulty in the work place.  Different cultures have different mores regarding personal space, eye contact and physical contact. Educating workers as to the differences promotes an understanding of behaviors or actions reducing the opportunity for misunderstandings, harassment claims or lost business.

If your workforce and/or customer base is multi-cultural it is well worth your while to think about how much it may be impacting your business. Would it be helpful to provide facilitators when introducing programs or training to your workforce?  Does the customer service department speak clearly and slowly so that your customers have an easy time doing business with your company? Is equipment clearly marked so in an emergency there are no questions as to what action to take?  Have customers been lost because of cultural misunderstanding?  If planning equipment upgrades will the loyal workers who have run the old machines for years get the training in a language that is best suited for them to succeed with the new challenge?

Language and culture impacts everything, both in and out of the workplace. Stay aware and stay current on issues that can impact the success of your company. If you need help with any of the areas discussed in this article please call NJMEP at 973-998-9801 or email us at
manufacturingmatters@njmep.org. To learn more about how NJMEP can assist your organization please visit njmep.org