September 2014

September 2014

Language and Cultural Issues and Their Impact on Business

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 those communication disconnects in factory, and office settings and the significant impact they can have on a company’s operations.
Misunderstanding and miscommunication can cause financial loss through errors, lost time, or HR issues. Differences in language and culture impact business operations in many ways, on the plant floor, with customer service, on company morale or simply with day-to-day operations.

One example is the use of “shorthand” or idioms in our speech. We take them for granted but for workers whose native tongue is not American 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 and therefore don’t ask any questions. Often the lack of questioning is a result of fear of appearing to be less than competent, or because they genuinely believe they comprehend what is being asked of them. In many instances, it is not until the task has been completed that the misunderstanding is discovered by quality control…or worse, by an irate customer.

Whether the non-native English speaker is a company worker or a customer, it is important for businesses to understand how to operate in a multilingual or multicultural manufacturing or business environment. As employers, it is in our best interest to create a work environment that addresses the challenges of a multi-language and cultural world…not overseas, but right in our own backyard.

Help is available and “fixing things” is often simply a matter of training. Through short-term training, we have helped to improve the impact of language and culture issues for our clients. Here are some examples:
– A pharmaceutical company was experiencing a low percentage of employees participating in its benefit plans. Due to difficulty in understanding the open enrollment presentations and the inability to ask questions, non-native workers weren’t enrolling. With the help of a bilingual facilitator, who facilitated the answering of questions and assisted in completing forms, enrollment went from 20% to 70%.
– An upscale supermarket opened in a new location and hired employees that had a low proficiency in English. When customers would approach them with questions about where to find a particular 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 “textbook” for learning simple, relevant English, sessions were built around answering customers’ questions and real world situations regarding material in the flyer. Employees developed confidence in their language skills and welcomed the opportunity to assist and interact with the customers.

In the manufacturing or construction sector, safety training should be taught in a language that workers understand in order to be effective and minimize a company’s risk. In fact, the federal government has stated as much in directives it has issued in the past few years. Image the challenge facing a non-English speaking/reading worker when confronted with written directions to “push” or “pull.” The difference between these two words can easily be confused as they both begin with “pu” and both have four letters. Confusing the meaning of the words representing two different actions could result in misunderstanding which action to take resulting in an incident or accident.

Misinterpreting cultural differences can also create difficulty in the work place. Different cultures have different protocols regarding personal space, eye contact and physical contact. Educating workers as to the differences reduces the occurrence of misunderstandings, harassment claims or lost business.

If your workforce and/or customer base consists of multiple cultures, it is perhaps prudent to think about the impact on your business. Would it be helpful to provide facilitators when introducing programs or training to your workforce? Are you really protected from sexual harassment claims if your Spanish speaking workers have only received prevention training in English? Does the customer service department speak clearly and slowly so that your customers can easily do business with your company? Is equipment clearly marked so in an emergency there are no questions as to what action to take? Are safety advisories marked with universal symbols? 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 they need in a language that is best suited for them to succeed with the new challenge and remain productive?