Overcoming Language Barriers in Employee Communication

Jan 20, 2016

Jeff Toister is President of Toister Performance Solutions, Inc. and the author of Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle with Customer Service and What You Can Do About It. He’s also authored several customer service training videos on lynda.com including Customer Service Fundamentals and Managing a Customer Service Team. We’re pleased to have Jeff as a Voiance contributor. You can find him on Twitter or via his Inside Customer Service blog.

 

My client had assured me that everyone spoke English, so I was surprised to discover a language barrier in my training class.

It wasn’t apparent at first. I greeted participants as they arrived, and everyone was able to reply in English to my basic questions like “How are you today?” and “What do you do here?”

The problem surfaced once the class got underway. Several participants had difficulty understanding me. They relied on co-workers to interpret what I was saying from English into Spanish.

These training participants were my customers, so I worried how the language barrier would impact their satisfaction with the class. The employees were also the organization’s internal customers — they needed to understand critical communication so they could do their jobs.

Language barriers like this are increasingly common in today’s workplaces. Read on to learn what you can do to handle it.

 

Where Language Barriers Exist

A recent study revealed that nearly one in ten working age adults in the U.S. have limited English proficiency. Some professions, like agriculture, manufacturing, and construction are known to have high numbers of employees who don’t speak English. However, it’s not uncommon to find language barriers among employees who directly or indirectly impact customer service.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Restaurants: bussers, dishwashers, cooks
  • Hotels: housekeepers, maintenance
  • Retail: stockrooms, fulfillment centers

Employees need clear instructions on how to do their jobs correctly. Many must also interact with other employees who only speak English. Limited English skills can create a communication gap that makes it hard for employees to do their jobs.

Where Multilingual Communication Is Needed

There are many places where you might need to communicate with your employees in more than one language. Here are just a few examples:

  • Written Documents – this includes policies, procedures, and training materials.
  • In-Person – this includes meetings, training classes, and one-on-one discussions.
  • Phone  large companies often have internal contact centers to support their employees in the field with various functions like human resources and purchasing.

It’s a good idea to audit your potential audience so you can best understand their communication needs. My training class taught me a valuable lesson here. I learned to ask clients more specific questions about my audience’s language skills and what support they might need.

For example, I made two adjustments the next time I facilitated a training class with the same client. First, I had the training materials translated into Spanish. Every participant received a workbook with information written in both English and Spanish. This helped English learners translate some of the content themselves. Logistically, it also allowed me to avoid printing two sets of workbooks.

Second, I worked with my client to identify participants who could serve as interpreters to help clarify key concepts with their co-workers who had limited English skills. We built extra time into the class to allow for interpretation.

There are many resources available to help employees and customers feel heard and valued. In addition to providing language services to your non-English-speaking customers, Voiance offers translation and localization services to convert printed material – applications, training manuals, benefit forms, etc – into languages your employees may need. Research has shown that access to these services increases satisfaction for employees and customers alike.