How To Address Language Barriers In The Workplace

Don't let your multilingual workplace be a burden. Address the issue and embrace its effects.
December 09, 2011

In small companies across the United States, it’s not uncommon for two or even three languages to be spoken during the normal course of business among the employees. This reflects the larger demographic trends across the country: We are becoming more diverse and assimilation by new immigrants is taking longer than in previous generations.

This trend is having a profound impact on how owners run their operations. When sales people speak only English and warehouse staff speak only Spanish, problems will arise. Owners can take a number of steps to minimize the issues caused by language barriers.

Encourage workers to study English

When workers don’t speak English yet, it is in everyone’s best interest to help them learn. It’s not easy to learn English but many free resources available for English language learners (ELL). Here are some good ones.

Many community colleges offer affordable ELL programs in convenient locations, but these tend to reach capacity quickly.

Invest in appropriate translations

As a bilingual person, it amazes me how many companies, both large and small, consistently fail to produce good foreign-language materials. Websites, brochures, store signage, agreements and most documents are translated poorly.

Many times this happens because the businesses use free machine translations. The price may be right but the quality is atrocious. Other times, businesses rely on existing employees or someone who speaks the language natively to translate these business materials.

Just because someone speaks a language doesn’t mean they can write well. The same is true for translating into a foreign language. Poor translations confuse non-English speakers and send the message that you don’t care.

Hiring a professional translator is not that expensive and my recommendation is to always work with one.

Use multilingual software

Software development for business operations has grown more robust, thanks to new programming languages and tools. One of the most important software design elements over the past several years is built-in multilingual functionality.

Investing in this type of software can ease the burden of managing a multilingual workforce. Having a point-of-sale system that operates in both English and Spanish can allow your customer-facing staff to secure orders in English, while sending pick lists or orders in Spanish to the workers in the back of the house. This simple solution will reduce order-processing time, errors and stress levels.

Leverage ELL workers to expand market share

Every challenge can be turned into an opportunity and language differences in the workplace are no exception.

Recent immigrants comprise the overwhelming majority of non-English speakers. They learn how to make their way in the U.S. through informal networks. Members of their communities who “know the ropes” share their understanding of how to establish credit, secure a job, access resources and buy what they need. Your ELL workers can give your business direct access to this pool of potential customers.

Let your employees know that you would like their help finding new customers, and ask them to reach out to their communities. Consider offering inducements, like prizes for the most referrals, to help motivate your staff to help you. If your company does a good job of serving these customers, the word-of-mouth marketing will spread like wildfire.