ROANOKE, Va. — Training non-English speaking employees can be a challenge, but it is not impossible.
For years I was a Boy Scout leader and learned that the most effective training is demonstrating and then letting the new scout try the skill. In their attempt to duplicate the demonstration they often needed correction, so I, or my youth leader, would step in and demonstrate again. After several attempts, the new scout would acquire the skill they needed to know.
It was clearly demonstrated to us in basic leader training that the difference between telling someone how to do a job and showing them netted dramatically different results.
Clearly the most effective way of teaching a skill or training an employee is through hands-on demonstration and supervised trial and error. In fact, I recommend that all production employees be trained in this manner regardless of their language skills. This type of training will lead to better production and happier employees.
I also recommend another lesson I learned from the Boy Scouts. Boys have many opportunities to fill their time each day, so it is important they develop a relationship with the troop. The first several troop meetings when they are new and really do not know very many of the boys can be intimidating. So, good scout troops will assign a friend to each new scout to help them integrate into their patrol. Having a special friend who is there to greet them and introduce them to the other boys makes them feel wanted and gives them a desire to stay.
The same lesson can be applied to any new employee, but especially to the new, non-English speaking employee. Having both a trainer and an assigned friend to greet the employee each day and help them get integrated into the workforce helps to reduce turnover. A positive work environment is more important than any other factor in workplace retention.
Supervisors and lead workers should make the effort to learn a few simple words in the employee’s native language. The ability to say “hello” or “nice to see you” in their native language (even if not pronounced properly) will make the new non-English speaking employee feel appreciated and wanted. But even a smile and a daily “good morning” from the boss can go a very long way to develop loyalty and longevity in this type of employee.
There will be times when you will need to hire an official interpreter to translate company policies and benefits. This is not a frequent occurrence, but it will happen on occasion.
I recognized early on that if I wanted to maximize my ability to recruit this stable and highly productive work group, I would need to do something very special for them. Their children were being effectively taught English in the public schools in a class the school called English Language Learners, but the resources for adult education was limited and often forced them out of their comfort zones.
So, we established an on-site English Language Learners Program for the employees that they could voluntarily attend during breaks, lunch or after work. My organization paid for the training and, gradually, more and more attended. As their English improved, so did their feeling of self-worth. As the news of the program spread in the community, so did the number of people who showed up looking for work.
Another key to attracting and keeping this group of employees is treating them fairly and consistently. As my refugee workforce grew, so did the number of Muslim employees. The workforce eventually became 35% Muslim, and this presented a special challenge during Ramadan. Practicing Muslims, who can do so, will not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. During this month-long period of time, job rotation became very important.
We opened one of our classrooms for them to use as a breakroom, so they did not have to watch the other employees eat. On the afternoon shift, we adjusted the evening lunch break from 7 p.m. to after sunset. They were small adjustments, but they meant the world to this group of employees. By making small adjustments to our daily routine, we were honoring their religious beliefs and sending the clear message that we cared about them.
Turnover hurts production. I have always called the laundry business the love it or leave it industry. If an employee makes it through his or her first week, you will normally have them for a year.
The turnover rate in my refugee and legal non-English population was very low because we developed the culture, the training and educational benefit that improved their lives and made them feel important. In return, they worked hard every day and treated management with respect and took pride in their work.
It is not an easy process, but the journey is worth the required efforts.