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The communication conundrum: Breaking the barrier

September 19, 2010
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Mark Anderson, CEO of Tacoma, WA-based CBM Systems, found problems communicating with non-native English speaking employees, resulting in missed services and customer complaints.

Instead of viewing the language difference as an obstacle, Anderson decided to implement training programs to boost employee productivity and loyalty — and it has been working to the company’s advantage for the past seven years.

The 2000 U.S. Census Bureau report estimates there are at least 1,166,303 Hispanic workers — not to mention thousands of immigrants from around the world — working in the JanSan industry.

With such a sizeable amount of workers who speak English as a second language, or not at all, building service contractors (BSCs) and in-house facility supervisors must find ways to effectively recruit, train and manage staff members of diverse cultures.

Communication blunders
Tom Jones, Ph.D., associate professor in the Hotel Management Department, University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) believes a host of problems can occur with non-native staff, including:

  • Inability to read warning labels on chemical containers
  • Difficulty assisting building occupants
  • Misinterpreting directions and instructions from management
  • Receiving improper training

Put yourself in your employees’ shoes: If he or she speaks little or no English, the workplace can be very intimidating and frustrating.

Consequently, many non-native workers may act like they understand directions and procedures, but may not fully comprehend what is expected of them.

Overcoming these obstacles may seem like a daunting and costly task, but the following tools can easily be implemented to break down communication barriers and improve many aspects of your operation.

No longer lost in translation
The most vital role communication plays is keeping employees and building occupants safe.

This includes ensuring your employees completely understand guidelines for handling the dozens of chemicals — many of which can be hazardous, or even deadly — they use every day.

Fortunately, many manufacturers can supply Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) in multiple languages.

If they are not available, ask bilingual employees to translate the MSDS sheets and other safety information found on product labels.

To lessen other on-the-job hazards, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) offers most training guides, posters, and videos in English and Spanish.

The organization also offers compliance assistance resources for Hispanic employers and workers on its website,

While written materials are good resources, supervisors are ultimately responsible for keeping employees informed and out of harm’s way.

Translation is one way to ensure this happens.

There are two main approaches: Using a translator from an outside company, or hiring a bilingual supervisor or manager.

Anderson uses both options for his employees.

For daily operations, Anderson relies on his management team — 90 percent of which is bilingual.

For special circumstances — such as disciplinary actions or other personnel issues — CBM Systems counts on outside interpreters to maintain employee privacy.

While Anderson took a reactive approach to the communication situation, Ted Hsu prevented problems by targeting a bilingual managerial staff when he founded Horizon Services Company of East Hartford, CT, 15 years ago.

Today, Hsu requires all managerial staff working directly with custodians — who largely speak English as a second language — to be fluent in at least one other language in addition to English.

ESL education
Besides improving communication between managers and employees, providing opportunities for cleaners to learn English can boost morale and enhance productivity.

Companies specializing in conversational English or English as a Second Language (ESL) classes are one resource available to employers — many of which can tailor a program to a particular industry.

Workplace ESL Solutions, Henderson, NV, specializes in training housekeepers for the area’s major hotels and casinos.

Owner Ronna Timpa has written and published a textbook on conversational English for the hotel industry, and it serves as the basis for her ESL classes.

Topics covered by Timpa’s workplace ESL classes include:

  • Greeting customers and engaging in small talk
  • Giving directions and information about the resort and its facilities
  • Reporting needed repairs and explaining problems
  • Apologizing to and thanking customers
  • Interpreting work schedules
  • Reporting tardiness and absence
  • Recognizing and describing symptoms and injuries
  • Reporting accidents, emergencies, and warning others of danger
  • Understanding and completing workplace paperwork

Following the completion of Timpa’s programs, there is a graduation ceremony complete with caps and gowns, diplomas, and a coffee and cake reception — and for some students, it is one of the proudest days of their lives.

Given his experience at UNLV, Jones believes that courses like Timpa’s can increase the morale of employees and build lasting trust by making their lives more fulfilling.

Other credible and readily available resources include local community colleges, many of which have ESL courses open to the public.

In some cases, instructors can even provide a private, on-site program for larger operators seeking to educate employees.

Hsu’s employees are encouraged to take ESL classes at local schools, colleges, and community outreach programs — and are reimbursed for any cost accrued.

Training for success
Offering ESL classes and translating important information is a step in the right direction for increased communication, but training is a vital issue that needs to be addressed.

With limited communication skills, non-native employees will have a hard time understanding training — especially complex tasks — in English, so it is important to offer materials in their native language to ensure full comprehension.

The ISSA®, an international trade association for the cleaning industry, provides members and non-members with training materials in English, as well as in other languages.

Some of its most popular bilingual training materials include:

  • The Official ISSA® E.Z. Trainer Custodial Training Program — This program is designed to help train cleaning professionals by detailing correct cleaning methods, as well as the proper usage of custodial equipment.
  • EZ Deck of Playing Cards — Based on the EZ Trainer Custodial Training Manual, this full-color deck contains illustrations and cleaning tips on each card.
  • Restroom Cleaning Guides — Developed by ISSA® and 1.2.3 Training Systems, this program uses pictures and icons to break down language barriers. The easy-to-follow restroom cleaning process helps standardize and professionalize any operation, and simple components help screen new employees, as well as train, test and inspect restroom cleaning.
  • Restroom Stoplight Training Magnetic Game Board — Designed for use with Restroom Cleaning Guides, this training tool allows the customization of restroom cleaning procedures while making training fun.
  • 14 Basic Custodial Procedures — This booklet contains the 14 most commonly performed cleaning jobs. Each section contains an illustration, a list of necessary supplies, and a step-by-step procedure.

In addition to providing translators and ESL classes, Anderson also uses video training in both English and Spanish for safety and cleaning procedures.

The Spanish training information is picture-orientated to convey the message effectively and efficiently.

Alan Bigger, director of Building Services at the University of Notre Dame, IN, spends a significant amount of time training all employees.

He believes special training materials, such as icons, for non-native employees have worked the best.

JanSan managers, supervisors, and business owners are facing a growing number of non-native workers entering the industry, consequently causing communication issues.

The above outlined resources will burst the communication bubble, increasing productivity and decreasing on-the-job hazards.

Recent Articles by Nicole Bruno, associate editor

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