Managing ESL Employees

It's about mindset over matters

Managing ESL Employees

Most employees who speak English as a second language (ESL) want to succeed, and they are smart and hard-working enough to do so. With the right mindset, thoughtful supervisors can help ensure the success of individual employees and teams by building bridges of understanding.

Two years ago, new IEHA/ISSA member Michael Brandon Faw was named director of environmental services at Duke Regional Community Hospital (Crothall Healthcare) in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, where he is responsible for keeping 800,000 square feet of space clean and hygienic. One of Faw’s top priorities was to raise the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) survey scores for cleanliness, client retention and satisfaction, and floor- care training of his 369-bed hospital and off-site community health clinic. Faw knew he needed a unified team to achieve this goal.

Faw’s crew of 78 full-time employees includes 18 (23%) who speak English as a second language. When he arrived at Duke Regional Community Hospital, he encountered a situation familiar to many who work with ESL teams: There was no hostility or conflict, just a deep divide.

Jumping to the Worst Conclusions

It’s lunch time. A group of employees sits on one side of the room, talking in Spanish and laughing. A group of English-speaking employees sits on the other side of the room, feeling alienated and wondering why the first group is talking about them and laughing at them.

When Faw encountered this all-too-familiar scenario, he knew he had work to do. Through friendly and honest one-on-one conversations with his team members, Faw quickly discovered that the barriers dividing his team were not rooted in language or culture but in a lack of understanding.

Faw applied his firsthand experience as a high school foreign exchange student and led his English-speaking team members to an “Aha!” moment through role playing. Faw asked them to imagine themselves “surrounded by people who speak a language you’re struggling to learn. Every question, every answer, every comment, every announcement, every sign has to be deciphered or composed in your mind. Your vocabulary may be limited, so you struggle for the right words and the right verb conjugations. You struggle to understand. You struggle to be understood. It takes effort. It takes time. It’s exhausting! Imagine how good it feels to let go of all that and enjoy an easy conversation and some laughs with people who speak your native language.”

The English-speaking employees were relieved to discover that nobody was talking about or laughing at them. They quickly developed respect and appreciation for the extra effort required of their Spanish-speaking co-workers, and they did not begrudge them opportunities to relax and lighten up.

On the other side of the room, the Spanish-speaking employees were mortified when they learned how their behavior had been perceived by their English-speaking co-workers. Being rude or hurtful couldn’t have been further from their minds!

Building a United Team

“There’s no single recipe or playbook for success,” says Faw. “Every workplace is different, and every employee is different, regardless of what language they speak. It takes lots of trial and error, and it begins with the hiring process.

“Hiring good people means hiring the right people, regardless of what language they speak,” says Faw. “Almost anybody can learn how to be a housekeeper and follow best practices, but not everybody can care.” Faw explains that most hospital patients see more of their housekeepers than their nurses, doctors, or other hospital personnel, which means his team does more than keep the hospital clean—it keeps the hospital friendly.

When interviewing job candidates, Faw looks for people who share his hospital’s patient-centered values by asking open-ended behavioral questions, such as “What would you do if you notice a patient hasn’t had any visitors?” or “What would you do if you find a $50 bill on the floor?” Faw looks for integrity and empathy in their answers, he looks for smiles, and he looks to understand their motivation for wanting the job.

“When a candidate tells me about how nice a housekeeper once was to a relative or friend during a hospital stay, I know I’ve got a winner,” says Faw. “I know they appreciate that the job goes beyond keeping the place clean.”

“When individuals share the same outlook and values, when they understand each other, you can bring them together and create a high-performance team,” says Faw, “and the benefits are many—job performance, staff stability, and employee retention, to name just a few.”

Maintaining Momentum

At Duke Regional Community Hospital, the practicalities of ensuring the success of ESL employees include comprehensive training by instructors who speak their native language and who use a hands-on, “show vs. tell” approach. Hospital signage, supplies, instruction sheets, checklists, and other employee reference materials are made to be simple and straightforward. Tactics like color coding and the use of room numbers instead of names help make an ESL employee’s road map as easy as possible. These methods also help ease the way for English-speaking employees who may not have strong reading skills.

Multilanguage translations are used when more complex information needs to be communicated, and when necessary, interpreters are available through the human resources department to provide one-on-one counsel and advocacy for ESL employees. Interpreters also assist with difficult conversations to ensure that constructive criticism and other concerns are communicated properly so an employee can course-correct for success instead of feeling threatened or shamed.

Faw believes most of his ESL employees want to improve their English-language skills. According to Faw, “They don’t want to be accommodated. They want to fit in and do a good job.” At Duke Regional Community Hospital, ESL employees can take advantage of hospital-funded educational services if they’re interested in developing their language skills to serve as interpreters.

All for One and One for All

“Even when employees unite as a team, they’re still individuals,” says Faw. “They’ll always be individuals, and like all employees, must be respected as such. It’s imperative to get to know them personally and get to know their families. For many employees, their families are their greatest source of energy. They’re the reason they come to work.”

Faw’s team members strive to learn more about each other by regularly working together to plan and organize opportunities for team building and fun. “Potluck lunches are especially popular,” says Faw. “People are proud to share their favorite family dishes, and when they enjoy and appreciate each other’s specialties, it brings them together as people, not just as co-workers.”

Recommended Reading

ISSA Tools for Your Spanish Speaking Staff

ISSA Education and Standards Certification Programs Online in Spanish (click on Education and Standards)

U.S. Immigrants’ Employment Rights Under Federal Anti-Discrimination Laws


Nan Hallock

Writer and Editor

Nan Hallock served in a senior marketing communications position at the world’s largest association management agency, SmithBucklin, and was one of three founding partners of an advertising/public relations agency in Chicago. Contact Nan at


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