Supporting a Multilingual Workforce

As today’s workforce becomes increasingly multilingual and diverse, employers are focusing on ways to effectively communicate with their staff. Open lines of communication are key to avoiding confusion, mistakes, and accidents. While it is not necessary for managers to be fluent in every language the staff speaks, it is important to take steps to make sure communication with a multilingual workforce is clear. Jim Marcoly, president, and Gabe Covarrubias, bilingual director of operations, Pacific Coast Warehouse Company, offer these tips to improve employee interaction.

1. Commit. Once you start communicating with your multilingual team, make sure you are in it for the long term. Short-term attempts to communicate can appear insincere, and do more damage than good.

2. Use many channels to communicate. Interact with your workforce verbally and in writing. Make sure your team understands all processes and signage, along with legal and company documents.

3. Embrace mistakes. When communicating in a language other than your native tongue, you may incorrectly translate a word, sentence, or phrase. The team will understand your mistake—embrace it and learn from it.

4. Understand your audience. When working with a bilingual workforce, be aware of subtle regional differences or meanings for the same words. Geographic region often drives differences in words or phrases, including slang.

5. Practice. If you want to strengthen your second language skillset, and engage more with your team, talk to them in both languages. You may even find people on staff who want to practice their second language with you. This can be done in writing and verbally.

6. Include everyone. Trying to reach out to all multilingual workers in the same meeting can cause friction and confusion. Set the expectation that you are reaching your entire audience, and make changes or adjustments to ensure your message is clear.

7. Increase the number of multilingual speakers. It helps to have a senior leader of the organization engaging with the workforce in more than one language. Front-line supervisors should not be the only ones required to communicate in multiple languages. Support team members, such as human resources, IT, engineering and facility operations teams, should be able to communicate in multiple languages.

8. Respect cultural differences. Address team members’ understanding of the culture, and encourage sharing heritages.

9. Speed up communication. Companies are hiring from a pool of diverse people. Learn to communicate quickly and efficiently with all workers no matter what language they speak.

10. Slow down. Speak at a slower pace when addressing a group, regardless of language, to allow people to digest the information. Adding a few extra pauses gives your audience a better chance to follow along.

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