Your problem is real but your solutions are racist
January 6, 2016 8:00 AM   Subscribe

Are there any management courses or training programs geared towards a supervisor managing ESL employees with not-great English skills? Are there tactful methods of encouraging ESL improvement without singling out said employees? Employees are very educated white-collar professionals, no complaints there, but poor ESL skills are causing difficulty in communicating with the larger company. Also: aforementioned supervisor is a loved one whose frustration has started manifesting in some solidly racist rhetoric. Help.

A Dear Loved One of mine was appointed to head a very large division of a major company. They are making some major changes, the majority of which center around building a more collaborative atmosphere and bringing currently disparate development groups together. They are looking for more multi-group meetings, more personal involvement with subdivision heads and groups, and more focus on individual employee development.

Right now one of their major issues is that a good chunk of their non-native English speaking employees have exceptionally poor English skills. Poor enough that it severely hampers any communication in that English written or verbal. We're not talking people all a-flutter because they're not singing "The Rain In Spain" in a Mid-Atlantic accent. It's meetings that go on much longer than they should, barely-sensical reports that must be completely rewritten by someone more fluent, and repeated mis-communications that hamper project development. The end result are teams that end up professionally and personally segregated along racial and national lines. That is just not the sort of workplace Loved One wants to build.

Loved One would like to encourage non-native speakers to actively work on improving their English. Not just for the company but for the sake of their own careers--English is by far the dominant language of communication in their industry. However, all of the ideas I've heard from Loved One have ranged from bigoted and possibly illegal (banning their native language!) to ineffective (free Rosetta Stone courses*). Loved One's complaints have also begun to carry a racist undertone that I have never seen from them before and find profoundly disturbing.** I call that bullshit out, but I don't always feel I'm getting through. They'll accept that their reasoning was racist and they approach with more nuance, but then once they get to feeling frustrated and helpless again and the same crap bubbles back up. I am also unable to provide them with any solutions, so our conversations on the topic tend to consist of me shooting down crap racist ideas (and crap racist reasoning) without suggesting any kind of positive alternatives.

TL;DR: The actual questions
  1. Are there resources or articles aimed towards educating native-speaking supervisors who oversee non-native-speaking employees? Loved One loves management and leadership training books and essays. They would likely respond well to something that fostered understanding of these employees as humans while offering management and community-building strategies tailored to the unique needs of the situation.
  2. How does one encourage one's employees to build their language skills without being insulting or dictatorial? These employees are extremely well-educated and highly-trained professionals in their field. The language barrier is the main difficulty. I know that many US graduate schools ask incoming students to take a fluency test and take ESL classes if they do not pass. But this train has already left the station. They're all grown adults and many of these employees have been in the division for years and years. I feel you can't now drop a test on them and force them into classes. So are there less aggressive, but still effective methods of encouraging fluency?
  • "Conversation partner" happy hours and after-work gatherings like that are not really an option due to the strict closing hours and geographic isolation of the facility. Everyone's commute is at least a half-hour, the facility goes into lockdown after around five or six pm, and many employees have families to get home to anyway.
  • Firing them is not on the table.
  • A translator who can speak their native language is also not on the table. Wouldn't it come off as tremendously patronizing?

*I've heard mixed reviews about Rosetta Stone, and these employees' language skills are not that remedial.
**'They aren't trying,' 'They don't want to integrate,' 'They think they can get away with it,' 'They're not team players,' 'They only hire each other, that's why there's so many of them,' etc etc etc
***It would be nice if Loved One started learning the dominant native language of this group of employees, but it would take years to get anywhere near conversational status, much less technical language.
posted by schroedinger to Work & Money (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think the management training program would be a course in whatever language these employees speak. Seriously.

But this company needs to offer its employees paid Business/Professional English training, use incentives (merit bonuses, leadership opportunities, etc), and make a policy that English proficiency or training will be required for new employees (using professional testing).
posted by zennie at 8:21 AM on January 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

Your loved one needs to speak with their HR department -- if it is a major company, I'm sure they have one. The HR department can help figure out what is possible to do. Job requirements do change and while English proficiency may not have been a requirement in the past, it may be one now. You can use the carrot/incentive approach or the stick/this is required to keep your job approach. It is also entirely reasonable to require testing to a certain level of proficiency -- that is a far fairer standard than managerial judgment.

But, really, if your loved one is heading a major division of a major company, they should have a strong HR partner working with them -- not just on the language issue but also on the other major changes the company wants accomplished.
posted by elmay at 8:31 AM on January 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

***It would be nice if Loved One started learning the dominant native language of this group of employees, but it would take years to get anywhere near conversational status, much less technical language.

That might be exceedingly good for Loved One's attitude.

An option (in addition to working with HR) may be hiring a copywriter/proofreader/editor for the organization or department. Many people, including many native English speakers, are horrible at written English, which is why many companies have a person (or department) whose job it is to write or edit things.
posted by jaguar at 8:36 AM on January 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

If English proficiency is required to perform the job, then a certain level of English proficiency must be possessed by the employees. This is not racist.

Your family member should go to HR and to the training departments to understand what is currently in place to aid ESL speakers in this instance.

Then as part of ongoing performance feedback, those folks who need better skills should be informed and be given the resources to improve their English, (and any other deficiency.)
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:40 AM on January 6, 2016 [13 favorites]

I used to teach English internally at a large Japanese electronics company that you have heard of. My students were self-selected because of a corporate policy that in order to advance past a certain point within the company, an employee had to demonstrate a certain level of English proficiency, so the company set up an internal after-hours ESL program. This is a bit different than your situation because all the employees were native Japanese speakers working in Japan, so there were not the internal communication programs that your question describes. Also, it sounds like that isn't an option for you based on the lockdown and isolation of the facility.

So are there less aggressive, but still effective methods of encouraging fluency?

Please believe me when I say I am an evangelist for language learning (check my post history), but you really cannot talk someone into learning a language. Trust me, I have tried. Just like you can't talk someone into quitting smoking or running a marathon. You can't want it for them. The employees will start learning English to the required degree when their experiences at work (not advancing, communication troubles) are more troublesome than the study of English is. This may mean they don't advance past a certain level (my company used TOIEC). This may mean that they have to watch another employee get fired because their English incompetence caused an error in a report or delayed a project past a crucial deadline. (firing an employee is not on the table? there's no such thing)

Lastly, I haven't seen you write anything showing that your Loved One has said or thought anything offensive or wrong. Every job has a required skill set, and different jobs have differing skills sets. I take from your question that the company's internal language is English. That means that a certain degree of English proficiency is required to get the job done. If you are an employee who is writing "barely-sensical reports" reports (your words) and repeating hampering projects upon which other peoples' livelihood depends, you are failing at your job. If you knowingly do this, you *aren't* trying and you *do* think you can get away with it. You may be well-educated and highly trained in your field, but you could still be lacking a crucial skill. In this case, it's a high level of proficiency in technical English. This has nothing to do with racism, so please stop leveling that word at your Loved One. As you say, these are adults at a major technical company, so don't soft-soap them. Use carrots or use sticks.

(it would be nice if Loved One learned this language but that would not solve the problems of the crap reports and project delays)
posted by Tanizaki at 8:42 AM on January 6, 2016 [14 favorites]

For question 2, the way to raise the issue without being insulting is to focus on the direct impact on their work and nothing else. "This report was difficult to read and we needed to put an additional person to review and rewrite it. This isn't a good use of anyone's time and resources, so how can we address this?" Simple, not patronizing, and not racist!

However, I work at nonprofit doing a mishmash of administrative and managerial stuff, and sometimes encounter program/technical staff who think reports and paperwork are something to get around to after the "real work" is done, instead of, y'know, ALSO PART OF THEIR JOB. Part of the solution for Loved One is going to have to be finding ways on an individual and company-wide level to impress upon employees that in addition to the technical work, communicating clearly in English is ALSO part of their job.
posted by yeahlikethat at 9:18 AM on January 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

Some sort of culture-relevant education for Loved One might be a useful supplement to the solutions listed above. "Cultural sensitivity training" is not quite the term I'm looking for, but perhaps a book or course on "Northern Country X Culture for the Managerial Mindset."

My logic being that perhaps being familiar with accompanying cultural expectations (how does one traditionally assert authority? how does one handle conflict?) might give some insight into how to make changes stick or which changes would have the highest chance of being adopted (or why current efforts are falling flat).

My hope would be that this would pay dividends much faster than learning the language, and be time better spent than reading overly broad "Managing in the global marketplace" essays.

(This is much more doable if the ESL employees are predominantly from a single cultural/language group, but even if there are multiple groups picking the top one or two could be worth the effort.)
posted by BleachBypass at 9:28 AM on January 6, 2016

Just a thought about Loved One learning the language, is this something that they've rejected out of hand, or have you just not suggested it because of fluency and timing concerns? While becoming fluent would take a while, learning just a little bit of the language could help bridge the gap enough that meetings could become smoother. I managed to have a conversation once where we each had minimal skills in each others language (so bad that I wasn't really understood much by a third individual with no skills in my primary language and vice versa). We'd each had about 1-2 semesters of university level course work. It wasn't an intense program and did include some cultural elements. So bring it up as something that they may find helpful if you haven't already. It also has the added benefit of leading by example.

It won't fix the report writing, but as noted above, native speakers can suck at that. Loved One may need to work on a better process for that on a larger scale: add the extra time for revisions into any project, engage a (bilingual, ideally in this case) copy writer, or formalize fluency requirements if they are truly necessary. If there is a cultural shift at work occurring (led by Loved One and other higher ups), they may also want to take a larger role in interviewing new hires at all levels to help move the transition along.
posted by ghost phoneme at 9:42 AM on January 6, 2016

Suggesting that no native language be spoken on the job may not be coming from a racist place. The US military does this as well - even if half the platoon is Spanish speaking, you can't speak Spanish at work - in many ways because language segregation leads to other segregation.

Educated professionals are not going to want to use a language they're barely fluent in that makes them sound ignorant when there's another option - so taking away the other option isn't crazy. But this MUST be paired with a company provided, on company time, language course.
posted by corb at 10:09 AM on January 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think the "racist" part is coming from the statements about how "they" are not pulling their weight. And I think it is useful to point out to someone that they are categorizing people into a group of Others, although maybe not so useful to use the word "racist" since that puts people on the defensive.

Anyway, I think your Loved One can set some standards for business communication and writing skills without framing it as "English classes." If the training and feedback can stay focused on standards for professional performance, it's less likely to be perceived as focused on one racial group.
posted by chickenmagazine at 10:26 AM on January 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

When EmployeeA writes a barely-sensical report, who fixes it? It is much more efficient for the company if you hand the nonsense off to an English-speaking technical person B who fixes it, but that provides no encouragement for A to start improving, and is a source of resentment for B that they had to spend their time on someone else's project. By insisting that Employee A fix their own report (with perhaps a resource "writing workshop" as a designated half-time job duty of one English-speaking employee) there's actually an opportunity to learn something and insert some change into the system.
posted by aimedwander at 10:32 AM on January 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

There is a difference between 'racist' and 'expected language proficiency' especially when there is an accepted 'language of the business.' Which, in the business world is typically English when dealing with cross-cultural teams.

HR should be the first place to go for training programs. Telling someone their English speaking and writing skills are horrible is not racist. I worked at an large Indian firm that did a lot of business in Europe and the US. The CEO, who is Indian, went to a meeting with one of his senior people to a client. The senior person could not be understood when speaking English. EVEN BY THE CEO. The CEO called him out and replaced him as primary contact until he took classes and improved.

It's very common. ESL fall into some broad categories; think they speak well, but don't (and don't improve because no one tells them due to embarrassment), speak well, but don't think they do (which results in issues as well - shyness, non-participation, etc etc), does not speak well, but knows it (which results in other related issues that aren't solved by esteem-building), and speaks well, and knows it.

Cross section this with cultural issues - depending on where they are from, now that affects how they may approach their language issues.

Hence, HR is the right place to start to make sure any programs instituted are 'culturally sensitive.'

Now, there are some cultures that are difficult to work with coming from a vastly different culture. And approach to language can add to that - and hence result in viewing things more 'racially' - or blanketing a culture with a broad stroke.

And there are some cultural issues that have nothing to do with language. And, well, there are some bad cultures (depending on your perspective of what your culture finds morally right or not).
posted by rich at 12:37 PM on January 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

If I read the question correctly, there is a second, equally important issue going on here - Loved One is a new manager trying to change corporate culture. These are pre-existing employees who thought everything was just fine under the new system. Now LO is trying to change corporate culture and, along the way, totally changing expectations about language standards.

I can't think of a particular resource, but some management reading around how to go about establishing a more collaborative environment and especially about change performance standards might give him some ideas for dealing with resistance.

Bottom line, most people don't like change, especially change that involves a steep learning curve on their part with no clear payoff for themselves. Loved One needs to think about the bigger picture - the whole shift in corporate culture - and how he incentivizes his employees to buy into his vision.
posted by metahawk at 1:54 PM on January 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

***It would be nice if Loved One started learning the dominant native language of this group of employees, but it would take years to get anywhere near conversational status, much less technical language.

You don't need to be fluent to dramatically improve communication. One of the issues you see in people who speak ESL is they impose not only grammar and spelling from their native language onto English, they also inject logic and assumptions that would never occur to your typical English speaker from a country like the U.S. or U.K.

Idioms can be especially problematic to translate. If you can find a good book of idioms for the language in question, that may help enormously.

Off the top of my head:

A German speaking friend of the family loudly walked through a sewing notions store asking "Where are the rubbers?" She meant "elastic". She was merely translating the word directly and had no idea this was some kind of faux pas.

My mother barely spoke English and wanted to redecorate her dining room. She found feminine napkins at the store and snapped them up, thinking napkins that looked feminine were exactly the kind of thing her dining room d├ęcor would benefit from.

The word "douche" really just means "shower" in both French and German. A German friend of the family was told by her doctor to do a vinegar douche to treat her yeast infection. She was baffled as to a) how this could possibly help and b) how on earth she could get vinegar into the showerhead.

A person working in Asia (I believe Japan) who was stymied by communication and cultural differences thought they had made a huge breakthrough and told someone "We are thinking along parallel lines." The other culture employee enthusiastically agreed. When the entrenched problems reared their ugly head again, the Western employee was baffled and brought up the "thinking along parallel lines" conversation. The Asian employee said "Yes. Parallel lines never meet."

These kinds of incredibly crazy, totally out there misunderstandings can be greatly reduced by your Loved One knowing even a little of their language.
posted by Michele in California at 2:38 PM on January 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I should clarify--I don't think the desire for Loved One's subordinates to speak English well is racist. I mean their complaints about the subject have begun to take a racist tinge. They have started to be colored by Yellow Peril-esque allusions that employees of this nationality are consciously rejecting learning English, avoiding interacting with English speakers, and team leaders of that nationality are only hiring people of their own nationality, no matter how terrible their English is. Alternative explanations: people speak in the language they're most comfortable in and they do not get better at English if there's no incentive to do so. Also people apply to jobs they know about, people find out about jobs from their social circle, and humans tend to associate with other humans from similar cultural backgrounds so the racial balance is less about conspiracy and more about natural human behavior (and poor advertising on the part of the company).

Also, yes, the overriding issues is that Loved One is trying to go from a corporate culture of non-communication to one of communication. That was their goal when they came in and things have been going well for as long as they've been there (~18 months). I think they have never encountered ingrained language barriers like this, and it is causing frustration and that frustration is getting mixed up with latent racist ideas. So I am trying to think of suggestions that are useful and ways to help Loved One address these issues without feeding into said racism.

These are all very good thoughts, I really appreciate the advice so far.
posted by schroedinger at 3:18 PM on January 6, 2016

Daily English lesson/conversation class at lunchtime with free food for attendees
Subscriptions to a variety of interesting magazines in communal area
Compulsory e learning segments to be completed by all staff in whichever of the two main languages they don't speak
posted by KateViolet at 3:26 PM on January 6, 2016

Is the company paying for English classes? Paying for english lessons either directly for classes held t the office during office hours or giving time off to attend classes or allowing for study time/exam leave, or otherwise strongly encouraging with financial support helps. Adding "report writing in clear high-level English" as a KPI-type goal to job descriptions or other performance-linked goals or bonuses also makes this a direct "learn this skill and increase your pay/career".

I don't know if it's legal in your area, but we have written tests for job positions where we know we need a particular level of English fluency and people who have good spoken English have flunked that, and vice-versa (great written, terrible listening/spoken).

It has taken two years of english classes for one staff member, paid by us, to get their english to the level where I can now directly have a conversation with them and manage 90% clearly. Great staff member for other reasons, and I don't regret the investment, but it took a long time for the language lessons to stick, despite all the extra work I know this person put in as they were personally motivated to learn English too. Learning a new language is hard. If we hadn't been paying for the lessons, giving time off and making it a work requirement, would they have stuck to it? Maybe not - and we would have missed out on a really good staff.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 6:54 PM on January 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm an ESL teacher and work at a similar company. I teach a class during work hours which doesn't require too much work outside of class that they wouldn't otherwise be doing anyway. We also have one-on-one tutoring sessions to help people with their specific areas for improvement. There are ESL skills taught but also stuff like presentation, cultural awareness, body language, and other things that could honestly be an issue for anyone. It's possible your Loved One could contract with an ESL firm like hours to have these things taught in-house. Our classes are presented as valuable learning opportunities and though we have some folks who are more reluctant, most are happy to get this opportunity.
posted by chaiminda at 2:09 PM on January 7, 2016

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