Overcoming Language Challenges with Employees

“Luis, would you mind back cutting the lateral scribe at that upper left-hand clerestory window? Oh, and while you’re at it, align the reveal with the rake of the ceiling, okay?”

Did Luis really understand the tasks you just asked him to do?

One of the key elements in our built world is communication – communicating clearly and simply with people who perform the work we design and plan. However, it is important that we realize that the current U.S. workforce is filled with workers whose first language is not English, which can make getting ideas and directions across quite challenging.

Not just on both coasts but all over the country, the workforce is increasingly Spanish-speaking. There are approximately 35 million people in the U.S. who speak Spanish in the home, and 53 million who characterize their ethnic background as Hispanic.

Since many of these people work in the building industry, we need to figure out the best ways of working together. There are challenges associated with this shift in the workplace, and it is critical that we understand them and address them if we are to be successful. Some of the very best craftsmanship in the U.S. is produced by workers whose first language is not English, and if they constantly struggle to understand what we want them to construct, we’re going to have a slower project, and one that may not come out the way we want.

 

HOW CAN YOU HELP?

As a business owner and manager, the first step you can take to help the situation is to learn some of the language your workers are using. You may be very surprised as to how differently you’re perceived on the jobsite by your workers, foreman or your tile setter if you can speak even a few words of their language. It’s fine if you don’t speak the language all that well; you can explain that simply by saying “No hablo mucho Español.” But, if you make the effort, you’ll have a better connection with your workers.

You can also try downloading a Spanish app to your phone and listening to it in the car. ‘News in Slow Spanish’ is a great one. It offers current news, spoken slowly and clearly. It’s stuff you probably know about anyway, just presented in a different language. Give it a try; you may not realize that your brain is absorbing the language, but more exposure to it will inevitably bring more familiarity. The same goes for listening to Spanish radio or watching Spanish TV shows: You’ll soak it up without really knowing you are.

Spanish signage on your jobs can also help. A list of ‘Jobsite Rules’ in Spanish will set the tone for behavior and safety, and can communicate that you are aware of the diversity of your workforce.

Take into consideration cultural differences as well. While their culture may seem similar to yours, it is not the same. Family and kids, for example, are very important to Latino workers, and you need to respect that. Take the time to ask your employees about their families. Baptisms, confirmations, quinceañeras – these often have much greater significance in a Spanish family than in many traditional American families. Sundays are likely off-limits when it comes to working, so bear that in mind when you’re asking for overtime.

Appreciation and gratitude also carry great weight. Yes, wages are important, and you must pay fairly, but a sincere recognition of a non-English speaker’s contribution can be just as key. The recognition can be one-on-one – but it can carry even greater weight in a group setting. Maybe you can show up for a tailgate safety meeting or a jobsite lunch break and tell the whole group what a great job they’re doing.

 

HOW CAN YOUR EMPLOYEES HELP?

The first and maybe toughest reality for many non-English-speaking workers to grasp is that learning English is an important rung on the ladder to success. While there is a great deal of Spanish being spoken on the jobsite, the language of clients, designers and even most builders is still English. If you have a Spanish-speaking carpenter who wants to lead jobs, he or she will need to learn English to get ahead.

So, encourage your staff and subs to work on improving their English skills. This can be done through classes at a community college or the local church, by watching television, by listening to the radio in English, or by getting a podcast such as ‘Listen to English’ and playing it during the commute to work or to jobsites. Something as simple as watching a Disney movie with the kids can be helpful here, as the language is often simple and easy to understand.

One thing we’ve seen in California is that, as the jobsites become more predominantly Spanish-speaking venues, there’s a tendency on the part of the crew to always speak Spanish simply because it’s easier. Consider breaking this up by encouraging ‘English-only’ mornings, for example. It will help the careers of the workers in the long run.

And, if you’re explaining the way you want something to be built, have your craftsperson explain it back to you in their words, so there’s less confusion. Have them sketch it back to you if you’re only giving a verbal indication of what you have in mind.

 

FINAL TIPS

Keep in mind that there are many more ways of communicating than just using words.

As a designer, a drawing is often the best way of passing along what you’re thinking. In fact, a description can sometimes confuse the process, especially if it’s in a foreign language. Imagine trying to build a French Country kitchen with all of the details described in French.

In addition, use the Internet more. Great photos are available on Google Images and Houzz, so use those tools to explain exactly what you’re thinking.

 

Steve Nicholls has been in the building business for over 30 years. In addition to performing remodeling and construction work, his firm operates a large cabinet shop, building work for their own projects and for other contractors. He is a frequent speaker on building industry topics.

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