Cómo Se Dice?

Break down the language barrier between you and your employees.
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the December 2005 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

After 30 years in the roofing business, Bruce Fryer found himself going back to school to learn how to run his company better. This time, the owner of Fryer Roofing Co. Inc. in Fresno, California, was learning a new language so he could communicate with his largely non-English-speaking, 50-person work force. "I went through a Spanish class to try to at least familiarize myself with key words, especially safety-related words," says Fryer, 49.

No one knows precisely how many U.S. workers have limited or non-existent English skills, says Bob Losyk, Greensboro, North Carolina, author of Managing A Changing Workforce. But with estimates of the number of illegal immigrants alone ranging north of 10 million, the numbers are probably significant. "You've got a whole work force there that doesn't speak the language," says Losyk.

Non-English-speaking workers may have difficulty understanding safety warnings, company policies, product specifications and other important communications. That, in turn, can raise safety concerns and insurance costs, lead to run-ins with regulators, promote poor quality, and generally make an owner or a manager's job more difficult. "It can contribute to workers' compensation costs and a wide variety of issues," says Virda Rhem, a member of the national workplace diversity panel of the Society for Human Resource Management in Washington, DC.

On the plus side, employees who don't speak English can be as skillful as any when it comes to other aspects of the job, says Fryer. And employers who make an effort to solve the language problem often get loyalty and appreciation in return, he adds.

Training supervisors in a second language is one way to go. You can also offer English as a Second Language-or ESL-classes to employees. The best way to do this, Losyk says, is to offer the classes on-site during, just after or just before working hours, and to pay the workers to attend.

One benefit of teaching workers English is that it can reduce the need for translation. Fryer has to have safety and company policy documents translated into Spanish. This can get expensive, because when safety and other important matters are involved, translations must be high quality.

Fryer must also hold dual meetings on safety topics, one in English and one in Spanish. "We're required by the California [OSHA] to train our employees in safety," he says. "And it's got to be done in a language they can understand."

Entrepreneurs like Fryer may find costs for hiring employee trainers are doubled, since they need one trainer for each meeting. One way to get around this is to hire bilingual trainers and managers as often as possible. "Searching for bilingual supervisors is critical," says Losyk.

No matter how hard they try, entrepreneurs will bump up against limits with non-English-speaking workers. For instance, if a company's customers speak only English, workers who deal directly with customers must have significant skills in that language.

Hiring non-English speakers also poses risks. If, for example, a poorly translated safety warning leads to a worker injury, a company could be held liable for the imperfect wording. And employers who encourage workers to learn English need to be careful about banning speech in another language, Rhem adds. That could be viewed as workplace discrimination.

Non-English-speaking workers appear in all American industries at all levels, and they speak virtually every known language. And thanks to the globalization of business, they're becoming more common and widespread. "It's going up," says Losyk. "There's no uestion."

Mark Henricks writes on business and technology for leading publications and is author of Not Just a Living.

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