Multilingual Workplaces

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2005 Newhouse News Service

Bill Conerly, a construction director in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., says his crews are "a well-oiled machine."

Watch them put together a house, and you'd never imagine that some can communicate with each other only through the foreman. But 25 percent of workers in the DiVosta division of Pulte Homes, Conerly's employer, are native Spanish speakers and 10 percent primarily speak Haitian Creole.

Pulte faces labor shortages in some of the trades, said Kathy McGuire, its director of human resources in Palm Beach Gardens. Without Spanish and Creole speakers, she pointed out, "I wouldn't have enough people to build my houses."

With immigrants filling gaps in an aging work force and U.S. firms expanding to serve customers around the world, a babble of tongues is now heard in offices and at job sites across the country. The 2000 Census found that 47 million people, or 18 percent of the population, did not speak English at home -- up from 32 million, or 14 percent, in 1990.

The situation poses challenges for employers, who may need to change time-worn habits of interaction, translate written materials into other languages or pay for classes for managers and employees.

But there are advantages as well. Veterans of multilingual work forces say the range of national origins not only makes companies more effective in serving customers and business partners around the globe, it makes them more interesting places to work.

Pulte, headquartered in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., publishes personnel documents and employee communications in three languages, McGuire said, and this spring will offer Spanish classes tailored to construction and landscaping terminology for a handful of English-speaking managers.

Foremen now demonstrate when they teach workers, rather than just explain, Conerly said. This takes longer, but avoids the common problem of workers nodding their heads as if they understand, when in fact they don't.

"So much more can be done with less misunderstanding if you just show it," agrees Alistair Ono, 26, sales marketing manager in the San Francisco-area office of Ribbon Connections, a Japan-based textile company. "Instead of telling someone how to find this thing in the computer, show them one time."

A native English speaker who has mastered near-fluent Japanese, Ono admits he sometimes pretends to understand his Japan-born bosses. But it's not always a matter of pride. "People who speak a little bit of a language can be fooled into thinking they know what they're talking about," based on nonverbal cues, he said.

Both sides must take responsibility, said Carlos Tessi, vice president for global marketing communications at Merck, the pharmaceutical company based in Whitehouse Station, N.J. The speaker should look for signs he's being understood, and the listener should be willing to say, "Slow down."

"The wrong decisions can be made if you are afraid to stop someone," said Tessi, a native Spanish speaker.

When a former employer hired a brilliant computer specialist whose strong Chinese accent made her difficult to understand, Ommy Strauch, a certified human resources consultant based in San Antonio, found a speech pathologist to work with her on English sounds especially difficult for Asian natives to pronounce.

"She was very grateful," Strauch said. After six months of therapy, "she still had a very pronounced accent, but she was understandable."

Even misunderstandings unrelated to business issues can hurt an organization.

Pamela York Klainer, a Rochester, N.Y.-based author and consultant, worked with a nursing home where one manager banned her staff from speaking Spanish. "This nurse manager was absolutely sure they were mocking her and other senior staff," Klainer said, when they were just chatting about their weekend plans or families.

If the nurses forgot to speak English, they were reported for insubordination, potentially jeopardizing raises or even their jobs. Before long, Klainer said, the unit was short-staffed. Nobody wanted to work for the manager.

It's only natural for co-workers who share a heritage to hang out together and speak their common tongue, said Peter Handal, president and CEO of Dale Carnegie Training, based in Hauppauge, N.Y.

"Where it becomes a potential problem is when it's viewed as a clique and it becomes them versus us," Handal said. "It's very important to be very open about these kinds of things, and to explain to all involved how people feel."

At Ribbon Connections, one English-only speaker quit because he thought anyone talking Japanese and laughing was joking at his expense, Ono said.

As a courtesy, when Ono speaks Japanese with his bosses and they mention another employee, Ono makes eye contact with that person to reassure him. "They trust me that if there was anything being said about them, I'd tell them what was going on," he said.

Indeed, managers and human resource experts said, it's common for a multilingual community to develop unspoken customs.

Strauch once worked for a clothing manufacturer where most workers spoke Spanish. If an English-speaking supervisor or foreman interrupted a Spanish conversation, the workers would spontaneously explain what they were discussing.

"It was cultural," Strauch said. "It wasn't written in the handbook, it was just one of the ways they did business."

At Merck, native Spanish speakers e-mail each other in English, out of consideration for their English-only colleagues, Tessi said.

Yunjian Jiang, a 30-year-old software engineer who grew up in China, works in San Jose, Calif., with several other native Chinese speakers. When someone joins a Chinese conversation, they ask whether the person understands Chinese. If not, they switch to English.

But it's not just spoken languages that require office courtesies.

Luane Davis Haggerty, an assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, speaks fluent sign language with deaf colleagues in her department of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. When less-proficient, hearing colleagues are present, she translates.

"You drop to the lowest level of communication so that everyone has access," Haggerty said.

(Katherine Reynolds Lewis can be contacted at katherine.lewis(at)

This story was originally published Thursday, Jan. 20, 2005.