Orientation and training sessions for newly hired staff are usually filled with very important job-related information. These sessions are most frequently conducted as all-day oral presentations that are supplemented with written materials. Native speakers of English often find the amount of information overwhelming, remembering only pieces of what was said. But they can easily clarify unclear information by later questioning coworkers, human resources personnel, or a supervisor. While non-native speakers experience the same feelings of uncertainty about information, their lack of language skills exaggerates the gaps in information. These employees are often reluctant to “bother” coworkers or “offend” managers during the first week of work by asking for the information a second time. Consequently, misunderstandings can result in poor job performance, safety concerns, and a lack of workplace cohesion.
Designing and conducting an effective orientation that will allow non-native English speakers to understand the presented information is a good investment for any employer. This is one of the most valuable strategies an employer can implement to minimize miscommunication in the workplace. Strategies to improve comprehension of employee orientations include reducing and simplifying the language in orientation materials, slowing down the information delivery process, supplementing all sessions with visual demonstrations, and allowing participants to give feedback and demonstrate the knowledge they have gained.
Question: How do I orient my new employee to the job and work site?
Digesting ideas is a slower process in a second language. Employees with limited English abilities may need more than one presentation of the information or additional assistance to completely understand. It is always a good idea to:
- Break-up orientations into two-three hour segments. All-day orientations contain too much information and are difficult for native speakers of English.
- Provide a written summary of any important information, with key points highlighted.
- Tour the facilities and demonstrate equipment as well as safety procedures.
- Conduct periodic safety drills, role-playing different situations to help employees gain confidence with procedures.
- Establish a “peer educator” system using established employees to mentor new employees.
- Develop feedback mechanisms for participants that allow them to demonstrate their understanding of the communicated information.
- Identify a willing and knowledgeable management person to be a contact for new non-native employees and to give advice if difficulties are not being addressed.
Question: My company sometimes has new employee orientations with people that speak four or five languages. How can we make it effective for all the participants?
If a training session has a number of participants that speak a common language, then using a qualified interpreter can be successful. If there are many languages represented, such a strategy might not be cost effective. Consider using existing workers from the represented language groups as peer educators or mentors. If none exist, then develop materials using visual images with as little English as possible. Videos, photos, role-plays, and hands-on demonstrations can communicate the intent of the orientation session.
Question: How can our company make our immigrant and refugee employees feel comfortable?
It is a challenge to create an atmosphere where people of different cultures are comfortable, especially if they don’t understand everything that is going on around them. Providing an established support person is critical for helping to build trust and reduce potential conflicts. Employees will also appreciate a supervisor who is culturally aware and can identify issues that are rooted in cultural differences. Establishing job expectations that are clearly understood and demonstrating appropriate respect for all employees will be the most important first steps to creating a comfortable cross-cultural workplace.