As every housekeeping manager knows, janitorial positions can be hard to fill. Modest pay and hard work don’t necessarily lure hordes of applicants. So it’s no surprise that many housekeeping managers turn to eager immigrants, who now hold 20 percent of low-wage jobs — despite making up only 11 percent of the population.

While many immigrants speak English and are well-educated, experts predict that nearly two-thirds of these workers do not speak English proficiently. Language barriers are a difficult challenge, and one that more managers must tackle.

When Robbin Gordon started as housekeeping manager at Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Altoona, Iowa, 12 years ago, just 10 of her employees were foreign-born; today the number has jumped to 60 out of 107. Her employees speak a variety of languages, including Arabic, Lao, Serbian and Spanish.

“Some people look at language barriers as a huge problem, but I see it as a very positive change because it opens up our employee base,” Gordon says. “My staff is aggressive and they want to do a great job. I think if you stay on top of language education and attack it like we are, those employees will grow and do the best job for you. It’s just a small challenge to overcome.”

While some businesses do little to address language issues in the workplace, organizations such as Prairie Meadows are taking a proactive approach by implementing English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, hiring interpreters, using color-coding and more.

Employing non-English speakers can be trying, particularly for smaller operations with fewer resources. Incorporate creative approaches, however, and it can be a practical solution to staffing shortages.

ESL Programs
Most companies desire — and some require — that employees exercise basic English skills, meaning the ability to read and speak at an introductory level. This is not strictly a matter of employer convenience. Although not legislated, English is the de-facto national language of America and customers expect to understand the words spoken around them.

“It’s just good customer service,” says Asbed Topdjian, director of environmental services for UCLA Healthcare in Santa Monica, Calif. At least 80 percent of Topdjian’s staff is bilingual; these employees are allowed to speak only English around patients.

To help employees learn the language, some innovative operations offer ESL classes. After discovering few of his immigrant employees had the English skills to pass a standardized test given to prospective employees, Thomas Peck, director of environmental services for the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison, Wis., contracted with an area technical college to offer ESL courses. Dozens of Peck’s employees — 20 percent of which do not speak fluent English — have signed up for the classes at the hospital’s expense.

“With today’s challenging work environment, we realized we needed to ensure we’re giving the employees the tools necessary to do their jobs,” says Peck. “And given the increasing immigrant population, one of these tools is the ability to speak English.”

Offering ESL classes on the company’s dime and time may make some managers leery. As with any benefit, there will always be employees who abuse this privilege but it’s important to weigh that risk against the potential benefits, which could include major safety violations.

“Not being able to understand English could create a problem in case of disaster,” Topdjian says. “If the health center announces a ‘Code Red’ and the cleaners don’t know what that means, that could be a problem. We train our employees on those terms so it doesn’t become an issue.”

Failing to provide English lessons could also cause custodians to lie to get or keep jobs. Years after being hired by Denah Alston-Taylor, director of housekeeping at Carol Woods Retirement Community in Chapel Hill, N.C., an immigrant employee admitted to having faked English to get the job she so desperately needed.

“There was a lot of, ‘Uh-huh, I understand.’ That was something I had to figure out and work through,” recalls Alston-Taylor, who helped implement an ESL program at the retirement community. “Later, she thanked me for working with her.”

ESL programs are costly for a housekeeping department, whether it’s at a university where custodians attend on-campus classes or at a hospital that hires an outside training company. Topdjian’s employees attend ESL courses on the UCLA campus, which still costs $40 per class per person and comes out of his departmental budget.

Some facilities are able to secure government grants to offset some of these costs. Other companies, particularly smaller ones, must get creative to make ESL an affordable reality. At Carol Woods, bilingual residents volunteer their time to teach English to the staff (Spanish is the native tongue of 4 of the 29 housekeepers). Although the instruction costs nothing, employees are allowed to meet with tutors on the clock.

“We wanted to give them an environment they were comfortable with,” Alston-Taylor says. “And as an incentive to help them want to learn English, we pay them for the time they dedicate to education.”

Knowing that communication is a two-way street, the University of Wisconsin Hospital provides Spanish training to its supervisors. Like the ESL program, the Spanish classes are offered at a technical college at no cost to employees.

“It’s quite an investment of time and money on our part,” says Peck. “But we feel it’s going to pay off in the long run.”

Managers use ESL classes to teach employees fluent English. Until that happens, however, it is important to find other ways to communicate with non-English-speaking employees. One of the most effective methods is the use of interpreters.

At Carol Woods, the bilingual residents also serve as interpreters. If needed, one of the residents will attend the monthly housekeeping meeting to make sure every employee understands what is being discussed. Or, if Alston-Taylor has difficulty communicating with an employee, she can call on an interpreter for help. For instance, when a custodian’s son was in a bad accident, she was so upset she broke into tears and spoke only Spanish.

“I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” Alston-Taylor says. “I called one of the residents and she was able to explain it to me. [The employee] thought she was going to lose her job because she needed to leave early. The resident was able to tell her I said that wouldn’t happen.”

At Prairie Meadows, bilingual employees act as translators whenever possible. When there isn’t a staffer who speaks the needed language, contract interpreters are hired. Staff interpreters help not only during employee orientation and training, but also on the casino floor with non-English-speaking customers. When a so-called “dual-rated” employee is used to interpret, he or she is paid a premium for the service.

“First and foremost, from a customer service standpoint it’s very beneficial. It also ensures that our employees are following procedures and being trained the right way,” Gordon says. “We are lucky to have employees we trust to do those things for us. Otherwise, we’d have to go to an outside interpreter, which is more difficult when you are a 24/7 facility.”

Asking bilingual employees to translate can work in some environments, but may be unadvisable in others.

“We are asked to translate but the hospital has professional translators they use,” Topdjian says. “It’s better that way because there are technical words we can’t translate.”

Because interpreters are a medical necessity, UCLA Healthcare always has them on site. Topdjian can call on them at no cost to assist with training.

Training Tricks
Expensive ESL or interpreter programs may not be feasible for companies with tight budgets or very few non-English-speaking employees. There are other, more affordable options for making any workplace more inclusive.

Color- or number-coded chemicals and tools cost about the same as traditional products but have the added benefit of requiring no particular language skills. Show the custodian which colors do what and they can do the job without needing to decipher one product name from another. While this system has been effective at Prairie Meadows for more than a dozen years, it isn’t feasible at UCLA Healthcare.

“We don’t use color coding because it would confuse people,” Topdjian says. “A hospital has color coding for fire and disaster plans and chemotherapy waste. We don’t want to confuse that.”

Another option is to provide bilingual training materials. For a one-time fee, a housekeeping manager could hire a translator to convert employee manuals and handbooks into another language. Most manufacturers provide free bilingual materials about their products; search the Internet for these items or ask a cleaning distributor for copies. Or, managers can invest in a translation book (or search the Web) or cobble together a basic list of words, such as “vacuum” and “bathroom,” to help communicate with all employees.

More important than any program or manual, however, is working one-on-one with employees, especially those with whom there is a language barrier. Although Prairie Meadows’ Gordon speaks only English, she has been amazed by how well she has been able to communicate with her immigrant employees.

“It’s amazing all of the things you can understand without even speaking,” she says. “The interpreters are important but it is the one-on-one training that makes or breaks you. If you have good trainers who like to work with people, you’ll have a good staff. If you’re not training them properly, you’ll have problems.”

Alston-Taylor has a special quarterly meeting with just her non-English-speaking employees to address their concerns or to review policies and procedures with the help of a translator. The most important part of these meetings, however, is simply making the employees feel valued.

“It took several years before they felt comfortable enough to come ask me something because they were always afraid they would be fired,” she says. “One-on-one time is so important in making them feel comfortable.”

Despite the extra effort involved, Alston-Taylor is thrilled to have several immigrant workers on her staff. She feels rewarded helping them find and keep good jobs, which they once thought were unattainable.

“It’s just as difficult for me to get somebody who has lived in America all their life to understand some of the things I’m trying to get them to understand,” Alston-Taylor says. “These housekeepers need to understand that they are just as important as the doctors and nurses who work here. That problem isn’t about race or language, it is about the person.”

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based near Des Moines, Iowa.

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