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3/2/2003

The working WORD

By Pam Mellskog
The Daily Times-Call

BERTHOUD — That second-hand information loses meaning, not to mention oomph, should surprise no one.

Yet in 2003, many companies still view business communication with Spanish-speaking employees as a hit-or-miss proposal similar to the childhood game of telephone, according to Dorothy Williams, owner of Berthoud-based The Write Source.

“Statistics show that as many as 91 percent of Hispanics speak Spanish at home at least some of the time,” she said. “Many employers are not equipped to deal with workers that may need help making the transition from a Spanish-speaking home life to a workplace that functions in English.”

Productivity and safety demands make closing the communication gap for Spanish speakers a priority, she said. However, owners and supervisors instead often grab the nearest bilingual worker to communicate policies and procedures — a practice Williams called counterproductive for the way it can garble meaning and hobble morale.

“They need to know that in the English-speaking business community,” she said. “Research shows that even English-speaking Hispanics respond better to Spanish-language ads and other materials because they feel like the advertiser or the company has made the extra effort to relate to them, to show some consideration and recognition of the culture.”

That good-faith gesture can make employers across a number of Hispanic-heavy industries — from manufacturing, health care and construction to hospitality, food service and agriculture — stand out as employers of choice, she said.

Williams said better communication with Spanish speakers can begin by learning to properly pronounce someone’s name.

Still, Williams, 35, said the objections can be great.

“There’s a resentment, an attitude that ‘It’s not my job. It’s their job to learn the language,’” she said.

Cost represents another sticky point. Williams charges $75 an hour to create culturally sensitive translated company texts — a task enhanced by collaborating with both her Argentine husband and the bilingual Janet Green, president of Brighton-based Green and Associates.

Some companies balk at the expenditure, she said, because they’ve gotten along with informal cross-cultural communication for years.

But to attract and retain the growing Hispanic workforce, companies will need to do better than just get by, according to Williams. That’s especially true given the cost of poor communication — even without traditional language-barrier issues.

For instance, in 1998, the San Francisco Examiner reported that executives estimated that communication breakdowns steal 14 percent of productivity from a 40-hour work week.

Williams has a background in both human resources and English-as-a-second-language instruction.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 224, or by e-mail at pmellskog@times-call.com.