Linguistic and Cultural Barriers in Manufacturing: Understanding the Language of the Workforce

Posted by Amy Fitzgerald on Feb 7, 2017 9:42:40 AM

Written by Emilia Linardakis, Managing Partner - Language Advisors Network Group

language advisorsManufacturing is one of the most lucrative industries in the U.S. and there are about 251,857 manufacturing firms currently in the United States. Due to migration patterns, language and cultural diversity are becoming a theme in the majority of the workplaces. The manufacturing industry is one of the most diversified sectors of economy with a vast number of immigrant workers. 12% or 23.8 million immigrants work in the manufacturing industry. These workers have either no knowledge or very limited proficiency in English. The number of non-English speakers in the US has grown considerably in the last few years due to the influx of immigration levels that continue to increase drastically based on the Census Bureau. Foreign-born workforce is becoming a vital part of the US economy, especially in the manufacturing sector. National Census data shows that there are nearly 64.7 million U.S. residents who speak a language other than English at home; that makes about 21.5% of the total U.S. population. Approximately 46% of immigrant workers are considered limited English proficiency (LEP). Over the last two decades the types of jobs available for workers with limited English proficiency have changed. Many U.S. manufacturing jobs that used to be performed from LEP employees have now been outsourced.

As the numbers of non-English speakers continue to increase, foreign-born workers are increasing and becoming an important part of the workforce and most of the companies face major communication challenges that create issues caused primarily by language barriers. Global and multicultural organizations have proven to perform better by hiring individuals who speak multiple languages, and some level of proficiency in another language. However, hiring non-English speakers has shown that language barriers have a collective impact on business operations. Today, manufacturing employers are hiring qualified entry level workers who can speak, read, write, solve problems and communicate effectively. In order to improve communications, many global and multicultural companies have adapted English as the ‘language of business’ or ‘the language for international exchange’. Skills required to perform job-related tasks are still the core of talent acquisition, but the ability to communicate effectively in the workplace is just as important. Global organizations that focus on international expansions face major challenges and invest a lot of time and resources to overcome language and cultural barriers. Small companies, especially those that focus on manufacturing and production and have a multicultural and diversified workforce, face similar challenges, and the risk is much higher.

language barriersManufacturing miscommunications happen even between people from the same culture or language, leading to inefficiencies and other problems at the U.S. workplace. Imagine how much higher the chances are in a multicultural workplace! Different cultures, parts of the world, languages, time zones can make the manufacturing industry more challenging. Here are a few examples of issues that manufacturers face as they work with people from different cultures:

With the effects of globalization and multiculturalization in a workplace, the recruitment process in a manufacturing company is complicated, now more than ever, requiring strict regulatory standards be met. Selecting foreign-born employees with skillsets but with limited proficiency in English, creates big challenges that organizations face in working with non-English speakers. Successful companies with a high degree of multiculturalism have implemented language programs not only for the workforce but for upper management as well. Giving the employees the right tools to succeed improves their performance in the workplace and shows high levels of inclusivity. For many non-English speakers or Limited English Proficiency employees, learning the language of business shows their commitment to the organization. Moreover, a certain level of proficiency is required for those who have potential to improve their career and professional development. Offering career paths and promotions to immigrant workers has shown to increase their motivation and commitment to their profession and organization as a whole.

Onboarding is the first step in the official employment process and a very crucial time for foreign born individuals. In manufacturing, onboarding and training are a vital step for an effective long-term relationship. This is the time when the employees learn more about the actual skills needed to perform the job as well as any safety and hazard training. This can be a challenging time for both, the HR department as well as the foreign employee as well. Onboarding new foreign-born employees requires their assimilation into the workforce and this step should be considered as an ongoing process not an event – it should be unique and different than that of local workers. Managers and Human Resources professionals should focus on getting a confirmation, not only on the job expectations and performance, but on communicating the organization’s vision and special projects which the company is currently working on.

Companies have to keep in mind that these employees have to be trained with federal laws, company policies and job-specific protocols. In most of the cases, immigrant workers face linguistic and cultural barriers. This is the time when these people learn who they are going to be working with, what the company’s and department’s needs are, goals and accomplishments of the team(s) as well as various obstacles they have faced in the past and may encounter in the future. Training new employees is 75% more expensive than retaining existing employees. The cost of training foreign-born employees is even higher. If 5% or more of a company speak another language, it is beneficial to make sure that translations of new hiring procedures and training process is an integrated part of the normal HR processes for communicating with employees. However, if there are multiple multicultural groups within the organization, the same documents or training procedures should be translated in multiple languages so the process does not become discriminatory.

Communication barriers have major negative impacts in any type of organization. Communicating ideas and visions is very challenging in a multicultural environment. Significant consequences to language barriers contribute inefficiency, low employee morale due to lack of understanding, lack of collaboration, loss of productivity, employee retention, inability to compete effectively, lack of relationship with vendors and suppliers, ambiguous relationships between design and production, raise of product cost, production mistakes, failure to accept responsibility, etc.

Language and cultural barriers can also crate complications with safety and hazards concerns. Language proficiency creates a safer work environment - especially in manufacturing, taking into consideration that the majority of the jobs require operating of machinery and awareness of other hazardous work environments. Having a limited proficient workforce creates issues for an organization such as injuries of employees due to lack of understanding or proficiency on the language in which the training has been delivered. Often, these types of incidents require the employer to cover workers comp fees, high insurance payments, or even litigation challenges.

Based on various research done by OSHA (Occupation Safety and Health Administration), more Hispanic workers are injured in a workplace than any other ethnic group. The numbers are not clear since we do not have a clear number of legal versus illegal workers. The challenge is getting the illegal workers to report a complaint about safety issues. Undocumented immigrants may fear deportation so they do not report hazards in the workplace. U.S. Census Bureau has reported about 8 million undocumented workers and the majority of them working in construction or manufacturing sectors. Understanding the significant risks that are caused by work injuries to those who do not speak English as their primary language due to training deficiency result in extremely high cost of accidents and OSHA fines.

Culture clashes also have a great impact in manufacturing. For example, in the Asian culture it is not customary for an employee to disturb his supervisor except for extremely serious reason. Employees are shown how to handle the task and are expected to perform the task independently. Therefore, culturally they are trained not to report any ‘serious’ injuries unless they are extremely serious.

So, what are some tips for working with non-English speaking employees in manufacturing? First of all, many organizations are reluctant to invest in language and cultural education. Working toward a systematic and sustainable approach to training immigrant workers can be costly and the level of public funding for adult education is considered as inadequate compared to the need. Therefore, employers are not willing to measure the return of investment on language and cultural training. One of the first steps an organization can take to make this workplace more inclusive and encourage open communication is to offer various types of training for non-English speakers or even for managers. Encouraging immigrant employees to learn English and providing on-site customized classes during working hours indicates a commitment of the organization on its employees. Cultural training is also a vital type of training in a multicultural environment. Often cross-cultural training is designed for managers and department heads who are interacting with colleagues in other countries. Cultural awareness training introduces cultural differences as they affect the work environment, including topics such as hierarchy, decision making, information control and exchange across cultures. Finally, keeping an open mind and being empathetic towards people of other cultures is the main key to a more effective and highly productive workplace.

For more information, contact Emilia Linardakis, Managing Partner for the Language Advisors Network Group - A Global Leadership Training Company at 630-935-8063 or Visit their website at

Amy Fitzgerald

Written by Amy Fitzgerald

Topics: workforce development

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