More than 75 percent of our team members speak Spanish as their first language, and we were seeing problems that arose from the language barrier for those of us that don’t speak Spanish.
We consulted with our bilingual staff members and soon determined the best course of action was to empower both our Spanish- and English-speaking employees by enrolling them in company-funded language classes. We wanted to not just get our Spanish speakers in English classes, but also our English speakers in Spanish classes because we wanted to increase the level of communication and camaraderie across the company.
The process. Since it was our first time implementing this type of program, we decided to start small, so we selected a language school located in Denver. We enrolled 10 Spanish speaking team members into English classes during the
We immediately saw the benefits of our efforts. Long-time team member David Flores Ramirez, from Guanajuato, México said, “I used to have a difficult time at work understanding what the project managers were telling me. I could understand a few words here and there, but it was hard. After the first round of English classes, I feel much more comfortable understanding not only my English-speaking
As for management, we saw an immediate decline in problems and delays due to miscommunication and noted that mistakes made due to language barriers also decreased. English speaking team members noted that simple directions were more clearly understood on the
The company buy-in. Travis Sommervold, our commercial construction assistant manager, spearheaded the project. He comprised a committee of several office and field staff from managers to first-year team members to help facilitate what the employees wanted to get out of the program, to garner interest and to decide which days/times were the best options for classes.
The committee decided that the program needed some ground rules. They wanted to ensure that those who were selected for the classes would take full advantage of the opportunity. But they also wanted the rules to be fair and reasonable, and to promote personal accountability. This is what they came up with:
• A $200 bonus to be awarded upon graduation
• Full attendance strongly encouraged
• Two excused absences would be allowed
• But, students who missed more than two classes would subsequently be responsible for course tuition, which was roughly $500.
Results: the pros. All 23 employees who participated graduated. And while the English speakers only missed two classes combined, even better, the Spanish speaking employees did not record a single absence the entire semester.
The obvious pro is that our crews, office staff, and managers are communicating more effectively, which has reduced onsite frustrations and improved project completion times. But, as noted, the program also increased camaraderie.
The students quickly came to appreciate the culture of inclusion and personal advancement that our CEO Phil Steinhauer had worked to create over the last 25 years. Team members from all levels across the organization were encouraged to strive for personal improvement and came to understand that the company would help them in the process.
The program has given an immeasurable boost to morale and has reaffirmed that the company truly cares about individual development.
Results: the cons. Admittedly, nothing is perfect, and we saw that establishing the program posed its own set of challenges. There were actually more employees interested in taking the courses
Moving forward. Since we have determined their first-year language program to be an unqualified success, we are already looking to expand. While we want to empower team members that want to learn, one challenge remains: We’ve had such an overwhelming number of Spanish speakers that want to learn English, they are in talks to bring the program (and tutors) to the office to both accommodate more students and to make attendance easier.
And as though all that, employee interest, better working relationships, and smoother project management weren’t enough, we’ve also discovered increased employee retention. This has been born out through a recent study by Udemy of 1,000 people, which showed that 53% of those surveyed said they’d be more likely to stay with a company that invested in their education.
Making everyone feel a part of the team is so important to Designscapes Colorado that one of their company core values is actually only in Spanish and doesn’t have a literal English translation. “Echale Ganas” an oft-repeated phrase around the firm, roughly translates to “give it your all.”
In a field that relies so heavily on non-English speakers for its livelihood, it simply makes sound business and people sense to give employees another reason to stick around, to provide opportunities for growth, and to give the gift of education to the people who are essential to the success of the industry.
The author is the business operations analyst at Designscapes Colorado.