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Print Article08 May 2012 7:16am

 Workers from non-English speaking countries are often extremely talented with great work ethics, but many employers mistakenly let language and cultural differences prevent them becoming valued employees, says Performance Education CEO Owen Firth.

Firth, who estimates that within 12 to 18 months, sourcing talent from non-English speaking countries will be a “key imperative” for many employers, says that although an English-as-a-second-language (ESL) graduate’s English might suffice for an entry-level role, as they climb the ladder and expectations rise, their ability to communicate and build relationships becomes critical.

ESL workers don’t just need to be fluent in English, they need to have “business-grade” English, he says.

Too often, though, they have been sent to English language training that is “not designed for business”. For example, all their training exercises talk about going to the supermarket instead of using the context of attending a work meeting or giving a presentation, he says.

Teach business English – and business culture

The onboarding process for ESL workers should also address cultural differences, Firth says.

Providing some form of business culture training is important for those people who are not familiar with the values and norms of the Australian workplace environment. They need to know which behaviours are and are not acceptable – “the rules of engagement”, so to speak.

Firth says it can take as little as two days of seminars and workshops to provide a foreign worker with a foundation for understanding relevant cultural differences, and that this training should be provided early on.

“To put that understanding in place from day one means they know their way around and they’re starting to be aware.

“It will take time for them to adapt, but the sooner they get the knowledge, the sooner they’re going to start to adapt.”

Cultural training helps to prevent workers from doing or saying something inappropriate, creating a bad impression from the start.

However, “traditionally the only cultural training people coming to Australia from different backgrounds ever get is something around kangaroos and barbecues – it’s not specific and it’s not relevant to the business culture,” Firth says.

Instead, new employees need answers to questions such as, “What is expected of me in a meeting?”

“What [foreign workers] often don’t know is that you’re expected to speak up and contribute – in many cultures you wait to be asked to do that,” Firth says.

If a worker doesn’t realise it’s OK to have an opinion – perhaps even one that differs from their supervisor – they could remain silent throughout a meeting.

“The [supervisor’s] impression might be, ‘Why have I got this person in my team? They’re too quiet, they’re not contributing, I’ve made a bad decision’.

“In many cases it’s because they’re working off a different set of rules,” he says.

Cultural training is also important because it helps workers to integrate well into their teams.

“It’s all about fitting in with the values of the organisation and the values of the team, so teamwork necessitates relationship building, and relationship building necessitates communication and fit. Without those two things… you’re not going to have good teamwork,” he says.

“This is evident if you walk into many IT teams or finance teams [where] a large proportion of the team [is] from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Without a lot of effort to help everybody integrate, it can work against the objectives of the organisation around fostering good teamwork and common values.”

Play it safe

Employers of ESL workers should be particularly concerned about the nature of safety training they provide, Firth says.

“If organisations are putting people from non-English speaking backgrounds through the same safety training as people from native English speaking backgrounds, there may be some risks to consider.”

An ESL employee might understand and “pass” a safety training course, but still be vulnerable, he warns.

“Safety systems are reliant on your willingness to say, ‘No, I’m not prepared to do that activity on the basis it’s unsafe.’ In some cultures, to say that to a more senior member of staff would be unthinkable, so even if I’ve understood the safety training and I know that doing that particular activity is unsafe and I’m supposed to tell somebody, culturally that may be very, very difficult.

“So understanding and adapting to the culture – [realising] it’s OK to do that, is really important.”

Employers should also consider offering cultural training to ensure their existing managers are equipped to manage multicultural teams.

“This is not about management skills, [it’s] about an awareness of other cultures,” he says.


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