Supervising Non-English Speakers

Question:

I am a supervisor at a retail store and am responsible for teams. The team I am primarily responsible for is composed of 6 associates, 4 of which have limited grasp of english. In spite of the language barrier, I try my best to learn Spanish phrases that could convey instructions more clearly. However, at the end of the day, I still need to course it through my partner who is Spanish speaker. As a result, I am told that I am being ineffective as a leader and am unable to do my job as a leader. However, for the other teams I have to work with, most of whom have a better grasp of English, I have no problems managing them. I feel like I’ve hit a wall about the communication issue. It does not help that my fellow leader specified that he would like more spanish-speakers on the team. I do not mind having a bi-lingual associate, but chances are, they will hire another associate who can barely understand English again. What is the best way to address this concern? I understand the value of learning spanish, but for a team to work efficiently, there has to be effort on all parties to communicate effectively.

Signed,

Worried in Any Language


Answer:

Dear Worried in Any Language:

This does sound like a tremendous challenge. Have you expressed your concerns to your manager or asked in what way you could show more leadership or develop a better team in spite of the language issue? You probably have done that, but if not, it is the first thing you should do. Rather than having the manager talk to you, you should be talking to the manager, to show your willingness to work effectively. If you work for a large company surely HR or similar resources have some solutions or suggestions for such situations. I agree with you that it should not be only your challenge, if you were hired as an English-speaking employee. Consider talking to the colleague who speaks Spanish more fluently and asking for assistance. Ask him to convey to the team that you want to be able to communicate better with them and are going to keep working on learning Spanish. He could let them know that any lapse in your communications with them reflects your frustrations with trying to learn, not your frustrations with them. He could be a strong ally for helping you build your leadership with the team. Or, he could fail to help and make the situation worse. You mentioned that he has said he wants more Spanish speakers. I’m wondering if you expressed your concerns about that. You should. No good comes from keeping all of that to yourself and trying to muddle through. Speak up about how concerned you are and how much you want to be effective in your role. While you’re thinking about your own frustrations, you may also want to consider how the two English-speakers in your team might feel. They probably feel very isolated but grateful that you speak their language better than anyone else. If you are having trouble with those two, perhaps there is more going on than the language barrier. But, if you are getting along well with them, at least you can pinpoint the situation better when you talk to your manager. It doesn’t sound as though there is an easy solution to this situation–at least, not if you stay where you are. If it isn’t possible for you to work primarily with English-speaking employees and you think you will always have problems working with Spanish-speaking employees, you may need to consider another job. Your work experience and language skills, even though limited, may be exactly what another employer is looking for. I wish I had a great answer for you, but I’m afraid I don’t. I also don’t want to sound paranoid on your behalf or make you more worried. But, it seems to me that you won’t be retained as a supervisor unless you can either gain the support of your team and/or your colleague or develop a way for you to turn that team over to someone else, so you can supervise those who primarily speak English. It does sound as though something has to change fairly quickly. If you have had a history of effectiveness and are achieving good things with other groups, your manager would surely want to keep you as a valuable team leader. If you have past performance reports that commend your work, use those as support for your explanation that it is not your leadership ability that is the issue, it is the language difference. Maybe this can be the catalyst for realizing that organizations have to do more than put people together to make them a team. They have to find ways to develop them as a team so they at least speak the same “work language.” Best wishes to you with this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe