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By: Dr. John T. Self

Language Training for Employees

Many food service operations have employees who speak little or no English. These employees are almost always relegated to the least skilled positions because of the difficulty they have in interacting with customers, employees, or managers. This limited communication inevitably leads to frustration for both management and employees. It allows the manager and the employee to have only the most superficial conversations.

Because communication is limited, it is often very time consuming. This can often lead to training that is very brief. After the training, management usually leaves the employee alone until there is a crisis or very real problem. The employee is reluctant to bring any attention to himself because that would just emphasize the difficult communication.

Many food service managers think that they are doing the "right thing" by learning a second language so that they feel connected to their employees. In the short term, having the manager speak that language is very helpful because it allows the manager to fill a position that might have gone unfilled.

Unfortunately, this "good" behavior is misguided; it actually hurts their employees and the establishment in the long term. The manager has just doomed the employee to stay at the bottom most job. Because the manager has learned the second language, the employee doesn't have to. The employee will never be able to leave the dishwasher station or other "bottom" rung of the food service ladder. Every employee must be able to fully communicate with their fellow employees and their managers to be promotable. For employees to have unlimited ability to be promoted, and to go one step further, they must be able to communicate and interact with their customers too.

The answer is for progressive managers to sponsor ESL (English as a Second Language) classes for their employees who have the need. Many restaurants already have benefits that include tuition for college credit courses that would apply. But even if yours doesn't, you can call your local community college, and they will connect you with the right people. I recommend going one step further, and getting an ESL teacher to set up an classes right in the establishment before shifts start. You must make it convenient and accessible for it to really work. Just giving directions will not be enough.

At the same time, get someone who is bilingual to help you sell the program to the employees who need it. Tell them of the long-term benefits that taking the classes will have on their life. They will be promotable and can have a true career path that will lead to buying a car, nice apartment, owning a house, etc. Work with the ESL teacher to devise a step plan so that as they advance in their English ability, they will get a raise, and once they reach a solid skill level they will be eligible for advancement to cook or host or server.

Without communication, there is little hope for advancement. Without hope for advancement, there is no loyalty, no commitment to staying. Do yourself and your operation a favor by starting an ESL program for your employees. You will not only feel great by truly playing a large part in changing people's lives, but you will have started a loyalty program that is second to none.

About the author:  John T. Self is a lecturer at The Collins School of Hospitality Management at California State Polytechnic University (Cal Poly Pomona). Prior to entering academe, Dr. Self spent fifteen years in the restaurant industry. While in the corporate world, he worked for several chains including overseeing six restaurants with sales of over twenty million dollars. He has also owned three independent restaurants. While at Golden Gate University, he started the partnership with Dalian University of Technology in Dalian, China and is continuing in that involvement at Cal Poly.

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