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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Valuing Diversity Includes Language

For about eight years of my career I worked off-and-on along the Mexican border. My employer at the time had 9 manufacturing plants on a corridor from Juarez through Chihuahua City to Torreon. On the border about half the people with whom I worked spoke English. The further I got into the interior the fewer people spoke any English at all. I spent one whole week in Torreon by myself and encountered no one who spoke a word of English.

Imagine for a moment being in meetings for hours at a time where not a word of what was said was understandable to you. Think for a moment about the concentration that it takes to look interested and be polite while not having the slightest idea what's going on...for hours at a time.

That, friends and neighbors, is what its like for some of our non-English speaking warehouse staff to attend our all-employee quarterly meetings.

In order to bring our 40 or so non-English speakers into the conversations about our business we made sure they were invited to these meetings. Some who spoke good English would interpret for the others in Vietnamese or Spanish (as the case may be). After each meeting we would receiving complaints from Anglos (as my Mexican friends call us white boys and girls) about how distracting it was to have "those people" talking all through the meeting.

So next we began renting headsets so that one interpreter in each language could broadcast one interpretation to the employees rather than having multiple conversations. The result... complaints about the interpreters being a distraction.

In a few hours we will have our next All Employee Meeting. We are trying a different room layout and placement of the interpreters to minimize the distraction to everyone else. However, some distraction is unavoidable. The alternative to interpreters is to have separate meetings for these groups (segregation by national origin? I don't think so...) rent expensive Plexiglas interpretation booths to soundproof the interpreters from the rest of the group, or discontinue the service altogether. The last option would involve either making these meetings optional for non-English speakers or asking them to sit through long meetings with no idea of what's happening.

Or there is another option. We can be tolerant of the distraction and know that its worth the trouble. The statement that this service makes about the value of each employee regardless of their ethnicity or national origin is worth the distraction. The statement this makes about the value of everyone no matter what their role in the company is worth the distraction. The statement about the rest of us, that we're willing to tolerate the distraction, is important. Basically we can't say with a straight face that we value a diverse workforce...just so long as everyone speaks English.

2 comments:

Eric said...

Maybe it's where I was seated compared to the translators, but I didn't notice them at all.

Christy O said...

I don't always notice them, but a couple of meetings ago I was sitting near the back, right in front of someone with a headset. I could hear it the whole time and it was a bit distracting. But my main emotion was to be very impressed and proud that we work so hard to be inclusive. Really, thank you for that.