Is your bicultural company communicating effectively?


The art of communication is difficult for most people to master. Relationships can be destroyed, misunderstandings arise, and otherwise productive environments can be negatively impacted — all due to poor communication.

Clear and concise exchanges are the key to influencing others and creating powerful teams, relationships, and partnerships to successful outcomes in both business and achieve in life.

Often, when people think of communication, they think of the four basic types: verbal, nonverbal, written and visual. These are traditionally easy to understand and put into practice because it’s what we do every day. In any language, you can clearly transmit information using one of these four methods.

But working with hundreds of Northern California employers we often run into companies with a bicultural workforce, and this changes everything when it comes to relaying information and achieving real understanding with your audience.

In a bicultural environment, you need cultural communication as part of your information distribution program. “Cultural communication” refers to how different cultures communicate within their own community by both verbal and nonverbal means. Cultural communication can also be referred to as “intercultural communication” and “cross-cultural communication.”

It is rare to find people who understand the importance of this mode of communication — and even if they grasp its importance, few know how to apply it the right way. But that’s OK: If your audience has a general idea what you are saying, that’s all that’s needed, right?

Wrong.

Why it matters

As one of our clients went through their open enrollment period, benefit vendors came to give presentations on available programs to the employees. This employer’s workforce is 50% native Spanish–speaking, yet the 401(k) vendor’s presentation was done to the entire population in English. No information in Spanish was even offered.

While other vendors did present in Spanish language, there were no allowances made for colloquialisms, commonly understood references, or a deeper dive into the definitions and more importantly the meaning behind those words. The Spanish-speaking audience missed properly understanding how to utilize their benefits, and they were left without even basic information.

This is so vital: understanding the way your audience receives information and how to properly convey that information. For employers with a workforce that speaks English as a Second Language (ESL), translating a presentation or handing out translated materials isn’t enough support for your workforce.

An employer’s employee benefits program is the second most costly item on their balance sheet (behind wages). Often, we run across companies that are spending top dollar for benefits, such as medical and dental insurance, but find many of the employees aren’t using them — not because they don’t need them, but because the benefit and how to use them has not been explained in a relevant manner. This is such a waste.

Alianza Leans In

Alianza, Arrow Benefit Group’s Spanish language division, was formed to bridge language and cultural barriers, and to close the gap in education and services for a large, yet historically underserved, employee demographic. We have found that the Spanish-speaking community largely hesitates to use their health benefits because they don’t understand their options.

Also, an emphasis in employee confidentiality is crucial, given that many employees aren’t comfortable disclosing personal information directly to their employer. In dealing with this issue specifically, business owners must understand having properly translated materials along with advocates who not only speak Spanish (or other languages) but know how to translate the meaning and ideas behind the language is vital.

Many workers in the ESL population desire to do their best for their employers and will tend to not speak-up even when they would like. They might not want to cause what they perceive as taking extra time or extra trouble on their behalf for additional translation or explanation; they might say that they understand information presented to them, yet they often may not. While this comes from a very good place and intention it has negative ramifications.

For example, during open enrollment meetings, attendees responded well to live-education presentations in their language, yet if, when down the road, they have questions about a claim, they didn’t usually ask for fear of causing a problem.

Instead, they wait until the next year’s open-enrollment period to even bring anything up. Oftentimes, by that point, a claim has gone to collections and a benefits specialist will have to intervene to resolve it.

When it comes to making the most use of benefits for all your team members, mere translation is not the solution. Instead, foster communication with a deeper message of inclusion.

We’ve found that ensuring employee understanding of what’s being offered (in terms of benefits) resulting in increased plan participation, benefits use, savings, and employee morale.

Andrew McNeil (andrewm@arrowbenefitsgroup.com, 707-992-3789) and Rosario Avila (rosarioa@arrowbenefitsgroup.com, 707-992-3795) are senior benefits advisers at Arrow Benefits Group in Petaluma.

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