Visual Cues Help Limited English Speakers in the Workplace

May 28, 2013
Plants in Nursery

Photo: Melissa Engle Photography

by Rachel Factor, CWS Job Developer

Green Leaf Plants in Lancaster proudly displays a map in their planting room entitled “United Nations of Green Leaf.” Each employee has a pin with his or her name on it, affixed in the country of origin. The pin locations extend across the world. Employees have roots in Cuba, Burma, Bhutan, Philippines, Colombia, Russia, Lancaster County, and more. Internationally born employees speak varying levels of English, some very little. With 50 greenhouses and many positions and job duties – how do they make it all work?

Cindy Myers is the Human Resource and Administrative Manager for the company and is in charge of hiring seasonal and regular workers.  Using training tools learned from Lean Manufacturing, the new hires are trained to perform their jobs to the best of their ability while meeting quality standards.

New hires begin training with a visual manual. This manual utilizes pictures of actual workers and products to illustrate what needs to be done and how. Nearly everything at Green Leaf is color coded – workers can even track the team’s productivity on a chart by recognizing that green is good and red is subpar. Buckets of cleaning supplies are colored to reflect the order in which they are used. Flags with simple words and colors tell workers which plants are defective, which are ready to be shipped, and which await state inspection.

Worker in Nursery
Photo: Melissa Engle Photography

In the harvesting department (employing 30 refugees from multiple countries last summer), flags are periwinkle: when a worker sees this flag and the flag for day of the week that the plant is to be harvested, they know to water them several days ahead of time so they are dry for cutting. In the planting room, workers sit at small tables transferring small cuttings from two baskets into trays. When their first basket of cuttings is  empty, the worker simply moves the second basket which triggers their flag to raise and alert the team leader that they need replenishment – no English necessary.

“We want to give them a chance,” Cindy states, and moreover, arm them with a skill. “It’s rewarding work. Sometimes you have to think outside the box to improve communication,” and sometimes it is as simple as speaking slowly and clearly, and asking follow-up questions to ensure comprehension.  Lisa and Mike, supervisors in different departments, both emphasize how helpful basic hand gestures can be in facilitating communication and getting the work done.

Green Leaf employees with limited English have seen many successes. Kham Sing, a refugee from Burma and former CWS client, was placed at Green Leaf by Kam Mang, a CWS Employment Specialist. Kham Sing started in the harvesting and planting departments then was offered a job as a Grower’s Helper. Mike, his supervisor, saw the potential in Kham Sing and his knack for plant care. The company is now assisting him in getting his pesticide license so he may continue moving up in the company as an Assistant Grower.

Workers in Nursery

Photo: Melissa Engle Photography

Green Leaf clearly values its workers. Not only does the company benefit from giving a chance to refugees, but it allows refugees to grow and take responsibility for their own work. Giving them the means to understand their workflow and duties is a great path to honing their skills and becoming efficient workers.

Cindy uses CWS services for the agriculture experience that refugees have and their willingness to work. Furthermore, she can fill positions quickly on short notice. When her managers tell her they need 10 workers next week – Cindy can call CWS Friday and they have workers ready on site that Monday.  When there are cultural misunderstandings or extra help needed in training, Cindy calls on CWS staff to help.

So, what would she say to an employer who is hesitant to hire a refugee? “Give it a try. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.”