How to Break the Language Barrier

An approach to training non-English speaking staff

How to Break the Language Barrier

As building service contractors and in-house facility managers, part of our job is managing expectations. If you’ve been working in this industry for some time, you may have dealt with expectations ranging from reasonable to unrealistic. In my opinion, having all members of a cleaning staff who speak English as their first language and read fluently is unrealistic.

Today, people from other countries immigrate to the United States in search of a better life. Many speak very little English, and due to a lack of language fluency or education, find employment with manual labor positions. If you’ve worked with first-generation immigrants, you may find them to be some of the most industrious people you’ll ever meet. But their efforts need to be guided to perform well for you and your customers.

Similar challenges may arise in training American citizens with insufficient literacy skills. Most training materials that have become standard in the janitorial industry are written at the fourth- to sixth-grade reading levels. Unfortunately, even these can be a challenge for some people to comprehend.

When it comes to training either group, the challenge is communication where these barriers exist.

Identifying Language Barriers

For a potential employee, the language and literacy challenge often becomes obvious when a person arrives for an interview or we ask that person to complete a job application. In speaking with others in our industry, we find our experience with these situations is not unique.

Once a language barrier has been identified, the first question you should ask yourself is the following: Is this applicant capable of performing work to the level desired?

If the answer is no, no amount of training will help. If the applicant is capable, then it’s time to make a personal investment in your new cleaner and your business.

Visual Instruction

Many large training centers use pictographs, which are part of the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (universal standards for how to properly label chemicals and other environmental hazards). When combined with personal demonstration and repetition, cleaners understand this step is important for compliance as well as their personal safety.

Some training resources are available using pictographs and study cards. These display a series of steps intended to help the individual cleaner who may be in need of a refresher on proper procedures. One advantage to using this method: It is low-tech and requires no access to a power source. However, locating the information takes some time.

Color coding is another system you can use. It works well with microfiber cloths. Often, you’ll see a nearly universal understanding of the following colors and correlations:

  • Red: danger or hazard
  • Orange: caution
  • Yellow: yield (a lesser degree of caution)
  • Green: go (or general use)
  • Blue: glass cleaner.

Importance of Consistency

There is one question that often arises about color coding: What is the standard color code for microfibers?

The answer is simple: There is none.

Regardless of what classification you choose for color coding, the most important choice is consistency. Even within your janitor’s closet, maintain a consistent color code for materials and labels. This will aid your cleaners in understanding which areas to use each item. It will also help your staff to avoid frustration and performance problems. Remember: When operating between job sites, the best way to ensure your staff members are performing for you and your customers is to make your system easy to follow.

Software Options

Software developers offer systems designed to help cleaners perform their duties based primarily on visual cues. These include:

  • Images of the building or service area floor plan
  • Color coding subsets of the areas to correspond with color codes
  • Brief visual instruction on how to perform certain tasks, such as restroom cleaning.

One such developer is even translating its platform into 72 separate languages to assure clear instruction and industry compliance.

Account for Your Attitude

As a business owner, manager, or sales person, you have multiple tasks to complete throughout the week. While you must be efficient about how much time you invest in any employee or task, keep in mind that a language barrier is not a measure of intelligence.

Remember to see your front-line cleaners as individuals, instead of grouping them together. This can go a long way toward reducing staff turnover as well as the number of employees who just stop showing up for work, which is a common problem in segments of the industry.

Your Approach Matters

In some cases, cleaners will have limited contact with your customer. If your employees are properly trained and motivated, even those with little understanding of the English language can have a positive impact on your customers and their impression of your cleaning business.

Almost 30 years ago, there was a woman on our staff from the Dominican Republic. She did not speak English, but every customer seemed to love her. She took a moment to smile and wave, acknowledging everyone she encountered. The moral of the story: Your actions as a trainer and business owner speak volumes to customers and employees alike, even if you don’t say a word.


Posted On February 10, 2017

Joel Craddock

President of Doc's Facilities Solutions

Joel Craddock is president of Doc’s Facilities Solutions in Rochester, NY, and is a master trainer for CMI’s certification programs. He has more than 30 years of operations and sales experience. For more information on Craddock, visit

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