How to face lack of language mastering and cultural differences through dialogue
DMA is an Italian medium company producing measuring instruments for railway infrastructure. They design, test, improve and perfect every solution in-house, thanks to a highly specialized team of system designers, engineers, and mathematicians. They are attentive to the development of human resources and open to new projects and collaborations.
They recruited a Pakistani refugee for cleaning services and the experience has been positively evaluated: after a six-month internship period, he has been inserted with a regular permanent contract.
The main difficulties encountered regarded language skills and different cultural codes. The worker had a very low Italian level; after obtaining his A2 certificate during the internship, he stopped attending formal language courses. So he continued to show language gaps. Moreover, being assigned to a woman as a supervisor, he had difficulty to accept her as his responsible.
The company used the following strategies to face the problems:
- English, which is widely spoken in the company, was used as a vehicular language. Despite the refugee has not either a good mastery of English, this made communication with his colleagues easier and more immediate.
- A wide use of pictures was made in instructions, so as to make understanding easier
- He was supported, for a certain period, by a male colleague who played the role of mediator, accompanying him in the process of acceptance of his female supervisor.
The company was also able to make arrangements in the management of timetables during the period of Ramadan or for the usual Friday prayer. Thanks to the mutual intention to collaborate and the ability to modulate the company's needs with those of the worker, it was possible to mediate on differences, facilitating the meeting, respect and enhancement of the cultures knowledge. Through mutual knowledge and dialogue, the relationship has changed over time, becoming a closer bond, based on mutual respect for roles and mutual trust.
How to teach technical skills and specific language on-the-job
Symposium Osteria Enoteca, a restaurant and wine tavern, is a micro company made up of young, motivated personnel who are attentive to diversity management policies.
They recently hired a Kurdish refugee as assistant cook. The insertion of a foreign worker was not properly sought, but it happened in a rather random way, through a personal contact with a local charity organization, which presented the candidate. He was placed because of his soft skills and previous cook experience. The guy started to work on traineeship (with the salary paid by a local Foundation) and was then employed with a permanent working contract.
The main problems faced by the company were related to language and culture differences: the guy did not know the Italian technical language (names of ingredients, tools, verbs related to the art of culinary) and did not know how to prepare the courses, not having any experience on Italian food, traditions, recipes and tastes. So it was necessary to teach him technical language and professional information on-the-job. Several simple techniques were used to help him improve his technical Italian: adhesive strips with the Italian name of tools were stick on the wall and kitchen equipment/furniture; photos made and saved on mobile phones with specific labels; all work processes were repeated aloud by native colleagues with emphasis on the names of objects and verbs used; the preparation of the recipes was accompanied by the story of local tastes and culinary traditions; continuous corrective feedback was given and in case of need English was used as a vehicular language. The Italian staff used listening and dialogue based on mutual respect. This generated a bond of trust and collaboration that made the difference. This way of relating produced significant added value by improving the business climate and encouraging the work team to work together to solve problems by taking on the task as a team.
Symposium does not explicitly adhere to CSR models, but it operates in a socially responsible manner in an unconscious way. It is inspired by principles of genuineness with respect to the quality of products in relation to both food and wine. It does not make distinctions of origin or gender: people who need and want to work, who are motivated and willing to learn, willing to commit themselves and serious are well received. The success story of this micro company teaches that soft skills and motivation may be more important than technical ones and language and communication problems may be solved with a good deal of creativity and patience.
Never underestimate consequences of different cultural codes
Anna, a job coach tells us a story which reveals how religious and ethical values of a worker with different cultural codes can impact on the work performance. A Muslim boy she had accompanied in a social integration path started an internship as a waiter in a restaurant, where he was well received and had good relations with colleagues. Aware of his religious beliefs he was assigned to serve the tables, so as to avoid him any possible contacts with pork meat. Despite the excellent reception received and the positive working climate, he felt uncomfortable. During an evaluation meeting with the coach, he explained the reason for his discomfort: he could not send home the money he earned in the restaurant because such money appeared to him dirty, not being “halal”. Pork dishes were prepared in the restaurant and although he was dispensed from preparing them, he felt that the money he earned was dirty because of the presence of pork (feeling of guilty). The coach listened carefully to the young man's discomfort and tried to tune in to his needs and feelings. Finally they found the best solution: the coach would have replaced monthly his “dirty” money with other "clean" banknotes. This simple exchange of banknotes set him free from his inner cultural conflict.
A refugee trainee was placed in a hotel of a large chain. He did his job very well, but he often went out an hour earlier. When he was asked why he replied that, once he had completed his assigned tasks, he did not want to remain at work in order not to be paid more. He didn't know that the salary is not hourly. His behaviour was perceived by his chief and colleagues as unfair, instead it reflected high ethical principles of fairness.
A newcomer low-skilled worker during his traineeship used to take his shoes off at the garage. What for him was a form of respect for the company was a big problem of safety at work. It was necessary to explain him the reasons why he had to wear his shoes: to protect himself from possible accidents.
Prevention of misunderstandings by communicating
Omar is a Syrian man working as an unskilled worker in a kitchen. In the beginning of his employment, he would never eat with his co-workers at lunch break. Instead he would insist on staying in the kitchen while all other staff and his manager had lunch together.
In Denmark, it is considered rude and socially awkward not participating in the social lunch breaks, but even though both co-workers and manager tried to convince Omar to join their lunch, they never succeeded in convincing him. Omar’s manager found this to be peculiar, and when the situation kept on repeating itself, he felt the need to confront Omar.
When confronting Omar, it turned out that he was very uncomfortable with the fact that the lunch breaks also involved the manager of the kitchen. Omar explained that in Syria where he comes from, eating together with managerial staff is not common, and that he considered it his duty turning down the offers to come eat with the rest of the staff. In Syria, he explained, actually accepting the offer would be seen as overstepping and as a sign of him not paying respect to the manager.
When the manager understood that Omar’s lack of participation in the social lunch breaks was not caused by the fact that he did not like his co-workers, but that he actually abstained from participating because he tried to pay his respects to the managerial staff, he was surprised, but also relieved.
The manager and Omar had a long talk about the unwritten rules and expectations in a Danish work place, and the manager explained that in Denmark, it is a common practice for managerial staff and employees to eat together – the workplace is not as hierarchy-based as in Syria. Even though Omar found it a bit uncomfortable to begin with, he began to join the social lunch breaks, and he is now thriving in the workplace and the manager is very content with his employee.
Anna is a trainer and professional accessor who helps newcomers and refugees to find quickly a job. She explains their methodology to actively involve them in preparatory training for work and how to overcome barriers.
"85% of users have law education with a limited use of IT. Since their prime objective is to find a job2, education and training are perceived as less important; neither they are motivated to learn to use a PC (they can do almost everything by a smartphone), which may be a problem on the workplace and for the active search of a job and many are not aware on the importance of learning Italian as a key asset. With such a target, classic teaching methods are generally nonperforming: active innovative learning is required. The orientation labs organized by Tenda professionals result effective. They combine collective meetings, face-to-face individual meetings and customized assistance in preparing CV.
Collective meetings are a mix of action-learning, simulations, role playing, discussions where trainers use social theatre approach. An important focus is given to the discussion of case-studies, decoding of job advertising language (which is generally too technical) and cultural aspects of working life which may be hardly understandable by non-native Europeans. People from certain Asian or African cultural backgrounds are not comfortable saying no to their chief or declaring they did not understand and so they do not ask for clarification and commit mistakes: theatre simulation is a good tool to discuss on such themes. CV is generally perceived as something of little importance; even when they have an excellent one, they do not show it during the interview or present it as a crumpled or wrinkled paper taken from their pocket.
Face-to-face meetings are necessary to explore needs, expectations, fears, doubts, write a good-effective CV and build a confidence relationship. During the traineeship, returns to collective meetings are organized to share experiences and problems faced. The success key is the confidence building process, which requires time, active listening and empathy and it is not surprising if migrants keep call their accessor chief or “mama” (in case it is a woman)."
1. The SPRAR is the Italian System for Protection of Asylum seekers and Refugees. From 2019 on, it is being substituted by SIPROIMI (System for Protection of Beneficiaries of International Protection and non-accompanied Minors).