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Case Study

English as a Second Language Program
Observations and Lessons Learned – Year 1

This Case Study was written by the Vice President of a financial institution for the Human Resources department.

The Language Coaching program was launched in the Fall of 2005 and we are enthusiastically continuing the program. Five employees have been participating full-time since its inception, and the participants core languages are Chinese (3) and Russian (2).

How it all began:

As Canadians we must embrace that our immigration policies are in place to support our waning domestic workforce. No-where in the world has the impact of “boom, bust and echo” been deemed more prevalent than in Canada, with the United States coming a close second. Because the Canadian birthrate has been so low over the past 30+ years, Canada is not replacing its domestic workforce at a capacity to maintain its current or future economic or GDP needs.

The majority of Help-desk and IT professionals working within our division are immigrants to Canada and are primarily of African, Chinese and Slavic language and cultural backgrounds. We have a highly intelligent workforce, yet I personally felt the increasing frustration of knowing that I was not gaining the most benefit from several key individuals. Many ideas and concepts felt locked within their heads, because neither they, nor myself were able to effectively communicate with each other. The frustration was felt on both sides, which is a key concept to embrace when evaluating the potential benefits of an ESL program.

As Canadians we are also acutely concerned about delivering messages to our immigrant neighbours, friends, and employees that may be misconstrued as discriminatory. Unfortunately, we often determine what may be deemed discriminatory in isolation, without opening the communication pipeline with our immigrant employees for fear that the conversation itself might be misunderstood.

Management Insights and Lessons Learned:

I have learned through this process that without open dialogue, we may tend to misdiagnose tremendous opportunity through best intentions, and set ourselves up to be seen as “discriminatory in the reverse” as a result. We tend to promote our top performers, and our top performers essentially have to be good communicators as well as good workers. By ignoring our mutual communications barrier with some of our brightest workers, we are unintentionally holding back their careers, and robbing ourselves of their best performance. This is a lose-lose scenario.

Another personal lesson came about through an open dialogue with a long-term immigrant employee at out organization when the ESL program was in its infancy. I recognized that this individual had overcome language and cultural barriers to become very successful at our organization, and I wanted to know how this individual might have felt if they had been offered such a program to support their career development. I was told that it was an individual decision, yet one that most people with career aspirations would most likely embrace.

The next conversations were with key individuals in my division, whom I knew had terrific ideas, but we were unable to understand each other. The idea of an ESL program was embraced by the students as a life-enhancing opportunity with the following comments:

It will improve my self-confidence at work and outside of work

I am tired of people nodding their heads at me and knowing they can’t understand me

I am tired of repeating myself many times to be understood

I want to get promoted, but I feel I am overlooked

I only get to practice my English at work and people at work are too polite to correct me

Results:

I believe the most important thing for any company to embrace is that offering an ESL program is not seen by those who are voluntarily participating in it as different than any other form of vocational training provided by the Corporation.

The results speak for themselves:

  • The management team has recognized tremendous verbal and written improvements in communication skills across all participants.
  • The students feel motivated to learn.
  • The students feel that the Corporation truly does have their best interests at heart because the Corporation is making a unique investment in these individuals that transcends their day-to-day work life experience. These new skills have improved their abilities to interact in numerous day-to-day activities outside of the office.
  • Because their day-to-day work interactions have improved, they feel more confident to express their ideas, and they do. This benefits all of us.