At BC Hydro, where many of the jobs are safety-sensitive, proper communication between team members is essential.
“We need to make sure those employees can communicate clearly with one another especially because in some cases they’re doing very dangerous work,” says Lesley MacDonald, Manager of Diversity and Top Employer Strategy at BC Hydro, which was named one of Canada’s Best Employers for New Canadians in 2011 by Mediacorp Canada.
With British Columbia’s demographics changing, many of the people who have the specialized skills needed to help the public utility complete its large capital builds and deploy its new smart metering technology are skilled immigrants.
To ensure these employees are able to communicate clearly and safely with team members, BC Hydro began offering occupation-specific language training in 2002 for engineering and technical employees who identified their language skills as a potential barrier to their success.
Making Language Training Available to All Employees
But as more and more skilled immigrants are hired into various positions across the organization, the demand for the English for Occupational Purposes training has grown. To meet that need, the human resources department has taken over the co-ordination of the program, making it available to all employees throughout the organization who would benefit from it.
Because the programs were initially designed for technical and engineering employees, some of the material may not work for a broader audience. The human resources department is reviewing all of the material and will make any changes in the training to make it appropriate for a more general audience.
The training, which takes place during work hours and often on site, is offered through third party provider SkillPlan.
Along with the English for Occupational Purposes training, which about 70 employees have taken part in, there’s also an accent reduction program.
“That’s really for employees who don’t have problems with the language per se, so they can conjugate and communicate, but where their accents are preventing them from being clearly understood and they feel it’s a barrier,” says MacDonald.
Practise Improves Outcomes
Many managers have been positive about the language training. They have seen a marked and long-lasting improvement and say employees are more confident and better able to communicate and integrate with the team afterwards.
However, as with other forms of training, some managers note only a short-term improvement if the employees aren’t given the opportunity to continue to practise what they have learned, says MacDonald.
This is where voluntary programs like Toastmasters groups, which are set up at several BC Hydro locations, can make a big difference.
“Employees use that as a way to reinforce what they’ve learned. In terms of follow up, the ability to practise those language skills and build networks, we find that’s a very useful tool,” she says.
Cross-Cultural Communication Builds High-Performing Teams
Communication isn’t all about language, it’s also about cultural norms and expectations, which is why BC Hydro also offers cross-cultural communication workshops for culturally diverse teams.
“We offer some cross-cultural awareness training to let them know what those differences are and different methodologies and techniques to help build a high-performance work team with those diverse employees,” says MacDonald.
A third party facilitates the sessions and there are a number of different offerings to address various cultural differences and business goals.
For language and cross-cultural communication training to be successful, the programs need to be supported and integrated into the organization’s larger strategic context, says MacDonald. That includes awareness training, ensuring employees understand the business case for diversity and how it supports the larger business objectives.
“The business case for diversity at BC Hydro is that diverse teams make better business decisions and are high-performing teams,” says MacDonald.
Tips for Employers
- Provide employees with opportunities to practice what they learned in language classes in order to maintain and build their new skills.
- Ensure all employees know the business case for diversity and how diversity supports the organization’s business objectives.
- Integrate language and cross-cultural communication training into the organization’s larger strategic context.
BC Hydro has more than 5,500 employees and is one of Canada’s largest public utilities, operating 30 hydroelectric facilities, two gas-fired thermal plants and one combustion fuel turbine station. In addition to its primary offices in Vancouver and Burnaby, the Crown corporation has offices and facilities in communities across British Columbia.
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