Bridging the Language Barrier

picture of Jenny
Jenny D. is an Employee Advocate at Wegmans Retail Service Center in Pottsville, Pennsylvania.

In 2017, Jenny D. moved from the Dominican Republic to Pottsville, Pennsylvania, to start her career at Wegmans’ Retail Service Center (RSC). Jenny’s sister and brother-in-law both enjoyed working at our RSC, so she decided to give it a try. She started in the produce department, and over the next six years worked in a variety of roles throughout the facility including assisting with recruitment, training, and onboarding for new team members. Regardless of her position, Jenny made connections easily with her coworkers throughout the facility, and often helped out by providing translation services for Spanish speaking employees.

“I was translating for team members that needed help with conversations, with concerns that they have, or if they needed to approach someone,” said Jenny. “I also assisted team leaders and managers that needed help with translation. I was there to help the whole campus.”

Over the last year and a half, the number of Spanish speaking employees hired at RSC has increased substantially. Many spoke little to no English, so Jenny encouraged management to hire additional bilingual employees that could help with translation, management, and training.

“We were able to get two really great trainers that are bilingual,” said Jenny. “Our employees needed more resources when it comes to training on the equipment, learning the words, and training on the system. You need that trainer, not just someone translating for the trainer, but someone that can understand your language and train you.”

In January 2023, Jenny was promoted to an employee advocate role at RSC. As she prepared to transition into her new position, management considered how they could continue to maintain the relationships she had already established and build new ones with incoming Spanish-speaking employees.

“With Jenny moving over to HR, we wanted to prepare our leaders to take on the relationships she had built (due to the ease of communication she had),” said Kurt N., produce manager at RSC. “We can use translation devices on our phones, but that’s not really who we are here. We want to have that face-to-face conversation with our people, so they feel comfortable talking to us, whether it’s in English or Spanish, without having to pull them aside and wait for a translator.”

Kurt reached out to the local Penn State affiliate campus to set up a course that would help bridge the language barrier between our English and Spanish-speaking employees. A representative from the school toured RSC, speaking with employees to understand their concerns and to tailor the courses to their needs. In March, the first group of leaders began Spanish in the Workplace classes and shortly after, RSC also began offering English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to Spanish speaking employees.

“My goal for the leaders is to understand enough Spanish to communicate basic changes day to day, and to have casual conversations to help maintain a relationship,” said Kurt. “It’s really the same for the English classes: to understand what leaders are saying, to have a relationship without having to have a translator in between you, and then to be able to communicate if there’s an issue, or if there’s something going on in their lives that they just need to sit with somebody and talk about.”

While classes only recently ended, RSC leaders are already planning on completing the next two modules of Spanish classes. Kurt and Jenny are also collecting feedback from the ESL class participants to learn about their experience and determine next steps.

“The biggest thing I’ve noticed is much more engagement on the floor,” said Kurt. “No one will learn a new language in eight weeks, but it piqued their curiosity and drove them to learn more. They’re using the little bit that they’ve picked up regularly. They’re happy to be able to say hello, ask how their day is, and be able to just have a conversation.”

ESL Classes For All
Our commitment to promoting inclusivity through communication doesn’t stop at RSC. In our Virginia/North Carolina division, employees have had the opportunity to take ESL classes since 2006 through our partnership with Northern Virginia Community College.

“When we opened Dulles and Fairfax, we recognized that English is not the first language for many of our employees,” said Danielle B., divisional learning and development manager for Virginia and North Carolina. “We wanted to help our employees feel more confident in their interactions with their managers, their coworkers, and our customers. That was what started the whole partnership.”

While we originally offered classes at the store sites, the program has evolved over the years and employees now have the option to take classes either on campus or online. The virtual option has allowed us to offer classes to employees in all our divisions, regardless of their primary language.

“It’s really opened up our reach, and the ability to offer it to anyone that could benefit from it,” said Danielle. “We have employees who speak many languages. It doesn’t matter what your native language is because they cater to all learners that want to be able to better communicate in English.”

Wegmans covers tuition and registration for employees interested in participating and assists with placement exams at the start of classes. In addition, Danielle and her team check in with participants periodically throughout the semester to make sure they’re comfortable and on track. Finally, at the end of each semester employees are celebrated for their accomplishment.

“It’s a huge commitment from the learner,” said Danielle. “While Wegmans pays for the classes, they’re doing it on their own time, so we want to make sure that we’re celebrating and acknowledging their time and the commitment they’ve made to develop themselves.”

Participation in the classes has grown considerably over the past year. In 2022, we had 14 participants total, and already this year, 85 people have enrolled in the classes. Many of the participants are also repeat learners, as we don’t limit the number of classes an employee can take.

“It rewarding to see that these employees are so invested in wanting to be the best version of themselves,” said Danielle.

Additional Resources
Wegmans also provides employees with free memberships to two different language applications. SignSchool is an online learning course for employees interested in learning American Sign Language. The self-paced course has interactive lessons, games, and provides web cam practice for users.

Mango is a language learning app available for employees and up to five family members. Users can learn over 70 different languages through self-paced lessons that take approximately 10 – 20 minutes to complete. The app was rolled out companywide in April, and to date, nearly 3,000 employees have created an account.

While these programs require a lot of work on the backend to set up and continue running, the benefits to our employees make it all worthwhile.

“This all came from a values-based decision,” said Christine S., Human Resources manager at RSC. “It’s very helpful from a work perspective and an operations perspective, but the values are so much a part of it too.”

To learn more about how we’re embracing diversity and inclusion at Wegmans, visit our website.