Tips For HR Managers To Better Support ESL Employees

Last Updated on February 22, 2022 by Estrella

Tips for HR managers to better support ESL employees
Tips for HR managers to better support ESL employees. Photo by Nicole De Khors from Burst.

Let’s say you are the HR manager of a company with employees from many countries. You’ve been hearing from supervisors that some ESL team members may need more English skills. Maybe to communicate at group meetings. Or to document their work. Perhaps you have also noticed that some international co-workers seem to feel out of place. Not feel they are part of the group. If any of these rings true in your company, here are some tips for HR managers to better support ESL employees.

Ways to support ESL employees

Provide English training in a group class

When is group class effective? When members have similar English level, and needing assistance on the same topic. For example, manufacturing companies often update product documents for assemblers to follow. Those documents are written by engineers. The English used may be difficult for some ESL employees to understand.

If you decide to do a group class, be sure to take English levels into consideration. Put those with more beginning level English in one group, and the more advanced ESL level in another. Otherwise, the ones with better English will get bored and drop out of class. And the more beginning learners may worry that they are holding back the class and not address their concerns thoroughly. It’s always more efficient and effective if you divide sessions to match English levels.

Have a trainer go over the documents with those who want help understanding them. If you have an in-house trainer who can explain things in simple English, that would be excellent. If not, hire an outside trainer to walk through typical documents in a class. Most of the time, documents use similar sentence patterns. Explain the vocabulary, and paraphrase the sentences.

Also, invite the engineers who write the documents to class and help explain the material. This will help them better understand their readers’ English level. From the questions asked, they may be inspired to write in simpler English in the future.

Provide individual sessions for English and cultural understanding

When are individual ESL sessions effective? If the person’s English needs are unique. Or when their communication needs require one-on-one interactions.

For example, a software engineer suddenly found himself in the role of acting manager. Up to now, he has been communicating mostly with other engineers. Although he feels his English could improve, he was able to get by so far. But in his new position, he has to talk to people in a variety of positions. And he found himself feeling less confident with his English.

So we spend our sessions talking about a variety of topics to build up his English confidence. Then we role play potential scenarios in his new position, so he can rehearse his response in English.

Actually, there is quite a bit of cultural training involved as well. Such as how to make presentations that appeal to an American audience, or how to motivate his team members born in this country. Or how to network in events that he now has to attend.

Provide opportunities for social activities

Many of my clients are engineers who moved here from different countries. Quite a few of them comment that they wish there were more social interactions among co-workers. For example, one engineer assigned to work here for 2 years noticed that even when there was a potluck, his colleagues would get a plate of food and return to their cubicles to eat. So, no one really talks to anyone.

When coming from cultures that are more community oriented, this can feel isolated. If you could create opportunities for social interactions, this will help international employees feel more comfortable.

In one company, the HR director understands the importance of creating a feeling of community. There was some kind of social gathering almost every week. Someone’s birthday, baby shower, etc. etc. There is always a cake celebrating something in the lunchroom. The ESL employees in this company feel very at home. It’s a happy place. This company had a very low turn-over rate. I credit the HR administrator and the president with this success. They both embody the values of creating a workplace with happy employees.

Since many ESL employees come from cultures that are community oriented, once they get over the language and cultural barriers, they are among the best individuals to help your company create a feeling of community. Isn’t that what most organization want?

How to select ESL and cultural trainers

When searching for ESL and cultural trainers, here are characteristics to look for that will help your program succeed:

  1. They are very familiar with cultural manners of the populations they work with. You want someone who can easily build rapport with the trainees. This will help the ESL employees be more receptive to the training. So, don’t hire someone just because she is an ESL teacher.
  2. They research and understand the specific company needs from the perspective of the ESL employees, the supervisor, the manager, HR, and anyone who communicates with the trainees on a regular basis. The company will get far more out of this investment when communication becomes more effective as a result of this training.
  3. They can translate complicated English into easy-to-understand English.
  4. They can show employees how to recognize sentence patterns, so their English ability will grow. It’s not just about understanding a few documents. It’s about being able to do this on their own eventually.

Those are just the essential characteristics. If you could find someone who can do the following as well, you’ve hit the jackpot!

  1. They can build communication bridges between ESL employees and their co-workers. This will enhance workplace relationships and create a happier environment.
  2. They can facilitate cultural understanding. Someone who has a way of creating an atmosphere that encourage people to understand more about other cultures.

If you can find someone like this to help ESL employees who want English and cultural training, you would have made an investment that will serve you for years to come. Long, long after the training is over. I have heard HR managers tell me that the quantity and quality of communication among co-workers increased significantly after this kind of training.

There’s also a change in attitude. An ease around asking for clarification. Initiating conversations. It’s not just the ESL employees who benefit, but also their American colleagues. This leads to an even happier workplace.


So, here are just a few ways for HR managers to better support ESL employees. Provide English assistance as a group or one-on-one, depending on the needs. Create more opportunities for social interactions. And hire a trainer who can help with both English skills and cultural understanding.

If you find this article helpful, you might also like this one on How to facilitate meetings with international colleagues.

Estrella Chan coaches immigrants and international professionals in English fluency, interview skills, and public speaking.    To schedule a session with her, please email

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