Encouraging staff to learn English

bussing table


Dear Advice Guy,

I hired a bus person a couple of years ago. He wanted to do more, but his English skills are weak. I told him if he learns English he can move up quickly, but until then, he’s busing and running food. He is a great busser but refused to learn English and is now leaving for a server job at another restaurant. Am I wrong to expect him to learn the language?

– Manager, Washington DC


I don’t think you are wrong to expect employees—especially front-of-house employees in the US, and in a very international city like Washington DC—to have a good command of English. What you don’t mention, however, is what supports you provide to gain language skills.

Like most performance problems, I think there are two key elements you need to tighten:

  1. Specific performance goals and expectations.
  2. Supports for meeting them.

“Learn English” is not a performance goal. English how—conversation, writing, literature? I am still working on learning English better. “Develop English language skills sufficient to describe dishes, take orders and answer guest questions,” is much more attainable and necessary for the job.

Then, presumably, if that performance objective were met, you would have a clear and transparent pathway to promotion.

Second, if you’ve spent time learning languages, you know it’s not easy, especially later in life. Are you partnering with a language school or community college? Do you have some mentoring put in place where your busser can shadow a native English speaker? Are you affiliated with an ESL for restaurant workers program or can you start one? The Garces Foundation based in Philadelphia has an impressive model.

More on English for restaurant workers here.

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