Corporate Cultures

Casino Babel

by Ray Knight and Rob Sanders


      Communication is the lifeline that ties a corporate culture together.  Communication connects management to employees, departments with other departments, and employees to one another.  When there's a break in the lifeline, someone is cast adrift and isolated from the culture. 

  In many casinos, whole groups of employees are severed from the communication lifeline by the simple fact of language.  They speak little or no English.  Yet English is almost always the language used in the meetings they attend and the memos they get.  They have no idea what's going on and muddle through the best they can, often feeling uncertain and excluded from the culture. 

  Labor is tight.  Casinos have found it very difficult to fill out their staffs, especially in the less glamorous back-of-the-house jobs.  Immigrants are eager to work and willing to take the entry-level positions to get a foothold in America.  Sometimes that means modifying standards to fill the vacancies. 

  But there's a catch to it.  If you expect them to do things your way, you have to let them know what you have in mind.  You can't expect them to understand if you speak to them only in English. 

  "Many of them don't even look at memos, because they can't read them," said Sonia Balart.  Balart is a translator and research interviewer for The Discovery Group.  A native-born Cuban, she conducts employee focus groups in Spanish. 

  She described an Hispanic chef's helper with minimal command of English who made the same dish the same way every day for two years, as instructed.  One day he was preparing the dish as usual, and the chef reprimanded him severely.  There had been a menu change.  "I posted the memo on the bulletin board yesterday...didn't you see it?" the chef bellowed.  The memo was in English. 

  Balart has found that employees whose English is sparse will often avoid communicating.  "They fear that if their supervisors know how little English they know, they'll lose their jobs.  They communicate as little as possible so as not to get caught."  They appreciate having the job, but feel segregated from the rest of the culture.  They tend to huddle together in a sub-culture of their own language. 

  Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin, Illinois, a Mandalay Resort Group property, attacks the language barrier head-on.  The Chicago-area casino draws from a polyglot workforce that includes a large Hispanic (primarily Mexican) population, along with Laotian, Central European, and Scandinavian.  About 30 percent of the Grand Victoria staff is Hispanic.  Eighty percent of the kitchen staff is Spanish-speaking. 

  Sharon McGill, Director of Human Resources, explained that with labor so tight, the casino was continually short in certain positions, especially in the entry-level, back-of-the-house jobs.  The company found that there were people in the community willing to work but couldn't meet the literacy and English requirements.  "We relaxed the requirements for some positions where it was not essential to job performance." 

  McGill believes it's important to bring these employees into the cultural mainstream of the casino "but have respect for their native language."  About half the Human Resources staff at Grand Victoria is bilingual.  McGill has also arranged with a local community college to have Spanish-speaking employees attend English-as-a-second-language courses.  "English is a difficult language to learn.  It's hard for first-generation immigrants.  But this is a first step toward assimilation.  The second generation usually adapts to English more easily." 

  Food and Beverage Manager Fred Pearson said memos about mandatory issues are sometimes translated into Spanish using a computer program.  Some Spanish-only meetings are conducted.  "We're also fortunate in that we have people in supervisory roles and employees who are bilingual who help communicate to those who are not." 

  Hispanics are the fastest-growing demographic segment in America.  Pearson believes it will increasingly be a big advantage for casino executives to be bilingual.  He recommends having at least a conversational grasp of Spanish. 

  Grand Victoria's General Manager, Pete Dominguez, who is Hispanic, helps bridge the language gap.  He has high regard for his Spanish-speaking employees.  "They have a great work ethic.  And they're very reliable;  they show up."  He regular circulates among the Spanish-speaking staff, and they respond positively to hearing him speak to them in their own language.  He instructed department heads to translate operating manuals and employee handbooks into Spanish. 

  The Grand Victoria's efforts to overcome segregation by language gets a thumbs up from Mandalay Resort Group.  Chris Mortell, Divisional Director of Training and Internal Marketing, said the assimilation and integration of non-English-speaking employees is essential.  "It's not a matter of should, but how." 
  Mortell notes that language segregation is a challenge for gaming cultures all over the country.  "In Tunica, for example, we have a large number of French-speaking West Africans." 

  There are some who may say, "Well, in America we speak English, and if they want to work, they should learn our language."  True.  But it has taken most of us a lifetime to learn English well.  If you're going to hire them, it's up to you to give non-English-speaking employees a chance to become full-fledged members of your culture by making sure your communication lifeline reaches them.

(This article appeared in the November 2000 issue.)

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