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When getting Fresh with your staff gets hopelessly lost in translation

Variety is the primary boast of the supermarket industry, and the earliest supermarkets were actually known as 'variety stores'. Shoppers flock to these large-form grocery outlets because of the seemingly infinite choice arrayed on their shelves.

Yet, despite the rich abundance, there is little danger a customer will be overwhelmed. That's because convenience is one of the secondary boasts of the supermarket industry. Each shop is divided into clearly-marked sections - meat, dairy, fruit 'n' veg etc - and individual products can be selected with ease. With good reason, supermarkets are also known as convenience stores.

Theoretically, the blending of variety with convenience should also be a guiding principle when it comes to customer service in an increasingly multi-cultural age. Many retail stores are staffed by employees from a variety of countries. For the convenience of all concerned, it seems entirely reasonable shop workers should strive to communicate with customers in English, the common tongue of the general populace.

However, words are loaded weapons and poorly-deployed words have a nasty habit of backfiring - as we were reminded last week by a rancorous controversy about efforts to impose language restrictions on staff at a Dublin supermarket.

The row began when management of the Fresh group issued a circular instructing its employees to speak English at all times, including while on their breaks. Fresh has been in business for over five years and has four stores - the company employs 156 people from 20 different countries. The diversity of the workforce reflects the ethnic composition of the population in the city where the shops are located - and this is as it should be. Nevertheless, store managers say the use of an assortment of languages on the shop floor has led to "misunderstandings". It has also resulted in a small number of customer complaints. Hence the felt-need for a language rule book.

Good memo-writing is an art-form and skilled practitioners know how to issue instructions without sounding like they are barking orders or barking mad. Unfortunately, all too many memos are written in haste and the effort by Fresh's HR department to lay out its "communication policy" was a case in point. The circular starts reasonably enough, outlining the rationale behind the promotion of English as the company's lingua franca, but quickly degenerates into something more akin to a tongue-lashing.

Staff were told that even if they are working alongside a colleague from the same country, they should refrain from using their native language. The memo also warned employees heard speaking anything other than English could be "subject to disciplinary action". Even a word out of place, it seemed, would trigger a crackdown by the in-store language police.

Predictably, it wasn't long before the circular went global. A copy of the memo was published on the satirical website Broadsheet.ie, and its contents soon became the subject of widespread derisive comment on social media. OTT charges of xenophobia and employee harassment abounded, and some over-excitable correspondents even accused the supermarket chain of racism. Fresh's Facebook page was inundated with abusive messages.

Much of the criticism centred on the circular's threatening tone. The prohibition on speaking any language other than English during rest breaks was rightly denounced as heavy-handed and unenforceable.

Testimony from other contributors highlighted the complexities involved in the imposition of hard and fast language rules. Customers of overseas descent explained they enjoy using Fresh stores precisely because of the opportunity to exchange a few words in their mother tongue with fellow ex-pats. Irish-language enthusiasts also entered the fray, arguing the English-only policy was an affront to their cultural rights

As the lines of attack proliferated, company bosses moved to quell the outrage. Noel Smith, founder and MD of the Fresh chain, issued a statement apologising for any offence caused. He conceded "mistakes" were made in the formulation and expression of the chain's language policy, and said an updated approach had been devised in consultation with employees. "We are encouraging our staff to speak English or Irish in the workplace and this doesn't apply to rest periods," Smith explained.

That should have been the end of it. Even after the public apology, however, Fresh continued to receive disparaging comments and hate mail. The virulence of the response was regrettable as the central issue the company was seeking to address is an important one.

Good customer service in an English-speaking nation requires frontline staff are willing and able to speak English. Most of us have encountered situations where an employee's inadequate grasp of the language has rendered communications impossible. The problems which arise are not the individual staff member's fault but rather a manifestation of employer carelessness. A company that sends out someone with poor English to represent it is not a company that values customer relations.

A shared language is a prerequisite for a shared society. Supermarkets provide a pretty good model for what a diverse but integrated society could look like: it would be unfortunate if we allowed piety or timidity to blind us to the fact that variety and convenience are eminently compatible.

Indo Review