Hilton Enlists Help to Bridge Language Gap

INTERNATIONAL REPORT—Hilton has partnered with a unique program to help its team members in Mexico improve their English skills, while instilling a sense of purpose in a generation of older Americans.

Sponsored by the University of Michigan, SPEAK!—Seniors Promoting English Acquisition and Knowledge—provides an opportunity for workers at all levels of the hotel industry to improve their English fluency. The benefits are numerous: hotels benefit by being able to provide stellar customer service and retain employees; workers will have more opportunities for advancement in the workplace and in life; and there’s a positive impact on the lives of older adults, who serve as language partners.

“We have seven million older adults who used to be celebrated as heroes, and they don’t have a partner or children, responsibilities or jobs, and they’re losing a sense of purpose. I thought about what we can do to make it better,” said Dr. John D. Piette, a research investigator, who works with an aging population at the VA Ann Arbor Center for Clinical Management Research.

It began as a seed of an idea, and once the right people were in place, the notion took off. Hilton was among the first to see the value of this program for the brand’s team members in Mexico and the positive impact on the community they serve.

“The program provides team members a unique avenue to practice their English language skills and, in doing so, expands their access to opportunities for career advancement,” said Robert Blom, regional director of human resources, Mexico, Hilton. “The elderly participants, many who feel lonely and/or suffer from depression, get to engage with individuals interested in their well-being and, in turn, feel a sense of companionship. Our participation is not only the right thing to do, it’s a win-win for all involved.”

“For older adults, SPEAK! is designed to have a national impact on the epidemic of loneliness among older Americans by provided an accessible, flexible opportunity to promote social engagement and volunteerism,” said Piette. “As many as 25-50% of older adults in the U.S. report being lonely, and individuals who report loneliness are at increased risk of mortality, health service use, dementia, depression and suicide. Volunteerism can dramatically improve a sense of social engagement and volunteers’ health. Meaningful volunteer opportunities that take advantage of seniors’ strengths, especially ones that can be done from home, are rare.”

While working in Latin America, Piette saw the impact on people’s lives when they were unable to speak English well.

“There’s limited opportunities,” said Piette. “It’s great to be employed by a hotel, but if you can’t have as much customer contact due to language barriers then you’re often washing dishes, doing landscaping or working in construction. Those jobs have a lot of dignity, but it’s great when we can help people advance.”

Hilton’s first property to benefit from the program was Hilton Mexico City Reforma, where several team members actively participate.

“As the program leaders share needs for further participation, we identify additional team members who would benefit from the language practice and who are based at any of our Hilton properties in Spanish speaking countries,” said Blom. “We are not just satisfied; we are thoroughly pleased with the results. I was recently stopped by a team member who wanted to share how much they enjoy being a part of the SPEAK! program, and that moment reconfirmed that we tapped into something great. The program is easy to implement and is simply brilliant. It was created in a thoughtful way to bring people from different cultures with different needs together and have them mutually benefit.”

While there are many places one can go to learn English, it is often difficult to find an avenue to practice what was absorbed in a lesson.

“For the elderly, their access to companionship is often limited. SPEAK! connects the two, so on one end, there is an opportunity to practice English, and on the other end, there’s an opportunity to form a relationship and friendship,” said Blom. “At Hilton we are committed to providing our team members with opportunities to grow and thrive. And, in doing so with SPEAK!, we are also giving back and contributing to one of Hilton’s Travel with Purpose corporate responsibility goals to double our social impact investment by 2030.”