White Collar to Blue Collar Communication

One of the basic tenets of communicating to a group is to simply know your audience. You want to be able to speak to them in the manner in which they are most likely to receive the message. As a former blue (and green) collar worker who, for the past several years, works in a white collar world, I find there is a significant communication gap between the white collar and blue collar worker.

Let me give an example. As a site safety manager, one of my roles was to relay information from the corporate office to the work crews at the project site. I recall reading a report to the crew regarding an incident that occurred which needed to be relayed to the crew as a “lessons learned” training. I won’t detail the entire incident, but it read something like this:

An employee, while disposing of metallic waste material into the site metal recycling container, inadvertently threw a usable piece of material into the container. The employee, in an effort to retrieve the usable piece of material, climbed into the metal recycling container. During the course of retrieving the usable material, the employee received a significant laceration on the lower portion of his left palm.

The crew lost interest in the information being relayed relatively quickly simply based on the terminology used. While the executive prefers to hear and read “metallic waste material”, the guys on the crew just want to hear “scrap metal”. A “site metal recycling container” is simply “the dumpster”. Certainly they can figure out what was being said, but they aren’t interested in trying to figure this out, they just want it told to them straight.

What they would rather hear would be something like this:

“So, a guy was throwing scrap metal into the dumpster and accidentally tossed a piece he needed to keep. He then climbed into the dumpster to pull it out and since he wasn’t wearing gloves, he ended up cutting his hand.”

The point of it is this; there is a time to relay information in a formal manner, typically from the blue collar up to the white collar level. However, the managers need to  take some time to translate their white collar language to a blue collar language when communicating in that direction. Using this language will ensure the information is understood, but will also let the workers know that they understand the work that they do and aren’t overly detached from their reality.

*previously published on LinkedIn

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