Teaching Workplace Language and Strategies

Many of our students say they’re studying English because they want to get a job or get a  better job.  And many do meet that goal. But for immigrants learning English, landing a job is just the first hurdle. The challenges we all face in the workplace — getting along with co-workers, juggling work and personal lives, dealing with a demanding boss — are many times harder for people who aren’t fluent in English.

We can help students learn language for negotiating difficult workplace situations. Here’s an activity that works well with high-intermediate to advanced classes. The seven vignettes provide a total of 15 roles: the first six have 2 roles each and the seventh has 3 roles, in case your class has an odd number of students. The gender of any role can be switched by changing the name.

Safety can depend on good communication between co-workers. Photo by Paul Keleher.


1. Photocopy the set of vignettes and give each student a copy.

2. Have students take turns reading the paragraphs aloud and check for comprehension. Discuss words and phrases that students may not know, such as employer, employee, reliable, raise, household budget, big deal, bossy, work late, privilege, steal, threaten, accuse, prove, stocking shelves, boring, lazy, do his share, bumps into, hears a crash.

3. Divide students into pairs (and one threesome if you have an odd number). Assign each pair one of the vignettes. Partners have 10 minutes to work together to prepare a skit based on their story. They should make sure that the opposing points of view of the different characters come through clearly, and they should show how the sticky situation can be negotiated and resolved — or not.

4. The teams perform their skits for the class. After each one, encourage class discussion of how the actors handled the situation and defended their positions.

5. Wrap up with a short class discussion comparing workplace cultures in the US and other countries. How should a worker talk to a boss? Do you look the boss in the eye or look down to show respect? How can an employee ask for a raise or promotion, or push back against unreasonable demands? What is the best way to deal with problems involving co-workers — talk to the co-worker directly, talk to the boss, stay silent? Encourage students to share practices and expectations from their own countries and from their work experiences in the United States.

Seven Sticky Workplace Situations

1. Nanny Wants a Raise

Monica takes care of two children while their mother is at work. She likes the job, but the pay is too low: only $7 an hour. She cannot pay her bills. She wants to ask her employer for a raise.

Linda, the children’s mother, works in an office. She depends on her nanny to take care of the children during the day. She likes Monica and thinks she is a very reliable employee. Now Monica is asking for a raise. But Linda doesn’t have much extra money in her household budget.

 2. Construction Worker Won’t Wear Helmet

Pablo is an experienced construction worker with many years on the job. He knows that safety is important. His partner, Jimmy, is a new worker. Sometimes Jimmy doesn’t wear his helmet. Pablo is worried about Jimmy’s safety.

Jimmy is a new construction worker on his first job. He thinks his safety helmet is hot and uncomfortable, so sometimes he doesn’t wear it. He doesn’t think it’s a big deal. He thinks his partner, Pablo, is too bossy.

Juggling work and personal lives is an issue for almost everyone. What do you say when the boss demands you work late? Photo by Alan Cleaver.

3. Embassy Worker Has to Work Overtime

Elena works in the financial office of an embassy. Three times this week, her supervisor asked her to work late. One night she worked until 7:00 p.m., one night until 9 p.m., and one night she didn’t get home until 11 p.m.! Elena employs a nanny to take care of her two children. When Elena comes home late, she has to pay the nanny for extra hours.

Victor is Elena’s supervisor in the financial office. The office has to do an important project this week. Victor needs all the staff members to stay late and help finish it. He knows this is inconvenient for them, but he thinks it is a privilege to work in an embassy, so they shouldn’t complain.

4. Did the House Cleaner Steal the Necklace?

Lisa employs a house cleaner who comes every week to clean her house. One day, Lisa cannot find her favorite gold necklace. She thinks the house cleaner, Ana, stole it. She threatens to call the police.

Ana has cleaned Lisa’s house for ten years. She has always been honest. Now Lisa accuses her of stealing a gold necklace from her bedroom. Ana didn’t take it, but she doesn’t know how to prove that she is innocent. She is afraid she’ll lose her job.

When something goes missing, domestic workers may be blamed. Photo by Martapiq.

5. One Worker Works Hard, and the Other Doesn’t

George stocks shelves in a supermarket at night. His co-worker, Thomas, works very slowly and takes long breaks. George has to do extra work because Thomas doesn’t do his share. He thinks Thomas is lazy.

Thomas thinks stocking shelves is a boring job, and the pay is very low. So he doesn’t want to work hard. Why should he work hard, for such low pay?

6. Cook Comes in Late

Sylvia is a manager in a restaurant. Three times this week, the cook, Benny, came in late. The restaurant could not serve customers because the cook was not there.

Benny is the cook in the restaurant. He has been late three times this week because his car broke down. He doesn’t have enough money to get the car repaired. Now the manager, Sylvia, is angry with him. He’s worried that he could lose his job.

7. Accident in a Restaurant

Mariama is eating lunch in a restaurant. She gets up to go to the ladies’ room and accidentally bumps into a waiter. He drops his tray. Now there is broken glass and food all over the floor.

Jason is the waiter in the restaurant. He is carrying a tray full of dishes when suddenly Mariama bumps into him. He drops the tray and the glasses break.

Susana is the restaurant manager. Suddenly she hears a crash. Jason has dropped his tray, and there is broken glass on the floor. Jason also dropped a tray last month. She thinks he is careless. She wants him to pay for the dishes he broke.

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One Response to Teaching Workplace Language and Strategies

  1. Brian says:

    I have been making my way through the Literacy*AmeriCorps application process. I have enjoyed reading through this blog; it has excited my curiosity and interest in Language, ETC. It has given me a window into some of the challenges and rewards that face ESL teachers and students alike.

    Keep it up!

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