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Culture Clash

Culture Clash

Finding enough good workers has always been a problem. Today, though, employers have reached a tipping point: Anyone needing more help is faced with a nearly dried-up labor pool. "Many employers now find they can't hire a sufficient number of capable people, or they can't get anyone at all," reports Tom Maloney, a human resources educator specializing in the Hispanic workforce at Cornell University's Department of Applied Economics and Management. The only solution for many, according to Maloney, is to look for workers from Mexico as well as El Salvador, Guatemala and other Central American countries.

Interest in Hispanic workers has only grown as they've proven themselves capable and enthusiastic. "Hispanic workers have a positive attitude and a strong work ethic," says Maloney. "Because their whole idea in coming to the United States is to get a job to support their families, they are highly motivated to perform well."

There's another reason for the new interest in Hispanics in the workforce: Employers need to better serve a changing consumer base. With some 40 million residents accounting for 14 percent of the population, Latinos now comprise the largest and fastest growing minority group in the United States, according to the Washington, DC-based Pew Hispanic Center.

That's a lot of potential restaurant guests. "The nation is seeing a tremendous increase in the number of Hispanic consumers," says Myelita Melton, president of Speakeasy Communications, a Mooresville, NCbased training organization specializing in occupational Spanish programs. "Hispanics have $700 billion of disposable income, and that figure's expected to grow to $900 billion by 2007." Further, because Latinos have birth rates twice as high as the average American, they are expected to become an even larger consumer force.

Bottom line: Latinos, who now make up some 13 percent of the nation's workforce, are expected to account for half the growth of the U.S. labor force between now and 2020, according to estimates from Pew.

No progress comes without cost. Many organizations hiring more Hispanics are confronted with new communications problems. "If I had to isolate the major issues faced by the employer with a rapidly growing Hispanic workforce, the first would be the language barrier and the second would be the safety problems that result from poor communications," Melton says.

Let's take those one at a time.

"Taking steps to overcome the language barrier shows respect and helps your business function better," advises Maloney. A growing number of managers are learning some rudimentary Spanish, such as phrases useful in a work setting. And employers may need to hire Spanish interpreters to foster understanding during complex discussions.

While the idea of managers learning another language strikes many as unusual, times are changing. "Up until the mid-1990s the majority of Americans held a distaste for learning another language," says Melton. "The common view was that everyone should learn English to speak with us. Today, though, we find that employers are open to learning a little Spanish to direct their employees more efficiently and safely."

Communication, of course, is a two-way affair: Hispanic workers need to increase their mastery of English. "Only 53 percent of Hispanics say they speak English well," says Melton. "We need to concentrate on the others. They need our patience and encouragement to help create a safer and more dynamic workplace." In many cases, says Melton, employers will invest in programs teaching Vocational English as a Second Language, or VESL.

On-the-job language instruction need not be formal or time-consuming. "You don't have to be a qualified instructor to teach something," advises Donna Poisl, a Gastonia, NC-based author of guidebooks for immigrants. "You can start on an informal basis—during lunch breaks, for example." Poisl suggests that each day employees knowledgeable in English teach a few words to their Hispanic colleagues; those knowledgeable in Spanish can reciprocate. "A cooperative effort such as this is a great way to learn language," she notes. "There's so much you can do if you try."

Whatever your approach, patience is a virtue and necessity. "I don't think many people realize how difficult English is to learn as a second language," says Melton, "It takes the average Hispanic seven years to become completely comfortable with the language."

If it takes some time for many Hispanics to become comfortable with English, what can you do in the short term to ensure your instructions are understood?

Use short sentences; speak slowly; enunciate properly. All those things help the Hispanic individual keep up with your conversation. "Put yourself in the other person's position," advises Poisl. "Then consider this: How would you like to be treated if you were not that knowledgeable about a language?"

As you speak, stay alert for responses that indicate understanding or puzzlement. Don't become irritated if you have to restate a sentence in different words. "When your employees look at you dumbfounded after you say something, it's not because they are stupid," says Poisl. "It's because they are trying to translate what you are saying into their native language, or they are shy and afraid to ask for clarification."

Given this language barrier, it's important to reinforce verbal instructions with visual cues. "To effectively train and develop Hispanic employees, demonstrate what you want them to do," advises Carlos Conejo, president of Multicultural Associates, a Thousand Oaks, CA-based consulting organization specializing in the Hispanic workforce. "Then have the employees practice in front of you."

That last part is important, Conejo stresses. "You want employees to make mistakes in front of you because you can turn the situation into a coaching session." That can obviate performance and safety problems down the road.

Following practice time, advises Conejo, allow the employees to give feedback. Ask questions such has these:

  • How did that look to you? "Remember that Latinos are very visual people," notes Conejo.
  • What do you think about this? Hispanics are not accustomed to being asked opinions. Asking for input will create a dialog that increases trust.

The language barrier becomes particularly dangerous when it increases the risk of injury. "Employers need to communicate good safety practices to employees who may not be proficient in English," warns attorney Sara Goldsmith Schwartz, president of Andover, MA-based Schwartz Hannum, a law firm that defends business clients and nonprofit organizations in employmentrelated litigation. Failure to provide adequate instruction can lead to fatalities and costly litigation for negligence if someone gets hurt on the job. Provide safety manuals in the employees' native languages, advises Schwartz. "Hire an expert to assure the accurate translation of your safety manual."

Not all employers have been successful in this risky area. "The injury rate is very high for Hispanic employees, and we suspect it has to do with the language barrier," reports Conejo, who recommends employers make sure workers can read and understand safety words encountered in signs such as "Danger, High Voltage" or "Keep Hands Away."

"As an employer, you will be respected from square one because Hispanic workers come from a hierarchical society where authority is not questioned," says Maloney. "Part of their cultural value system is to be very dedicated to pleasing the boss."

Respect for authority, though, is a two-edged sword. On the positive side, it means workers are eager to perform as directed. On the negative, they may fail to communicate critical information that they fear will upset the boss. "Many times workers will hesitate to be entirely forthcoming when they perceive doing so may result in their supervisor hearing something he or she doesn't want to hear," explains Maloney.

This communications failure results from experience in a Hispanic culture in which workers are often terminated for events beyond their control. Fearing for their jobs, workers may continue to use a faulty piece of equipment, for example, rather than admit something broke on their watch. And they may fail to report injuries, since in their native lands— which often lack disability and health insurance— employees are often terminated and replaced following accidents.

Finally, Hispanic employees may try to please the boss by affirming nonexistent knowledge of certain work procedures. That often results in performance issues.

All these problems can be reduced if the manager takes pains to encourage two-way dialog. Just how? "You can start by understanding that family is incredibly important to Hispanic workers," suggests Maloney. "A main reason why they come to the U. S. is to send money home to their families." Establish workplace policies and resources, then, that recognize and encourage a family mentality. Here are some things you can do:

  • Provide easy and affordable access to long distance phone calls home.
  • Supply phone cards as incentives and gifts.
  • Ask about the well-being of their relatives.
  • Arrange for easy and affordable transmission of money home.

These steps show you understand and support the Hispanic love for family. They go a long way toward building loyalty and ensuring a smoothly functioning workforce.

To return to our topic of safety, it's worth adding that many Hispanic workers will often take unnecessary risks to get their tasks done quickly. To avoid this, advises Melton, tie in the need for safe work practices with the individual's love for family. He advises saying something like this: "Don't do it this way, because it is not safe. Think about your family. We want to send you home in the same condition you came here in."

As these comments suggest, it's possible for employers to reduce conflicts and improve performance as more Hispanic employees join the workforce. The secret lies in improving communication skills, placing more emphasis on safety, and respecting different values. "If you reduce the language barrier and learn more about the Hispanic culture, you will go a long way to create a relationship based on respect," says Maloney. "Then your human relations posture will not be much different for Hispanic workers than for local ones."

In many cases employers will need to develop new skills to meet the challenge of a changing workforce. The alternative is unacceptable, for no employer can turn a profit with a dysfunctional organization that fails to meet customer expectations. Donna Poisl puts it this way: "I don't think this country would work if the Hispanic employees went away."

For More Information

"Hispanics: A People in Motion." Pew Hispanic Center, Washington, DC. Free report.

"Motivating Hispanic Employees: A Practical Guide to Understanding & Managing Hispanic Employees," by Carlos Conejo.

"How to Live & Thrive in the U.S." by Donna Poisl. A workbook in English and Spanish for immigrants.

"Survival Spanish," by Myelita Melton. Series of workbooks and CD's devoted to basic Spanish in a number of industries.

Phillip M. Perry is a New York-based business writer. Reach him at [email protected]


TAGS: Trends Archive