Creating a Happier, Healthier Hispanic Work Force

The first step in creating a harmonious work environment for your Hispanic employees is to learn about their culture and how it many impact their work.

While we want every member of our work force to be happy and healthy, sometimes we need to pay attention to specific employee groups or populations. For example, how do the satisfaction rates of your Hispanic workers compare with those of the Anglo workers? Are your Latino employees well integrated into your work culture or could you do a better job of creating a diverse, harmonious work force?

Understanding the cultural backgrounds and behaviors of your Hispanic employees could make a significant difference. Measure your cultural IQ with the following information:

Did you know … that Hispanics comprise the country's largest minority? Even without continued immigration, the fertility rates of Caucasian vs. Latina women in the United States are skewed toward increasing numbers of Hispanics. The majority of today's Latinos are young, and these youths will revitalize the work force. As they become older, earn higher salaries and adopt mainstream buying habits, they will command higher levels of purchasing power. They are a force to be reckoned with.

Did you know … about the “healthy immigrant” phenomenon? Immigrants from Latin America arrive healthy but the longer they live in the United States, the more bad habits they develop. They begin to eat a less-healthy diet and consume more fast food and less fresh fruits and vegetables. Some women begin to smoke. Consequently, they increase their chances of contracting such diseases as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems. This has major implications for health care and health education.

Did you know … that family is the top priority for Hispanics, over and above work? This may explain some absences from work. When a child is sick, the family accompanies her to the doctor's office. Family life is the equivalent to social life. When “family” is defined by extensive networks, the calendar can be filled with an endless number of occasions such as birthdays, weddings, graduations, baptisms, anniversaries and quinceañeras (“sweet 15” parties). Remember how strong Latino family unity is when planning company recreational events.

Did you know … that Latin Americans use both their fathers' and their mothers' surnames? Imagine the problems arising from mistakenly reversing the order of the names. Ana María García Sánchez's personnel and medical files should be placed under “G” for García, not Sánchez. Her husband's name will be different, as will the last names of their children. A simple hyphen can prevent filing mistakes.

Did you know … about the East Coast/West Coast divide between Hispanic groups in the United States? Most Cuban Americans have settled along the East Coast of the United States while most Mexican Americans populate the West Coast and border states. The differences between these two groups go deeper than geography; there also is a socio-economic and cultural divide. Generally speaking, the more educated of these two groups are the Cuban Americans. They statistically have achieved a higher level of financial and professional success. In business, bilingual Cuban Americans often are identified to supervise Mexican and Central American Spanish-speaking employees, but they are reluctant to relocate across the country because their families live on the East Coast.

Did you know … that many poor Latin Americans don't have bank accounts? Or that many have never applied for a car loan or owned a house free and clear? Introducing new immigrants to U.S. banking practices needs to begin at the most elementary level. This would make an excellent addition to a job orientation for a first-generation immigrant Hispanic work force.

Did you know … that instead of resenting uniforms, many Hispanics feel that uniforms give a person a professional look and feel? Especially uniforms which are clean, well cared-for and freshly pressed. A dress code serves as a visual display of the status and responsibility of each level of hierarchy on the job.

IMPROVING COMMUNICATION

I once was hired to act as interpreter during a union campaign at a cookie factory. It was a critical moment for management to make special accommodations for their Spanish-speaking employees in order to communicate their message effectively. Hispanics represented about one-third of their line workers. The union campaign may have been the catalyst for management at the factory to refocus their efforts on improving satisfaction levels among their Spanish-speakers, largely of Mexican origin.

Management truly did appreciate these employees. The manager found them to be tireless workers with a solid work ethic; consistent performers; and compliant to instructions. He subsequently hired me to translate the company's standard operating procedures into Spanish.

On a visit to the factory floor to canvass the workers for the most commonly used terms to describe the equipment for my translations, I was approached by a non-English-speaking janitor. He wanted me to ask his boss a question while he had the ear of an interpreter. “When am I going to get a raise?” he wanted to know.

The janitor had been thoroughly instructed about company policies and their wage step system. He wasn't really asking for a raise. After some digging, we discovered his real motivation. The janitor's wife also worked for the cookie factory, in one of their offices. She was taking home a higher salary than her husband. In amachista culture, the male is supposed to be the breadwinner. The fact that she made more money was embarrassing for him. In his role as janitor, however, he would never advance through the salary steps to surpass her income.

His wife's earning power was, of course, a benefit to the entire family. Overcoming cultural prejudices to convince the janitor of these advantages would not have been an effective strategy. Reducing her salary to offset it with higher benefits would violate HR policies, as would arbitrarily raising the janitor's salary. But he could train for a higher-paying position at the factory, or perhaps he would like to work overtime hours. Once a problem is identified, it's often possible to find obvious or creative alternatives.

In this case, management lacked the ability to read the true feelings of their Hispanic workers. This was not due to linguistic differences. These employees didn't make complaints, but neither did they share their opinions. Acquiescing to the boss was culturally comfortable. Challenging a supervisor's authority, meanwhile, was outside of their comfort zone. For management to solicit input, they would have to do it indirectly by identifying the dominant group leaders and gathering information from these spokespeople.

THE APPRENTICESHIP MODEL

Another strategic tactic to improve communication is to hire bilingual staff, or at least provide part-time bilingual services. Management's decision to provide translations of factory instructions was a good start. These manuals, however, used very complex language. Providing simpler instructions in both languages would make them more useful, and safety protocols easier to follow. Spanish-language signage in critical areas along the factory floor would help improve safety as well. Ongoing Spanish-language training for supervisors and, conversely, English language instruction for employees could be explored. English lessons, if offered after hours, might include family members.

The apprenticeship model is very familiar to Latin American workers. Therefore, mentor programs that match culturally knowledgeable counselors with Hispanic employees would help to advance them in their jobs.

Employee appreciation programs also are great morale boosters. One element of such programs that is sure to curry special favor with Latinos is awarding frame-worthy printed certificates of accomplishment. To be sensitive to the characteristic sense of humility and communality of Hispanic peoples, it's better to grant team awards instead of touting the accomplishments of individuals.

LOYAL WORKERS

You may be wondering why it is important to provide a Hispanic-friendly work environment and how improving the satisfaction levels of these workers can benefit the company. In a word: loyalty.

Latin American societies historically have exhibited a paternalistic paradigm where the patrón, or boss, provides for the welfare of his workers and in return he receives their absolute allegiance: at work, in the community, in politics and, for better or worse, even in union campaigns. Couple this with another commonly shared trait, commitment — to an ideal, to family and friends and to the employer they consider their friend and ally. Your loyal employees will become loyal customers as well as advocates for your brand's products or services. You will have created lasting and mutually beneficial relationships with your Latino employees.

Understanding cultural context gives us greater insight into human behaviors. When we discover the underlying motivation for behaviors, we can act to improve communication, enhance employee satisfaction and successfully integrate diversity into the work culture. It is therefore in your best interest to become culturally informed.


Lori Madden teaches Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American culture. She is the author of Deciphering the Latino Consumer: A Guide for Employers, Professionals, Retailers and Business Travelers. Visit her blog at http://www.HispanicConsumerResources.com.

CULTURAL SURVEY AND CONTEST

Please help us further assess the challenges faced by employers of Hispanic workers by completing the following survey, which can be found online at http://www.zoomerang.com/Survey/WEB22BQRLGG36W. Five of the most informative responses will be chosen to win a copy of the book Deciphering the Latino Consumer.

To enter the contest, please include your name and mailing address, as well as your email for notification. Survey responses may be published in part or in whole in a later issue of EHS Today. No personal information will be divulged.

EHS TODAY HISPANIC WORK FORCE SURVEY

  1. In which industry do you work?
  2. What is your position or role?
  3. In your best estimation, what percentage of your work force is Hispanic?
  4. Of this group, how many are acculturated and how many are first-generation immigrants?
  5. Name the ways in which your company makes accommodations to help Hispanics transition into and achieve success in the workplace (e.g. orientations, English classes, mentoring, Spanish-language materials, etc.)
  6. Have you observed any problems in the workplace arising from cultural differences or miscommunications between Hispanics and Anglos? Has any incident put employee safety at risk? How were they resolved? Please explain at length.

Again, visit http://www.zoomerang.com/Survey/WEB22BQRLGG36W to complete this survey and enter the contest.

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