Managing Your Latino/a Workforce

October 17, 2008 - 08:37

Knowledge is power. And cultural knowledge is especially powerful when it comes to managing your Latino/a workforce.

Several greenhouse managers have shared with me their frustration when it comes to communicating with their Latino workers. Although most of the greenhouse managers say they are pleased with the performance of their employees, they sometimes feel there is a barrier separating them from their workers. Some supervisors have made a serious effort to learn Spanish and believe that they are treating their employees with genuine care and concern. But they remain stymied by the communication barrier. The reality is that communication entails much more than language. Communication is a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs or behavior. Many times, how we say something may be as important as the words we use to say it.

Some time ago, I came across the following words, written by cross-cultural trainer Paul Sanders: “A very big barrier for a new project team where members are from different parts of the world is not language. It is the baggage each team member carries in his/her own cultural suitcase.” Indeed, learning Spanish is only the first step toward communicating with your Latino workers.

Check Your Baggage

The “cultural suitcase” that we all carry is full of values, which we obtain (perhaps unconsciously) from the culture that surrounds us, including our families, schools, religion and friends. As we learn those values, we also acquire expectations of what will (or should) happen in a set of circumstances. Faced with the same set of circumstances, people from different cultures most likely will react in different ways.

The first “take-home message” is clear: Learn Spanish. Next, learn about the culture of your Latino workers. While you have many resources available for learning Spanish language, learning the culture is much more difficult, not only because there are fewer resources, but because culture deals with individuals. And individuals are, of course, all different.

Nevertheless, there are characteristics, called “cultural traits,” that can be used to study a given culture. These shared traits are strong, pervasive and dominant in a culture. However, cultural traits are not universal because each person is unique. As a consequence, the perfect example of a “typical” Latino does not exist just as a perfect example of a “typical” American does not exist.

Finally, when analyzing, comparing and contrasting American and Latino/a cultural traits, it is crucial that judgment be taken out of the equation. To me, they are not good or bad; they are simply different. It is a good idea for any supervisor of Latino workers to take this attitude when facing cultural differences.

The (True) Meaning of Yes

Many Latinos say “yes” or “no” because you expect a yes or a no. Latinos tend to be polite and agreeable, which, in their culture, means telling you what you want to hear. There is a strong impulse to please, and saying “no” may be interpreted as an affront. They are never overtly contentious. So, supervisors, beware! “Yes” does not always mean agreement or affirmation. What to do? Listen carefully. If you hear something like, “Yes, if God wills it…” or “Yes, if…” or “Yes, but…” this means that you had better keep asking your Latino employee for more information. Ned Crouch, author of Mexicans and Americans: Cracking the Cultural Code, points out that when a Mexican tries to please an American, confusion can easily follow.

Perception of Time

There are at least two views of time: linear time and circular time. Most Northern Europeans and Americans operate on linear time. Most Western Europeans inherited the concept of time as an arrow and as a limited resource not to be wasted from the Greeks. Latinos, Asians, Arabs and Southern Italians, to name just a few cultures, perceive time as circular. For many Latinos, including Mexicans, this concept stems from the Aztecs as well as the Spanish. As a consequence, time is an imprecise concept. Many Latinos appreciate and value the time they spend with another person more than the “tyranny” of a schedule. Deadlines are secondary to personal relationships.

Do you have a Latino worker who tends to arrive late to work? Before judging, try to find out why. It is not uncommon for Latino workers to share the use of an automobile with other members of their families who also work or with other workers as a way to reduce expenses. So, the Latino worker might not be in control of his or her transportation. An immigrant often has limited economic resources, rudimentary English language skills, little or no family, and minimal knowledge of the resources that our society offers. All of these factors can make everyday life very stressful.

Sense of Community

Latinos tend to congregate. They are group-oriented and less sensitive to individual space needs. This is a reflection of the importance of living in an extended family in Latino culture; several generations often share one small home. As a consequence, Americans tend to be perceived as cold and distant. Latinos value the group and tend to defend each member of the group. Because they are defending the group, they are discrete individuals operating within the group. As Ned Crouch says, “Americans draw circles around the individual, Mexicans draw circles around the group.”

As a successful manager of Latino workers, it is important for you to be prepared to deal with the group as whole. For example, who will be selected as a supervisor of a Mexican workers’ team? The one who speaks English better and works hard may seem the best choice for you, the “gringo” supervisor, but your crew may have a very different expectation. Your Latino crew’s internal dynamics, such as hierarchy and nepotism, could determine whom they would trust and most willingly follow. Let the group work with you to find such a person. Avoid imposing a crew leader on them based on your criteria.

What’s In It For You?

Often, when I’ve given talks about this subject through the years, someone will ask: “Why should I do all this? Why don’t they just adapt to our ways? Why should we have to learn their language and customs?” My answer to this question has always been, “You can choose to ignore your Latino workers’ customs and language. However, your competitors are doing whatever it takes to survive, and that includes hiring these hard-working Latinos to plant, tend and harvest their crops.”

About The Author

Dr. Claudio Pasian is associate professor in The Ohio State University’s department of horticulture and crop science. He can be reached at pasian.1@osu.edu.

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