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Demographics are changing across the United States in response to the need for labor. Immigrants in large numbers from Latin America are filling many positions in laundries, restaurants, hospitality, food processing, manufacturing - virtually every industry where entry-level employees are needed.. Although Spanish-speaking workers are not the only non-English speaking workers in America, they are the largest language group. 

Foreign-born Hispanics have a view of the work place that is different from traditional born-in- America workers. Employers who take the time to understand "where they are coming from" will learn it is not just a courtesy, but it will help ensure productivity and loyalty. Employers who do not, run the risk of faulty procedures that may lead to legal violations or flawed production and increased employee turnover

While setting hard and fast "rules" relating to cultural traits is risky, here are some key strategies to managing foreign-born Spanish-speaking workers who have little or no English language skills. 

1) Provide training and workplace communication in Spanish

Of course language is the first hurdle of most immigrants. Training in their native language can be imperative in ensuring compliance with legal rules, such as OSHA's on safety or the EEOC's on harassment - never mind getting the job done right.

Be sure it is written and communicated in correct, clear Spanish; poor translations may lead to further misunderstandings. 

It is best that handbooks and policies be provided in Spanish; obviously it is important for them to understand what is expected of them. Further, Hispanics often feel excluded and not "part of the team" when they aren't explained the work culture and this can lead to alienation and increased turnover. If possible, provide them with orientation classes in Spanish where they feel comfortable to ask questions. Levels of formal education vary widely among immigrant workers and many have no more than a grade school education even in Spanish. It is worth the effort to have well-devised visuals, videos and demonstrations for workplace training.

Your bilingual employees can be helpful liaisons, but be careful when asking them to perform beyond their duties where there are liability concerns. For example, it is not advisable to ask your bilingual Hispanic maintenance supervisor to interpret your sexual harassment prevention program. That isn't his job and you will not be able to verify his translation if you are being scrutinized for a sexual harassment claim. Also, don't presume that a bilingual employee is qualified to translate written workplace materials; use a professional translator. Besides providing a well-written translation, a professional should be able to provide generic Spanish so your employees of different nationalities will understand it. For example, there is terminology and idiomatic expressions used by Mexicans that Latinos from other countries will not understand and vice versa.

2) Take extra efforts to explain concepts that are culturally new

Foreign-born workers are often confused about their benefits. U.S. health insurance plans introduce a whole new realm of understanding that may require extra explanations -- HMO, PPO, co-pay etc.. If these employees don't understand and use a benefit, the employer loses the "goodwill" of providing it. It is worth the effort and extra expense to be sure this information is well-explained in terms these workers understand.

Often Hispanics are wary of financial institutions . As they are accustomed to working with cash and often don't have bank accounts, they are not prepared for payroll direct-deposit programs. Working with your local bank, you help them to open savings accounts where the direct deposits can be made. These employees can withdraw the cash and also save themselves the expense of check cashing services.

Hispanics are not used to payroll deduction plans and tend not to trust them. They will refuse such benefits as a 401K or other cafeteria plan benefits. They don't recognize the impact until they have a medical emergency or learn too late that they could have prepared for retirement. Further, this can affect the company's management who may be unable to make their maximum 401K contributions because the total employee contributions do not meet the necessary requirements. Thus, it can become a benefit of all employees that employers pay special attention to communicating this information to the non English speakers. 

An employee who does not understand and value his or her benefits may cross the street for another job for a small wage increase, but where there are no benefits. The cost of replacing even one employee will exceed the costs of providing translated materials or hiring an interpreter at enrollment time (many insurance companies provide this information in Spanish and will provide Spanish customer service).

3) Assure them that they will not be punished for requesting clarification

Most newly arrived Hispanic workers are not prepared to say that they don't understand. Their pride or their fear of being criticized or fired may mean that they say that they understand when they do not. The consequence of work poorly or dangerously performed can be expensive and illegal. When giving instructions, have them repeated in Spanish by a bilingual co-worker or interpreter and clearly demonstrate the work. Make it clear that they will not be punished by not understanding and encourage them ask for clarification. 

4) Understand that "Yes" may not mean yes and "right now" might mean later

Americans tend to be deed-oriented and consider our word a binding commitment to follow-through. Culturally, Hispanics prefer to be diplomatic and agreeable. "Yes" is often a knee-jerk non-confrontational response, not necessarily a commitment to action. If you later find that the task is not done as you thought it would be, understand that he or she was neither lying nor ill-meaning when he said "yes." When making a request, encourage your Hispanic employee to specify when it can realistically be completed. Make it clear that in our culture accountability is more important than diplomacy.

5) Encourage initiative

Workers in the Hispanic culture carry an ingrained respect for authority and subordinates are expected to unconditionally accept what their bosses say. While respect is desirable, an American supervisor may incorrectly interpret this to mean that Hispanic workers are not capable of good ideas or showing initiative. Your work team needs to be complimented on work habits and provided the opportunity to elicit suggestions.

6) Respect the tradition of "family comes first"

Americans tend to separate work and family life. Family is of primary importance for Latinos and this may be felt at the workplace. For example, a Mexican worker may come to the workplace on his day off to pick-up his paycheck with his wife and children in tow. Most Americans would consider it appropriate for the family to wait in the car, while the Mexican does not consider it inappropriate to bring his family inside. His supervisor may be across the room and immersed in his work, yet the employee would be pleased for the boss to take a few moments to greet the him and to meet his family. By taking this time for personal interaction, more trust and loyalty can be established from this employee. It can help to breakdown the stereotype that Latinos hold that Americans are cold and have little regard for common courtesies. 

We all want respect. Because Spanish-speaking employees don't always understand doesn't' mean they are incapable of understanding. Just as we have learned new skills to adapt to new technologies because they are invaluable workplace tools, our bottom line benefits from this cadre of Spanish-speaking workers. Developing the skills and understanding to work with these valuable workers may be critical to happier employees, less turnover and increased productivity.


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