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Managing Today's Immigrants (live copy)

February 1, 1993
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Karla Leavelle can tell you a lot about managing foreign-born workers. As HR manager for a region of Dallas-based Southland Corp. (parent of the 7-Eleven convenience stores), she has had her share of experiences. During the Iran-Iraq War, she had to separate employees from Iran and Iraq who had been working side by side. She had to convince immigrants from Ethiopia and Somalia to throw away food that was one hour too old and didn't meet U.S. health codes.

Leavelle's district encompasses Washington, D.C., and Maryland, and parts of Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware. She's responsible for 811 stores and more than 6,700 corporate employees, who represent 70 countries. "We're Workforce 2000 today," she says. "The issues we're dealing with are global, ongoing and, at times, difficult."

Global, indeed. During Operation Desert Storm, management at Southland worried that customers might harass employees from the Middle East. Leavelle consulted a group of Middle Eastern-born field managers to help defuse problems before they occurred. They discussed ways in which employees could respond to offensive customers to avoid inflaming them further, but the managers were adamant that employees not be told to avoid the topic. After all, they reminded her, one reason people immigrate to America is to have freedom of speech.

Many HR managers face these challenges from their United Nations of employees. As millions of foreign nationals flood the U.S. (8.7 million arrived in the 1980s) and enter the labor market, they create ever-growing demands. Some estimates of immigration—both legal and illegal—reach between 30% and 40% of the annual growth of the U.S. labor force.

These foreign-born employees have distinct training needs for skills and language proficiency. Management must face multicultural issues in another dimension, a dimension that's different from that presented by the diversity of homegrown Americans. Between the concerns of language, hiring, training, managing and cross-cultural awareness, the managers of immigrants must be able to do much more than read Chinese fortune cookies, to deal with this complexity.

Who are these new Americans? The immigration wave of the early 1900s brought people primarily from Europe. Today's immigrants are more diverse. The 11 million individuals are: nurses from the Philippines; college professors from Europe; scientists and engineers from Asia and the Middle East; and hotel, bank, clerical and farm workers from Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and Africa.

Some of these people were members of royalty, diplomats, political activists or professionals in their home countries; others lived in poverty and fear. Regardless of whether these people came to the U.S. to flee oppression, to reunite with family or to pursue economic gain, HR managers no longer can overlook their importance in—and impact on—the workplace.

Fran Eichorst, manager of personnel at Southland, agrees. More than 36% of the company's 41,000 employees (not including franchisees) are members of minority groups. "We want to ensure that the way we manage our diverse work force is fair," says Eichorst. "We need to see that people who come into the work force have the skills and appropriate training to do the job. All those HR challenges have a different twist with a diverse work force."

Break down language barriers.
Language is one of the primary and most complex issues facing corporate America and the HR professionals who manage foreign-born workers. According to Sondra Thiederman, president of San Diego-based Cross-Cultural Communication, there are more than 140 languages and dialects spoken in the U.S. She says that 11% of the population speaks a language other than English at home.

This amazing diversity creates confusion and concern for HR professionals, according to Thiederman, because language diversity in the workplace often is an issue that isn't addressed adequately. "I see a corporate responsibility to help people learn English," says Thiederman. "They need English to function effectively in our culture because it's the only way we can bond with other people—the only way we can communicate our expertise and move up in the workplace."

The first concern of managers of foreign-born workers is English proficiency. A worker may know enough of the language to get the job, but may not understand directions completely. This is especially critical when it comes to safety regulations. Many immigrants believe that it's impolite to ask questions. They may be so unsure of their language skills that they believe they might have misunderstood the instructions and are therefore afraid to act.

To counteract this problem, many companies encourage literacy programs. For example, Southland participates in the Read To Achieve program. This program encourages employees for whom English is a second language either to partake of literacy services or, if they're already proficient in English, to volunteer to help others learn English. The company publicizes the program on the paper bags in its stores in five languages: English, Spanish, Korean, Arabic, and Vietnamese. It also publishes an 800-number from which immigrants can receive information about the program in the five languages. In addition, Southland provides money and other resources to help local grass-roots organizations that are providing literacy services.

Another common language dilemma for HR is whether to allow immigrants to speak a foreign language in the workplace. When enclaves of immigrant employees gather and converse in their native tongues, speakers of English may complain that the group is being exclusionary. "For 15 years I've heard people say, 'I don't understand what they're saying. They must be talking about me. I don't trust them,'" says Thiederman. This sets the stage for potential conflict and disharmony between employees. Thiederman suggests that a little awareness training can go a long way.

Finally, even when immigrants learn the language, it doesn't prevent all the problems. Colleagues may have trouble understanding them. Still others may forget that the person is bilingual (or multilingual) and pass him or her off as uneducated or unintelligent. Accents also may keep immigrants from contributing ideas or giving presentations. On the other hand, some co-workers may find heavily accented English a symphony of sound.

Thiederman believes that organizations must offer training to both employees and managers. Employees should have courses in speaking English and should be encouraged to speak English more frequently. Managers need to learn how to help foreigners feel more comfortable about using English. (See "How Managers Can Communicate Better with Foreign-born Workers.")

Hire and train foreign-born workers.
Miami-based Burger King Corp. recruits and hires many immigrants because newcomers to the U.S. often like to work in fast-food restaurants and retail operations. The reasons are:

  • Flexible work hours (often around-the-clock) allow people to hold two jobs or go to school
  • Entry-level positions require little skill
  • High turnover allows individuals who have initiative and ambition to be promoted rapidly.

Burger King has several systems in place to facilitate hiring foreign-born workers. For example, employment applications are available in Spanish as well as English. If the applicant speaks Spanish, he or she can be interviewed in that language. Prospective employees can bring a family member or a friend to act as interpreter during the interview.

"People need to learn English. It's the only way to communicate their expertise and to advance."
Sondra Theiderman,
Cross Cultural Communication

Some of the company-provided training videos also are dubbed in Spanish. One eight-minute video shown to applicants before the initial interview presents the various jobs that employees perform in Burger King restaurants. It shows crew members lifting, walking, cooking Whoppers, serving customers and taking orders from drive-through customers. The video was developed to comply with a provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act (to describe the physical characteristics of specific jobs), but it works well for prospective workers who don't have disabilities. For example, after seeing the video, some foreign-born workers tell interviewers that they're uncomfortable at the front counter or drive-through window.

Another Burger King procedure deals with the legal requirements involved in hiring immigrant workers. As part of the employment application, workers must show proof of employment eligibility. "Sometimes people become a little antsy when we ask about their documents," says Ken Butler, director of employee relations for Burger King's retail division. It's a situation that the company can't ignore, however, because of the legal implications. Burger King provides a toll-free number that's staffed by people who speak Spanish, to help answer questions about documentation. An outside agency verifies that forms are filled out correctly and that the company is in compliance with the law. Another legal responsibility involves the Targeted Jobs Tax Credit (TJTC). If a company employs certain categories of workers receiving government assistance, the company gets a tax credit. However, to qualify for it, employers need to ask personal questions about family members, such as how much money they make and how many people are in the family.

Between questions about immigration status and information needed for tax credit, restaurant managers must be extremely sensitive. These two issues need careful handling because they can make prospective employees uncomfortable. As part of its management training programs, Burger King teaches managers to be conscious of these concerns.

Benefits is another area in which immigrants need special attention. Many workers simply don't understand their benefits. "My feeling is that sometimes people from other countries don't speak up enough," says Butler. "They don't ask enough questions about what they're eligible for."

For example, the term medical insurance is clear to U.S.-born workers, but someone from another country may not understand what it means. This is also true of workers' compensation. When foreign-born employees are injured, they may hesitate to report the injury because they're afraid they'll be fired. Someone has to explain workers' compensation to them. Although Burger King tries to educate its managers about these issues, Butler is afraid that employees may be missing out on opportunities.

To enable its managers to handle these situations, Burger King has extensive training programs that address these specific concerns. For example, because there's no language requirement at Burger King, interviewers must know what to expect in a bilingual interview. They take law seminars. They learn cultural sensitivity.

At Southland, training focuses more on employees than it does on U.S.-born managers who manage foreign-born workers. The company has an extensive training program called Workplace Literacy. The 60-hour course teaches workers to service customers and identify products, and gives them the specific language skills they need. For example, employees need to know how to help someone find products, how to avoid accidents and how to respond if a customer is involved in an accident. The individual needs to know what to do if a customer wants to buy alcohol after hours, is intoxicated or asks for directions. The training is conducted in English. Rather than teach remedial reading and writing skills, the organization teaches the specific communication skills that employees need for serving customers.

"These courses increase confidence tremendously," says Leavelle. "Confident employees are better employees in terms of how they work with their managers. After training, employees have the confidence to say, 'Excuse me, I don't understand the instructions.' They're able to say, 'You're asking me to do two things at the same time. Which one do you want me to do first?'" Leavelle says that the course also encourages foreign-born workers to go on to improve their language skills in more academic settings.

Although Southland has many foreign-born employees, the emphasis of the training always is in the context of business rather than culture. For instance, training issues reflect the particular goals of each store and individual. Different religious beliefs may cause one employee to feel uncomfortable when selling pork or cigarettes and another person to require certain days off. Field consultants (managers who are responsible for five to 10 stores) and their market managers (who oversee field consultants and 50 to 70 stores) communicate about the specific issues of the business environment. These managers also address training needs in this way.

Highly educated foreign-born workers need specialized management.
Southland and Burger King are good examples of companies that employ large numbers of entry-level and un-skilled immigrants. Skilled workers, however, require a different management approach. St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. hires people who have received master's degrees or doctorates in engineering, microbiology, chemistry, biology, marketing and finance. The company uses a vendor for cross-cultural consultation and assistance.

"We shouldn't assume that, just because we think that the U.S. is a great place to live, everybody is easily accommodated here," Carol F. Jones, HR specialist of international assignments at Monsanto, says. "Workers can't focus on higher-level, intrinsic values until their physical needs are met, so we put a lot of effort into logistical assistance, such as their housing and financial needs and schools for their children. It's important that they have the support they need to meet their primary physical needs."

After the foreign-born employee has been in the U.S. a few months, the consultants move into cross-cultural training, during which they examine some of the difficulties and differences between U.S. culture and the culture of the employee. Whenever possible, the trainer comes from the same background. For example, a Japanese employee may need help expressing to the Monsanto manager that he or she feels more comfortable living in an apartment than in a large house. Workers may feel guilty about leaving elderly relatives back home. They may have children who have difficulty learning or teenagers who are having trouble adapting.

"It's good to have a third party provide your cross-cultural training," says Alan C. Rowold, HR director, new products division, of the Agricultural Group at Monsanto. "Personal issues are something many foreign-born employees prefer not to talk about with co-workers."

Trainers who know the country and culture from which the employee comes can explain the customs of the U.S. more easily. For example, they may explain that in country X, the worker is accustomed to negotiating everything down to the nickel. Everything is negotiable. The trainer explains that this isn't done in the U.S.

Thiederman calls this "meeting in the middle." By that, she means teaching and learning from each other. "People don't stop at the border to take seminars on the expectations of U.S. management. We need to educate mainstream, native-born U.S. managers to adapt to them. There are simple techniques they can learn."

Thiederman offers the following generalizations, which may be helpful. Managers born in the U.S. tend to project their own cultural biases onto other people and assume that immigrants' motivations are the same as theirs. Frequently, that isn't the case. One difference is related to their respect for authority. Some foreign-born workers who don't understand what a manager expects, or who have questions, will pretend to comprehend. They do this to enable the manager to save face. "Saying, 'I don't understand,' implies that the manager explained it incorrectly," says Thiederman. "They're trying to avoid making the authority figure go through the explanation again." In other cases, an employee may giggle or nod continually. This hinders communication. Untrained managers may believe that an immigrant is lying or is stupid. Managers can clarify the situation and explain that it's all right to ask questions if you don't understand, or suggest that workers submit their questions in writing.

Another area of possible misunderstanding is taking initiative on tasks. "A person who isn't taking the initiative on tasks is considered lazy. We don't understand that in many Latin-American countries, employees don't perform a task on their own. They wait out of respect for authority," says Thiederman.

This misinterpretation carries over to the way U.S.-born managers look at other behaviors, too. Let's say a worker doesn't bring problems to his or her manager. The worker may be trying to avoid attracting attention. Participative management, for example, may make such workers uncomfortable.

Understand working relationships.
Managing immigrant workers often comes down to being sensitive to their values. Stan Bromley, regional VP and general manager at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C., learned this lesson by experiencing what it's like to live in a foreign country. After high-school graduation, Bromley spent five years at hotel school in Switzerland. He didn't know the language. "I wasn't a rich kid going to boarding school," he says. "It was a tremendous sacrifice. It gave me an understanding that I never would have had if I hadn't been an immigrant, of sorts, in another country."

Bromley's experiences serve him well. He manages an extremely diverse group of employees from around the world, ranging from royalty to refugees. He exhibits a tremendous respect for the immigrants and the impact their experiences have on the U.S. workplace. "I think that the common thread is family. It starts with members of the first generation, who wanted to better themselves. The equation has two parts: They're unhappy where they are, and they aren't followers but leaders," Bromley says.

Bromley's employees have some pretty impressive stories. Thanh Ngoc Luu, for instance, is currently the lead engineer of the Four Seasons Hotel. Thanh (pronounced Tang) was born near Hanoi and worked in the U.S. International Development Agency under the Consulate General in Da Nang. His English was good enough for him to be an interpreter and the assistant to the U.S. official.

A month before Thanh left Vietnam for the U.S., he escaped from Da Nang with his wife, mother and four young children (all younger than nine) on a barge so overloaded that it tipped over as the people rushed to one end to get onto the rescue boat. Carrying his children, one by one, onto the boat, he wasn't even sure if he would make it off the barge in time. He sent his family ahead to the U.S. and then took another boat. He was among the last people to leave Vietnam. He floated in open sea in pouring rain for 24 hours without food, waiting for a U.S. transport ship to pick him up. Later, safe at Camp Pendleton, in Oceanside, California, he had to wait several weeks before the Red Cross could locate his family.

Thanh's State Department supervisor sponsored him, and he moved with his family to Alexandria, Virginia, where they now live. Highly educated, and in a position of authority in his homeland, Thanh Ngoc Luu took whatever work he could find here, starting as a yard worker at $3.25 per hour while attending a professional school, where he learned about heating and cooling. He later received his license. He has worked at the Four Seasons Hotel since 1979 and has been its lead engineer since 1989.

Thanh Ngoc Luu is one of the employees from whom Bromley learns. "If you talk with people who have come off a boat from Vietnam or walked across the border into California, you're talking to risk-takers; they're self-directed. Just think about it: For each of the people who immigrated to this country in the early 1900s, there were 10 people who stayed behind," he says. Managers must recognize this strength and ability. They must appreciate the difficulties employees face. If managers value the company's diversity, the tone is set for everyone.

Break down cultural barriers.
Understanding and appreciating the backgrounds and cultural issues of immigrants isn't always easy. To illustrate this fact to yourself, answer this question: There are four birds sitting in a tree. A hunter shoots one. How many are left? Three? That's a typical U.S. answer. People in some cultures, however, would say that if the hunter shoots one bird, the others will fly away. U.S. culture is individualistic, concrete and discrete. If you look at the question from the viewpoint of a collective or team point of view, you'll recognize the answer immediately. This is the point of view of many new immigrants, and it's quite different from the traditional European roots of most Americans.

The majority of immigrants today are much more group-oriented than was the case in the past. "A large part of our population growth now comes from immigration—primarily Asian and Latin-American," says Noel Osborn, president of TEAM, a San Antonio-based consulting firm that specializes in cross-cultural understanding. "We have to be able to sell our products to these people and make sure that they're happy members of our work force." In policies, perks and benefits, for example, we need to realize that these workers are significantly different from U.S.-born citizens, according to Osborn. For example, he recalls a military man in one of his workshops. The man's wife was in the hospital. He was sent to Europe. In a typical U.S. way, he went, leaving her in the hospital. "A Latin-American never would dream of such a thing," Osborn says. "Family comes first. The white, Anglo culture says that our responsibility is to our jobs. A non-European, non-Anglo-dominated culture would say, 'Maybe not.' They take care of their elders and their extended families."

Just as we think about the birds in the trees differently from many of our world neighbors, so also do we see other issues differently. American managers have to see the world from a broader perspective. We're at a disadvantage from the start. "We're accustomed to doing things the American way, and that reflects Anglo dominance, particularly Anglo male dominance," Osborn says. To move beyond that limited viewpoint, we can take advantage of the developmental models that are available. Awareness is only the first step. A typical cultural activity, such as a Mexican night or theme party, isn't enough.

"We have to go beyond awareness to acceptance, and perhaps beyond acceptance to adaptation, and perhaps beyond adaptation to immigration. We not only must know what's going on, but we also must accept it as a normal way of doing business," Osborn says. "We even may want to adapt to these different cultures so that we can blend the best of all the differences into our ways of doing things."

As Bromley's experience abroad illustrates, Osborn says that there's nothing like international experience for cross-cultural development. But that isn't always possible. In the absence of firsthand experience, he suggests the following for management and human resources professionals to consider:

  • Start with a cognitive experience; read about other cultures—particularly the ones you'll be working with most closely. Develop a bibliography
  • Experience that culture in some way, such as by spending time with a foreign family
  • Use specialists in intercultural communication and other available resources
  • Increase the numbers of minorities or nontraditional managers in the work force to bring their ethnicity into the organization and help make it more sensitive to their ethnic groups
  • If managers can't spend time in the foreign country, at least use the experiences of other workers who have lived in those countries.

"I think organizations aren't in tune to using their people who have been abroad. They're a good resource," says Osborn.

Monsanto has a pilot program that has U.S. expatriates share their experiences with fellow employees, supervisors and subordinates. Management at Monsanto says that having the returning employee talk about his or her experiences is just as important for the employee as it is for the company. "We recognize that it's critical to use that knowledge and to affirm those new skills that the employee brings back," says Jones. "The result of that interaction, which is facilitated by a cross-cultural trainer, is that our domestic managers become more tolerant, more knowledgeable and more global."

Cross-cultural training, however, goes beyond traditional diversity training. Although in the U.S. there's a blending of cultures, cross-cultural awareness extends even beyond U.S. borders. As Osborn points out, diversity can be controversial and conflictive because of the long history of dominance by the traditional, Anglo-male culture. "Diversity work tends to center on gender and ethnic issues. Cross-cultural awareness broadens that focus to include hyphenated Americans (Asian-Americans, for example) and foreign-born Americans. Then it expands even more to international cross-cultural styles. We also need to know about diversity. We need to know about international differences," says Osborn.

Although working with foreign-born employees presents its share of obstacles and challenges, Leavelle and Eichorst say that it has its vast rewards as well. They say that they wouldn't have it any other way.

"It's a major advantage in business," says Eichorst. "It's the world of today. It's the world of tomorrow. Maybe it hasn't hit everywhere, but it will, and it's exciting."

Personnel Journal, February 1993, Vol. 72, No. 2, pp. 56-65.

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