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Savvy Companies Build Bonds with Hispanic Employees

As important as it is to understand cultural differences, nothing is as critical as getting to know individuals.

August 30, 2001
Alarge multinational oil company found that productivity in its Mexican plant was off 20 percent. It hired a U.S. manager to go there to figure out what the problem was.

The manager did some digging, surveyed employees, and found that the company used to have a monthly fiesta in the parking lot for all the employees and their families. Another American manager had decided this was a poor use of time and money, and canceled the parties.

"The message employees got was that the company didn't care about our families anymore," says C. Philip Bamberger, vice president of J. Howard & Associates, a Boston firm that served as a consultant for the oil company.

The fiestas were reinstated. Productivity and morale soared.

Glaring examples like this of cultural misunderstandings are expected to become more frequent and to affect business results more dramatically in the coming years. The Hispanic population in the United States grew by 53 percent between 1980 and 1990, and then another 58 percent between 1990 and 2000-totaling 35 million people. New census data shows that half of that population is under 26, indicating that the trend will continue.

These new census statistics also show the number of Hispanic employees in the workplace rising not just in the southwestern United States but also in places like Milwaukee. Employers are making sure they create workplaces where people from different cultures are comfortable working, and want to stay. American employers sometimes see this growing population as a monolithic group. Nothing could be further from reality. Hispanics represent a wide variety of cultures and languages. Even within countries, there is broad diversity. In Mexico, for example, Indians often speak languages unrelated to Spanish.

Still, there are some values in Hispanic cultures that tend to be commonly held. As the oil company learned, families and extended families are often at the social center of the culture.

Gender roles are frequently different. Women in some Latino countries are raised not to look directly in the eye of a superior, whether the person is female or male. And many are taught not to bring up issues or questions that could draw attention to them. With this in mind, employers may have to work at getting feedback from their employees.

Hispanics generally gravitate to "brand name" companies with titled positions and defined careers. Companies offering trendy benefits and flat organizations are not usually as popular.

Hispanic employees also tend to give more direction and need a higher level of information than their non-Hispanic coworkers. "Hispanics tend to appreciate and rely on a much higher level of personal interaction in the workplace," says Shawn Mood, director of recruiting services for LatPro. "This is important for managers to understand."

Despite the diversity within the Hispanic population itself, there are some things employers with a large number of Hispanic employees can do to improve satisfaction and workplace productivity.

  • Publish HR materials in English and in Spanish.
  • Put supervisors and managers through Spanish language classes.
  • Communicate how important confidentiality is to the company.
  • Try to take into account extended family.
  • Create a diverse workforce.

As important as it is to understand cultural differences and not to make assumptions, Bamberger emphasizes that nothing is as critical as getting to know individuals. "The real way to do it is to build personal relationships with people and not to generalize."

Workforce, September 2001, p. 19 -- Subscribe Now!