Special Report: Bridging the culture gap

One problem with communication, the old saying goes, is the illusion that it has taken place. Anyone who has ever worked on a bilingual landscape project or crew can certainly relate to that sentiment. It can be difficult for English-speaking supervisors and Spanish-speaking laborers to communicate effectively under even the best circumstances. But did you know there are factors other than language skills that can hamper communication? There are significant cultural differences between Latin American and American workers that can damage your relationship with Hispanic workers or possibly lead to accidents on the job.

Luckily, experience has shown that the Anglo manager who understands and respects these cultural differences will usually be repaid with impressive productivity boosts as his jobs become safer and more efficient.

Hector Escarcega is president of a company called Bilingual Solutions, based in Los Angeles. Escarcega is a certified safety professional with a master’s degree in industrial hygiene and a regular participant in U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration workshops. He founded Bilingual Solutions to provide training and programs to help Americans and Hispanics at all professional levels. We asked him about communication and cultural roadblocks in landscaping companies. Here’s what he told us:

Reaching out
The first thing Escarcega says you should realize is that you don’t have to speak a word of Spanish in order to communicate with your Hispanic workers. “If you want to motivate an Hispanic employee, or express pleasure with the work he’s doing, you can’t go wrong by simply smiling, calling him by his first name and giving him a thumbs-up sign,” he says. “You can even tell him, in English, ‘Good job!'”

Even though you’re speaking English, Escarcega says they’ll still get the message. “More than 90 percent of communication is by body language,” he notes. “That employee will know that you mean well and are pleased with the work he’s doing.”

Don’t be afraid to use a little Spanish, either, Escarcega adds. “You don’t have to be fluent,” he stresses. “Try simple phrases. When you come to work in the morning, greet someone by saying, ‘Buenos dias, Juan.'”

The key here, Escarcega says, is that you’re making an effort to communicate. “Proficiency matters less to your workers than the fact that you’re reaching out,” he explains. “It’s a gesture that will always be appreciated.”

Meeting halfway
One common way landscape contractors attempt to dodge the language barrier is by selecting an English-speaking Hispanic worker to serve as a go-between by relaying instructions to his coworkers. And that’s fine, Escarcega says. But you still should be careful not to let this type of arrangement become the only way you communicate with your Hispanic employees.

“If you get in a comfort zone with a reliable translator, it becomes easy to assume your directions will be perfectly translated each and every time,” Escarcega says. “Miscommunication is always a possibility when bridging two languages. And having an English-speaking worker – no matter how responsible they may be – does not relieve a manager of his responsibility to insure his instructions are properly carried out.”

Another problem with a bilingual “go-between” is that productivity can come to a grinding halt if that person calls in sick, takes a vacation day or takes a job somewhere else.

Dealing with differences
Americans are renowned the world over for our easy familiarity with friends and strangers alike. Our national culture, namely our democratic society, our free market economy and our traditions of free speech all work to reinforce the view of Americans as outgoing and friendly. So it can come as a shock when we learn that our friendly, open nature can be off-putting in many cultures around the world.

Many societies in Asia, Europe and Latin America place a great premium on notions of class, status and formality that most Americans intuitively consider antiquated. And in many ways, we’re right. Stratified, rigid social barriers are an impediment in the business world, particularly in the landscaping industry where fast and effective communication is imperative, whether the conversation is about safety or simply increasing overall productivity.

But even the most reserved American employee-employer relationship seems widely casual to Hispanic workers. There is no joking around with the boss in Latin American countries. Questioning or challenging a boss on an important issue is virtually unthinkable. As a result, Hispanic workers will routinely be silent, listen to what’s said and do as they’re told while keeping any doubts or fears to themselves.

Part of this silence is rooted in fear. Remember that job security is foremost in the average Hispanic worker’s mind. If they’re here illegally, they have no recourse if they’re fired. If they have a work visa and their employment ends, so does their ability to legally reside here. And even immigrants with valid green cards fear any change in their work status could bring the dreaded immigration authorities calling.

Then there’s the machismo concept, which is very important in Hispanic culture. As such, Hispanic men need to demonstrate they’re capable – that they know how to get things done. “This means, unfortunately,” Escarcega says, “that asking questions is often seen as a sign of being dumb or weak. Even if they see a potentially dangerous situation, the odds are they’re not going to say anything about it. They’re just going to work around the problem. They just want to please the boss and get the job done.”

For those reasons, reaching out to you or your foremen is a fairly scary proposition for Hispanic workers, Escarcega notes. Therefore, it’s up to you as the Anglo supervisor to take the lead in opening critical lines of communication. Remember, for many Latinos, confronting a problem is tantamount to challenging the boss’s authority.

And, as overbearing as OSHA can seem at times, it’s worth noting that most Latin American countries don’t have anything comparable. There are no governmental agencies looking out for workers’ welfare, Escarcega notes. So don’t expect them to show up with even basic safety gear like protective glasses or steel-toed boots. In fact, they’re often surprised when they’re issued safety gear by companies here.

The way around these obstacles, Escarcega says, is to intertwine the concept of safety with continued employment from the beginning. “The day they come to work for you,” he says, “tell them, ‘If you want this job, then you must be safe. You must do the job this way every time.'”

Getting your Latino workers involved
The best teams – business, sports or otherwise – always do best when everyone is involved. Once you’ve established a rapport with your Hispanic workers and have a handle on safety issues, you may want to look for ways to enhance your business’ productivity by developing a more productive relationship with them.

Once again, you’ll have to be the one who reaches out and make an effort to mix with your workers in order to build their trust and loyalty. Informal bull sessions at the end of the day or during breaks on a job are a great way to encourage your workers to improve procedures and work smarter.

“Because the opportunity is so rare in their home countries, Latino workers will welcome the chance to become part of your team,” Escarcega explains. “If encouraged, they’ll often have creative ideas for improving efficiencies. Share your goals with them and ask what you think should be done to meet them.”

The importance of family
Recognizing and respecting other aspects of Hispanic culture can pay big dividends for your business, too. But to do so, you have to remember that culture once again comes into play.

Hispanic countries are overwhelmingly Catholic and religion plays an important role in life there. Which means observing religious holidays – even ones foreign to most Americans – is paramount for Latino workers. Christmas and New Year’s, for example, are big events for Latino families, too. But so is December 12th. That’s the day dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe and a hugely important holiday in Latin America – second only to Christmas. Being aware of these days, and even offering them as optional days off for your Hispanic workers, is an easy way to earn a great deal of respect and loyalty from your team.

Other social events such as picnics can be important, too. And at these, food plays an important role and you need to brush up on some subtle differences if you’re serious about interacting meaningfully with your Hispanic workers. Did you know there’s a difference between Mexican-style tamales and Guatemalan ones? It’s a difference you’d do well to understand if you have workers from either one of those countries working for you.

Remember that when you invite Latino workers to bring their families to company functions you can end up with a lot of mouths to feed. The concept of family – even extended family ties – is important to Hispanics. So it’s quite possible your workers could bring cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents to a company cookout or picnic. Accepting these extended families and showing hospitality toward them shows respect and understanding on your part. And be sure to accept any invitation you receive from your Latino workers to attend one of their parties – even if you only stay for a little while. Doing so does a great honor to the host and gives him added prestige among his family and coworkers.

“It’s all about family with Hispanic culture,” Escarcega says. “If you get to the point where your Latino workers are asking you to attend their parties, it means you’ve done an excellent job of bridging that culture gap because they now see you as part of their extended family. And that’s an extremely big deal to them.”

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