From Furnace to Finishing: Managing the Hispanic Worker

Feb. 23, 2004
Dealing successfully with Hispanic workers means more than just using a bi-lingual foreman as an interpreter in the melt shop, core room, or pouring floor. Motivating Hispanics, like any ethnic cohort, means understanding their cultural traditions, and ho

The surging wave of Hispanic immigrants is having a profound effect on American society in general and the foundry in specific. This should not be surprising, given the influx of foreign labor across our southern borders from Latin countries.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, several thousand new jobs will be added in the foundry industry this decade. Although the veracity of these numbers may be suspect, if they hold true it would be a welcome turnabout from the 9,000 jobs lost in the previous decade.

Many of these new jobs will be filled by immigrants, mainly of Hispanic origin. With the average foundry turnover being 15 to 20 percent, this means the national average of Hispanic employment in foundries will grow to nearly 17 percent in 2010, up from 11.9 percent in 2000.

It behooves foundry executives, therefore, to learn to manage and motivate the zooming numbers of their Mexican, Central American, Puerto Rican, and Cuban workers if they are to improve productivity and maintain profitability in today’s cut throat markets now eroded by imports, especially those from China.

A study just released by the Bureau of the Census shows the most rapidly growing segment of the U.S. population is Hispanic. In 2002, there were 37.4 million Hispanics in the civilian population, representing 13.3 percent of all people living in the U.S. (See Table III). This percentage will increase substantially in coming years.

Dealing successfully with Hispanic newcomers means more than just using a bi-lingual foreman as an interpreter in the melt shop, core room, or on the pouring floor. Motivating Hispanics means understanding their cultural traditions, and honoring them in workplace practices. Doing this generates peak productivity, now essential in competitive casting markets dominated by cost-cutting customers and Pacific Rim imports.

California Example

A new manager from Indiana was hired by a troubled California gray iron foundry making automotive components. It had a large contingent of Mexican workers and a poor record of productivity and quality. Full of vim, vigor, and a burning desire to prove himself, this new manager decided to improve the situation by getting “closer” to the mostly Spanish-speaking work force.

Doffing coat and tie, he dressed in jeans and sport shirt. Asking his Hispanic supervisors and employees to call him by his first name, he toured the foundry with a translator, looking for ways to “help” workers while correcting their errors. He felt he was “establishing good relations” by simultaneously pushing hard for fewer rejects and better productivity while reducing the visible economic and status gap between him and his workers. Despite his “corrective” tactics and casual approach in dress and conduct, foundry performance continued downhill.

Management Oversight. Why?

Because he did not understand the mindset of his Hispanic workers. Like many Americans, he was unaware that managing employees with Hispanic backgrounds, cultures, and psychologies is different than managing an Anglo workforce.

Hispanic employees considered this new foundry manager uncultured and boorish. He did not know that Hispanics expect the “boss” stereotype to be reflected in appearance, i.e., the higher the status or importance of the job, the more formal the attire should be.

The poor performance was not caused because the casually dressed manager insisted on improving quality and productivity; but because he cursed, “dissing” his heavily Mexican workforce when the inevitable production problems occurred. The Mexicans (few legal, and most new to America) wanted him to be proper, aloof, reserved, and very formal. Shouts and foul epithets in Mexico are reserved for barnyard animals. Any manager or foreman who yells at or curses his Hispanic workers will earn disdain, not cooperation, for his efforts. The quality of the foundry’s castings went downhill, while customer complaints climbed.

Location and Employment

In 2002, there were 37.4 million Hispanics in the United States — 13.3 percent of the total population (see Chart II). The very great majority are in metropolitan areas, especially inner cities. The relatively few rural Hispanics are heavily employed in the food industry, i.e., poultry processors in the South, and beef and pork slaughterers in the Midwest and West.

Some 22.1 percent of Hispanics work in service occupations, and 20.8 percent are employed throughout industry (see Table I). The percentage of Hispanics in the overall workforce is growing faster than any other group (see Table III). About 24 percent of American manufacturing employees are Hispanic, up from 12 percent in 1984. In some foundries the percentage runs over 90 percent, particularly in California, the New York City area, parts of Texas, and the industrial areas of Northern Illinois and the Rust Belt. In the California foundry, 93 percent of the workers were Hispanic.


It should be no shock that a large and growing number of the Hispanics living here are undocumented. (See Chart I). According to Univ. of Pennsylvania sociologist Douglas Massey, 3.5 million “indocumentados” entered the U.S. last year, compared to about 2.5 million a year for most of the 90s. This influx, according to UCLA sociologist Liza Catanzarite, has decreased wage levels in a wide range of blue collar occupations in America’s cities.

“It all comes down to the marginal status of immigrant Latinos,” she said. “Immigrant workers are willing to work for less money and are less likely to defend their rights in the workplace, which drag down wages of all workers in the industry.” As a result, the percentage of Hispanics living below the poverty line is much greater than non-Hispanic whites.

During the 2001 recession and the subsequent so-called jobless recovery, most of the net drop in U.S. employment was borne by native born Americans, whose work was absorbed by low cost immigrants, according to a February 2003 study of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, Boston.

Signs of Poor Management

Whatever their origin, pay level, or citizenship, Hispanics can be well managed and treated in a way that motivates them to do their best. Hispanic inability to communicate well in English does not mean they cannot contribute strongly to higher productivity and quality, nor does it mean they have no ideas about how to improve operations, from core room to finishing. Well managed Hispanics perform as well as, if not better, than their Anglo counterparts

The typical American misunderstanding exhibited by the California foundry manager for the customs and psychology of foreign-born workers resulted in alienation, sinking internal performance, and a meager bottom line. The foundry manager attempted to “solve” his problems by hiring more Anglos for his lower level jobs. He found few Anglos willing to take on the arduous work or pay scales that Hispanics gladly accepted.

Cultural Differences Based on Background

To gain the best efforts of an Hispanic work force, foundry managers must jettison the notion that Hispanics are like other workers, except they speak Spanish. Hispanics, in general, have a psychology and culture that differ from traditional American ones.

Hispanics, especially Mexican, are raised with emphasis on knowing one’s place, hard work, and self-abnegation. They believe that, because God put man on Earth, any station in life, be it a grinder in finishing or president, is worthy of similar respect. Bordering on the religious concept of predestination, this Hispanic attitude is reflected by polite speech, courtesy, and an acknowledgment that every worker has an important role. People are identified by class and roles, and Hispanics expect them to act in accordance with those roles. A casually dressed foundry manager is regarded as “lacking respect.”

Women have a special place in Hispanic culture. In Mexico, Mother’s Day is a national holiday. Here in the U.S., Hispanic women expect to be regarded and respected equally to the way they were South of the Border. A wise foundry manager will arrange a minor celebration of Mother’s Day in the core room, complete with small corsages, kind words, and perhaps a special lunch.

Time and Nature

Hispanic workers’ conception of time and punctuality is based on nature, and is far different from the Anglo view. Many Mexicans in this California foundry were former campesinos, rurals accustomed to rising and going to bed with the sun. (This is true of many other Hispanics as well.) Punctuality needs to be learned, as well as the seriousness of absenteeism. It took great patience by supervisors in the California foundry to instill the importance of punctuality and good attendance in their Hispanic workers. Anglo supervisors needed special training in the proper terms and gestures of respect while training and educating their workers about management’s expectations.

Know-How, Courtesy, and Recognition

While Hispanics admire Americans for their know-how, their technology, and their energetic approach to the jobs, they feel that Anglos are all business and lack the human sentiments they value. Hispanics like a smile, or a daily “buenos dias.” They expect courtesy during training, and correction of mistakes rather than criticism. The impact of training on Hispanic employees can be greatly increased by emphasizing its ceremonial aspects.

Recognition is very important, and this is more of a human need than a special ethnic one. Managers should make special efforts to invite workers to training classes with required attendance for “graduation.” Diplomas upon course completion, graduation ceremonies, and displays of graduation photos in the lunchroom are appreciated. All give workers the respect they believe they deserve. Recognition is one key to good Hispanic employee relations; and it proved to be very effective at the California foundry.

Mexicans want supervisors to be like teachers and fathers, paternalistic and kindly, anxious to correct and guide, and possessing of an understanding of human frailty. Hispanics respond magnificently when the actions of American managers and supervisors demonstrate real interest and respect. Hispanics place great emphasis on the need to recognize the “place” of the employee, to use certain phrases and formulas of “respect” when correcting, say, a molding line operator, and to avoid any show of undue familiarity with Hispanic female employees.

In the California foundry, a list of common workplace English phrases was given to the Hispanic workers, who appreciated and learned their use. (The ability to communicate with “elite” Americans was an important status symbol). At the same time, Anglo supervisors were provided common Spanish phrases, which they learned and used, drawing appreciative smiles (and better performance) from their workers.

Friendliness and smiles go far toward winning Hispanic loyalty and cooperation. Lack of Spanish fluency leads many American managers to rush through their foundries, avoiding contact with Hispanics. Facial expressions convey what language cannot.

Getting Quality and Cooperation

Most Mexicans believe American standards require perfection. It is helpful to show Hispanics that good quality is not absolute, and castings are good if, say, their Burnells are within a range. To do this, foundries can post charts and pictures showing acceptable product quality.

Most Mexican employees in American foundries are hard, uncomplaining workers, rarely given to filing grievances, or protesting working conditions. They are bewildered by the idea that a worker has a right to complain about a superior’s behavior. Telling Hispanics they can appeal a supervisor’s ruling to “up-stairs” goes against the grain. A disrespectful challenge to supervisory authority, this is something almost no Hispanic would do. They don’t join unions or strike unless ignored, treated as adjuncts to the melt, or gravely provoked by having their dignity violated.

Identifying Irritants Helpful

Periodic employee audits by outside experts quickly identify worker concerns and highlight their ideas for better productivity and quality. This requires face-to- face interviews with Hispanic workers, often turning up many irritants of which neither foundry managers nor Spanish-speaking supervisors are aware. For example, a rough floor can cause core baskets to fall from forklifts; poor work scheduling can lead to pile-ups in finishing; and overlooked maintenance can defeat any sand recovery system. Most important, abusive foremen can be identified and their behavior corrected.

Audits also defuse unionization attempts of Hispanic workers, or avert strikes in unionized foundries. Audits by outside consultants invariably highlight many helpful suggestions for morale and operational improvement. Hispanics rarely reveal such ideas to company executives or interviewers for fear of reprisals.

After such a two-way communications system is started by an outside expert, Hispanic employees learn their ideas are welcomed. Then, the company HR department can be trained to take over the audit function.

For foundry managers making these efforts to understand Hispanic culture and outlook, trying to improve communications, and institute special training procedures, the payoff can be very great: higher morale and productivity, less waste and spoilage, lower labor costs, greater profitability - and perhaps even survival.

Isn’t it Time You Made an Effort?

Further details on the subject can be found in the following studies: “Mexican Workers North of the Border,” Harvard Business Review, Jan.-Feb. 1987; and “Spanish-Speaking Employees in American Industry,” Indiana University’s Business Horizons, Jan.- Feb. 1984, and “Improve Your Profitability Pattern,” Foundry Management & Technology, Sept. 2002. Complimentary copies are available on request to Dr. Imberman, President, Imberman and Forest, 1740 Ridge Av., Evanston, IL 60201; [email protected], www. Imbdef. For more demographic details, see Monthly Labor Review, November 2001, Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Dept. of Labor and varius studies made by Population Branch, Population Division, Bureau of the Census, US Dept. of Commerce.

About the Author

Woodruff Imberman | Ph.D.

Dr. Imberman is the president of Imberman and DeForest Inc., management consultants specializing in improving managerial effectiveness, supervisory efficiency, and employee productivity through management and supervisory training, workforce audits, Gainsharing Plans, and other pay-for-performance programs. He has written numerous articles on these subjects.