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How to Manage Foreign-Born Hispanic Workers to Achieve Better Productivity

Feb. 18, 2010
Foundries trying to conserve cash because of shaky business conditions often forget that the easiest way to do so is to improve the productivity of employees.

Hunkered-down job shop foundries trying to conserve cash because of shaky business conditions often forget that the easiest way to do so is to improve the productivity of employees — a growing percentage of whom are foreign-born Hispanics. Bureau of Labor Statistics employment figures show about 15% of metalcasting industry workers nationwide are Latino. In much of the country, many foundries have workforces that are almost 100% Hispanic, of whom two-thirds are from Mexico.

Increasing the productivity of Latino employees works best when managers have some understanding of Latino culture. Plant productivity often suffers because foreign-born Latino employees are not accustomed to how U.S. managers communicate, and U.S. managers are unaware of the cultural dimensions of managing an ethnically diverse workforce.

Some forward-looking executives ask specialists for intensive programs to educate managers in ways to overcome the cultural and linguistic barriers that hinder productivity. Others rely on daylong workshops to educate managers about how information about cultural differences can improve workforce efforts and results.
There are four critical areas where Hispanic employees’ culture — behavior and attitudes — tends to differ from that of Anglo-Americans. Recognizing these cultural distinctions can greatly improve workforce efficiency.

Unless management makes an effort to bridge the language gap, Hispanic workers cannot fully contribute ideas and work in sync with the rest of the team. The plant manager of a western Illinois gray iron foundry with a 60% Hispanic workforce, complained:

My supervisors don’t even try to communicate with the Spanish-speaking workforce. They do things and say things differently, and they need to adjust to us — they’re here now. The personnel clerk hasn’t got time to come out on the floor to translate all the time.

This outlook is quite common, but it’s shortsighted, and it contributes to high reject rates and decreased efficiency. If no one has time to translate, production questions become a best-guess scenario. When workers guess wrong, internal scrap rises, and a foundry loses money. Some simple strategies can help bridge this language gap: Allow workers to translate for each other—identify bilinguals and rely on them. Make sure there’s a bilingual clerk at workforce meetings to translate for insurance and pay questions. Identify a few key employees to be responsible for reports and records, and teach them the basic English necessary to do these jobs. Finally, promote and train a few bilingual foremen.

No shouting
Traditionally, courtesy and respect grease the wheels of social relations in Latino cultures. In a southern Georgia foundry, the plant manager contended, “It’s normal for managers and supervisors around here to lose their tempers when things go wrong — they do yell a lot, and sometimes curse.”

Although employees of all backgrounds want courteous treatment, Mexicans and Central Americans are particularly offended by disrespect. After a surprise plant walkout, the plant manager discovered too late that yelling at foreign-born Latino workers not only de-motivates such employees; they may also use such treatment to justify poor job performance.

Supervisory styles
Latino cultures tend to be authoritarian. So, while foreign-born Hispanics often accept supervisory authority without question, they also are more sensitive to its abuse. Hard-core foremen don’t realize that Hispanic workers (as many others) will balk at cooperating with production goals when they perceive supervisory favoritism and unfairness.
An Illinois foundry plant manager asked, “How can I uncover and correct poor treatment of my employees when they can’t communicate in English?” He learned from a consulting specialist that the most efficient approach is simply for every supervisor and leadman – including bilinguals – to receive brief but structured training on how to recognize and combat favoritism and unfair treatment.

Manners, problem solving, and uncovering production problems
An Austin, Texas foundry plant manager thought production problems were taken care of because his foremen didn’t bring up any complaints by workers. He said:
I didn’t realize that Hispanic workers generally don’t complain about mistreatment, work conditions or production needs. I learned that bringing problems or complaints to a supervisor or manager strikes foreign-born Latinos as bad manners.

Another reason foreign-born Hispanic employees are reluctant to complain about work conditions and production needs is because they figure that management already knows what’s needed and has decided against it. Other ways must be devised to uncover production problems, such as a “diagnostic audit.”

The best approach
An expert was brought in to an Ohio aluminum foundry to conduct a short-term diagnostic audit — face-to-face interviews with the employees. The audit turned up many production glitches that neither the plant manager nor even the Spanish-speaking foremen knew about. This demonstrates that employees almost invariably will speak more openly to an outsider than to any member of management, for fear of retribution. The audit, for example, revealed that plugged nozzles created continuous parting spray problems and proximity-switch failures on the molding line, both of which hurt production. Employees believed supervisors knew all about these problems, but just “didn’t care” — an unfortunate, but common, workforce misconception.

Diagnostic audits strengthen communication with Hispanic employees. Further, an audit by a consultant aimed at uncovering production and quality problems always turns up good suggestions for improving operations — and saving money. Foreign-born Hispanic employees seldom disclose their concerns to managers for fear of reprisals. But, after employees observe that there is nothing to fear and they overcome their reticence, a company manager can be trained to take over the audit function.

For plant managers who make efforts to be informed about Hispanic culture and outlook, the payoff is great: higher productivity, lower labor costs, higher product quality and on-time shipments, less absenteeism, and higher employee morale. In the end, listening to employees and using their input saves cash, and builds the bottom line.

Mariah de Forest is Vice President of Imberman and DeForest Inc., a managerial consulting group. Contact her at [email protected], or 847-733-0071, for more information and reports on managerial techniques.