How to communicate with a multicultural workforce for a safer, more productive environment.
By Tim Roorda
Tim Roorda is the director of cross-cultural training for Zerah Services in Denver.
When we say the word “productivity,” we are talking about a specific and measurable business performance marker. Economists boil productivity down to a big-headed, mathematical equation that compares output to capital resources. Among them are technology (T) and labor (L).
All this really means, though, is real results should be compared to resources employed. Consider the equation: technology (T) contributes to productivity in the form of better tools, better equipment and better capabilities. For example, cell phones and other mobile communications devices offer immediate, convenient and effective exchange of information, which has significantly strengthened those business cultures that have leveraged mobile communications. The growth of these devices in corporate America shows that business leaders have bought into the better relationship between results (Gross Income) and resources (Total Costs) brought about by that technology lever.
However, the T is only one aspect of productivity. What about the L factor? What is your company doing to strengthen the L lever? This is an especially difficult question given the current workforce, especially in the precast concrete industry. Many owners are faced with a cross-cultural L, where workers come from a foreign place and often speak little or no English. Certainly these workers offer muscle but there is much more to it than that.
What makes up the L?
The L factor includes knowledge, skill, even attitude. Your training and development drive your L. And when you are dealing with a different culture, communication becomes murky not only because of language but also because these workers have dramatically different value systems and priorities. Moreover, how people learn is quite different in other cultures. So how do you train? How do you communicate expectations? How do you convey your company’s values and establish priorities that will improve productivity?
First, acknowledge reality. Differences exist; there is an “us” and “them” in your workspace. Once you acknowledge that some of your workers come from and operate from a foreign value system and mindset, learn about them. Ask questions and listen to the answers, not only from your own people but from people who have looked at specific differences between their culture and yours. Respect what you learn, meaning don’t condemn their ways just because you’re not familiar with them. Engage their value system to benefit productivity. This is an “us and them,” not an “us against them.”
What is culture?
The full-blown definition for “culture” takes too much time. Three short bullets best sum up what we mean by culture:
- The way things are done around here
- Set of rules – written and unwritten
- Common-sense behavior
People from the United States usually refer to themselves as Americans, which is the term to be used here (although it’s technically incorrect because people from all the other nations in North, Central and South America are Americans too). Let’s take a look at what an American business owner could culturally expect in times past. Workers who filled out an application:
- Had at least a high school education;
- Could speak, read and write some English;
- Would offer their opinions, especially if asked, even in group meetings.
With that common basis, training could be developed. Also, improvements in how things got done could be pursued more readily.
Let’s contrast times past with time present by taking a look at a culture group working here in America: Mexicans. The very sound, “Mexican,” may be difficult for our ears to swallow because of our own cultural biases. The term “Mexican” in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s was often a slur that preceded fisticuffs. As a kid growing up in Denver, calling a Hispanic person a Mexican just wasn’t the way things were done – there was an unwritten rule not to do that. However, people directly from Mexico currently provide a large part of the workforce and they are proud of being Mexican, as they should be. Calling them Mexican is respectful and recognizes at least the nation where they came from. You can even get more precise and find out which part of Mexico. Regions make a difference, just like being from Louisville, Ky., is different than being from Denver.
The above common basis for training and improvement shifts significantly with an applicant from over our southern border. That worker, most likely:
- Will not have a high school diploma – most have the equivalent of a 5th or 6th grade education in our school system;
- Will not speak, read or write English – some may not read proficiently in Spanish;
- Will be very reluctant to offer an opinion, even if asked.
At the same time, business owners have come to culturally expect certain qualities from people who have come from our neighbor nation to the south:
- Hard workers who show up on time
- Workers eager to learn and produce
- Workers who appreciate being employed
Explain the difference
For students of culture, there are many fascinating dynamics that make Americans unique. But for business purposes, let’s focus on a couple of hinge differences between cultures. Again, we compare ourselves with the people group directly to our south.
One hinge difference has to do with individualism versus collectivism. Americans are individualistic, in fact the most individualistic culture in the world. Mexicans are collective, meaning the good of the group for the group holds priority. A Mexican person is more likely to identify with and introduce himself or herself as part of a group – a family, for example. Initially, let’s not worry about what is good or bad about individualism and collectivism. Let’s look at how they play out in daily lives on the job site.
Individualism results in behaviors that recognize, among others:
- The individual is the agent of his or her destiny
- Each person is capable of earning/improving his or her condition
- After education, no one else will or should take responsibility for that person’s survival or progress
- Live to work; career first; “I did it my way”
Collectivism results in behaviors like:
- Prioritizing what is good for the group
- Acceptance of one’s place in the group – do not “stick out”
- Strict adherence to the hierarchical structure of an organization
- Work to live, meaning work hard but enjoy family first.
Comparing the two lists above reveals more precisely where differences exist. Another hinge to the door of seeing our differences is what we call “power distance.” That measures the likelihood for a worker to express personal opinions to a superior up the chain of command. An American usually has no problem in telling anyone, direct boss or co-worker, what needs to be done to improve things, especially if asked. Those from the culture in Mexico are very reluctant to express themselves, especially to a boss or someone from higher in the organization. The higher-ranking person has the responsibility to watch out for and bring about the changes necessary to improve things. To suggest improvement, even if asked, is to be insubordinate to the boss and impertinent to the group.
Understanding the gears that drive people and the differences above, a business owner can begin to explore the grinding sounds of a cross-cultural workforce.
Inevitably, problems arise from the differences. Some are just puzzling – shake your head, smile and walk on. Some are frustrating and can affect morale and teamwork. Some are maddening and can cause a potentially lethal breach in safety protocols.
Have you ever spent time explaining a task to a foreign worker (a “he” in this example) and the whole time he nods convincingly like he’s got it? The worker steps into the task and it quickly becomes obvious he has no clue what was just transmitted. Of course, this happens with English speakers but more often with Spanish speakers. Why doesn’t he just acknowledge that he doesn’t understand? Because you are the boss, there is power distance, and he probably thinks it would be disrespectful to give you a blank look or shake his head like he doesn’t understand. Besides, he wants to impress you with how quickly he can set to.
Solution: Communicate clearly that your priority is to give you a straight and honest answer to the question “Do you completely understand the task?” that you ask after explaining. You would rather know that he didn’t understand than for him to make a mistake. If he knows what you value more, he will respond to it, and the next time when you ask, “Do you understand the task?” you can watch his head go from nodding vertically to shaking horizontally and his eyes will relax into a more honest disposition. Then muster all your patience and take the time to show him what you want and how you want it done. From then on, he will know it’s OK to answer you accurately and he will not be punished or fired. If he continues to nod “Yes” when he doesn’t understand, warn him, document it, then, if you have to, dismiss him.
How about repeated messages about wearing PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)? Mexican workers often seem to ignore the importance of wearing all PPE at all times. This could be a potentially lethal problem with OSHA investigating, and no one wants either of those. Culturally, let’s look at Mexico where safety laws – although they exist – are, in many cases, not enforced. Moreover, the Mexican son sees his father going to work and not “needing” PPE. Besides, tying off slows one’s productivity. So culturally, a Mexican has not experienced the safety push that went through our work forces in the ’70s and ’80s.
Furthermore, many companies fail to convey a message that convinces a Mexican to prioritize safety. Our message, “Safety First,” becomes lost when someone reaches the 10th step in a procedure. It could be that a Mexican sees safety indoctrination and measures as just ways of saving the company money and that he has no personal interest in it.
Solution: Connect the safety message with the family. The worker must believe that the primary reason for working safely is so that he can return to his family, whole and healthy, at the end of the day. Of course, there are other ways to induce safety behavior, such as pay penalties for not wearing PPE or cash surprises for the proper wearing of PPE. However, the family reason reaches to a fundamental dynamic.
The disproportionate deaths of Hispanic workers is a hot button for OSHA. Although there has been an overall decline in construction workplace deaths since the early ’90s, the percentage of Spanish speakers killed on job sites remains much higher than acceptable.
Proper training of Spanish speakers, which connects safety to cultural dynamics that compel safe behavior, saves money. Those companies that have invested the time and money into developing safety programs for their cross-cultural workers have enjoyed improved Experience Modification Factors. In fact, returns on investment of more than 500 percent in the first year are not unusual.
To conclude, it makes cost sense to invest in your L. Investing means money, time and yourself as a business owner or manager.
Take the time to ask questions, listen and learn about your people. It’s a competitive advantage to know your workers and to train and develop them in culturally appropriate ways.
If you have workers from Mexico, here are a few tips to help you relate better with them.
Greetings are important. When you show up at the plant, don’t slink over to the foreman. Make a point of smiling and at least waving, acknowledging them as important to you. Better yet, go shake their hands.
Don’t worry if they don’t look directly at you while you speak. They are listening closely. It’s an “American” thing to look at people in the eye while they speak to show you are paying attention. In Mexico, making eye contact is a challenge or show of disrespect.
Come to understand the leadership structure among your foreign workers. If they are Mexican, they will have a system in place where their leader may or may not be your foreman or supervisor. One person, usually older, is generally regarded as the leader.
The cross-cultural work force is here to stay. It does not appear as if it is a transient phenomenon. Those companies that understand cultural dynamics and engage them will have a distinct competitive advantage and thrive. Those that ignore or resist the power of their workers – the L factor – will diminish. The equation says so.