Learning the culture

Most construction company owners and managers have figured out they can’t act like drill sergeants and expect to retain good employees. The rough-and-tumble ways of the past don’t attract or retain skilled craftspeople in a full employment economy.

But today, Hispanic immigrants comprise 18 percent of the construction workforce, according to Iowa State University’s Center for Transportation Research and Education. That presents a whole new range of communication and management issues for Anglo supervisors. The biggest issue is safety, but good communication also brings more efficient and productive work sites as well. The manager who understands and respects the characteristics of his Hispanic work force is going to run a safer jobsite, get the best work out of his employees and retain their loyalty for years to come.

We asked Hector Escarcega, president of Los Angeles-based Bilingual Solutions, to clue us in on what might constitute a best practices program for construction managers who want to more effectively work with their Latino employees. Escarcega is a certified safety professional with a master’s degree in industrial hygiene and is a regular participant in U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and safety industry workshops. His company provides training and programs to help bridge the cultural gaps in the workplace between Anglos and Hispanics at all levels – everything from top executives to blue-collar workers. Here’s what he had to say.

Communicate without speaking Spanish
First and foremost, don’t let your lack of Spanish-language skills stop you from communicating. “We have a program for managers called ‘You don’t have to speak Spanish to communicate with your Spanish-speaking workforce’,” Escarcega says. “I coach them to go up to an employee, smile, call him by his first name, give him the thumbs-up and say he’s doing a good job,” Escarcega says. “Even though you may communicate that in English, more than 90 percent of our communication is in body language, not words. That Spanish-speaking employee will have understood that you mean well and he’s doing well.”

The next step, Escarcega says, is to try a little Spanish. “You don’t have to be fluent. I would teach you to say something simple like ‘Buenos dias, Juan.’ Now you’re starting to communicate. Your proficiency matters less than the fact that you’re reaching out.”

Spanish speakers and English
It’s often the case that construction supervisors will choose a Latino worker who can speak both languages and use that person as a liaison or to translate instructions to the crew members who speak only Spanish. And while this is better than no translation at all, Escarcega urges contractors not to let such an arrangement serve as the only communication strategy.

It’s too easy for the supervisor to assume his instructions are going to be translated perfectly, says Escarcega. Miscommunication is always a possibility with any translation and having an English speaking Latino crew member does not relieve the supervisor of his responsility to monitor his crews to make sure his instructions are carried out – especially when safety is a concern. Another downside to having just one crewmember who is bilingual is what happens when that person takes a day of vacation or emergency leave, or departs for another job. All of a sudden your crew can’t function.

Translating safety issues
Most Americans take a certain amount of pride in being independent, rugged individualists. They’re often quick to complain or to point out a safety problem, especially in construction. In contrast, the Hispanic immigrant worker is going to be quiet, listen and do only what they’re told, Escarcega says.

Part of this is cultural. You just don’t challenge, question or even banter jokingly with the boss in Latin-American countries. And part of it is situational – job security is top of mind with most immigrants. If they are here on a work visa and the work ends, so does their ability to legally reside here. And even for immigrants with valid green cards there is a widespread concern that any change of status is liable to bring out dreaded bureaucratic entanglements of la migra, the immigration authorities.

For Latino immigrants to reach out to someone who speaks English is a fairly scary proposition, Escarcega says. If you as the Anglo supervisor don’t take the first step, if you don’t make an effort to open up the lines of communication, you’re never going to hear about any safety hazards they see. Confronting a problem is equal to challenging the authority of the boss.

Then there is machismo. “They’re men; they need to demonstrate that they know how to do things,” Escarcega says. “They think if they ask questions it’s a sign of being dumb or weak. If they see a dangerous situation, they’re just going to work through it. They just want to please the boss and get the job done.”

Latin-American countries, for the most part, don’t have anything like OSHA’s enforcement and compliance, Escarcega says. They don’t expect to use a hard hat, steel-toed boots or safety glasses or even gloves. And when they’re given safety gear here, they’re often surprised.

Along with opening up the lines of communication, the key to overcoming this challenge is to make safety part of how you do the job. “You don’t separate safety from procedures,” Escarcega says. “The day they come to work for you, tell them, ‘If you want the job this is what you must do. This is how the job is done and this is the equipment you have to use to do it.'”

Feedback and long-term relationships
Once you have a handle on the safety issues and have begun to break through some of the communication and language barriers, you may want to look for ways to develop a more productive relationship with your Hispanic immigrant work force. At the end of the day, it’s easy for the Anglos to go one way and the Hispanics another. Informal tailgate talks and other jobsite get-togethers with your Hispanic work force can go a long way toward improving processes and working smarter.

Bear in mind that you as the supervisor need to take the lead in building these relationships, to roll up your sleeves and rub elbows with your workers to develop their trust and loyalty, Escarcega says.

If you’re not quite sure where things stand, Escarcega says, you may want to start this process with a consultant specializing in Hispanic work force issues to facilitate the first few sessions.

“Once the Latino workers are given the opportunity to participate, to become part of the team, they’ll be very creative,” he says. “Share your goals and ask them ‘What do you think we should do?”

Then they’ll step up to the plate. But you have to teach them the rules and the ways of getting there.”

The family, social activities and holidays
Another way to forge closer ties with the Latino immigrants who work for you is to be aware of the importance of holidays and social events. Family bonds and extended families are important in Mexico and the rest of Latin America. That doesn’t change when they cross into our country. Christmas and New Year’s festivities are big events for Latino families, as is December 12. That’s the day dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Next to Christmas, it’s the most important holiday in Latin America. Being aware of this and even offering it as an optional holiday will earn you a great deal of respect and loyalty.

Company picnics and other similar social gatherings can also be important events. Food plays a big role in these activities, and Escarcega says it helps to know the difference between things like Mexican- and Guatemalan-style tamales. (Presumably, if you’re communicating well enough with these workers, you’re going to know what country they’re from.) When you invite Latino workers to bring their families keep in mind that can mean a lot of people – cousins, aunts, uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers. Accepting these extended families shows respect and understanding on your part. And be sure if you are invited to one of their parties to acknowledge that invitation and attend, even if it only means a brief appearance.

“If you’ve done a good job as an Anglo supervisor to break down that communication barrier to the point where they’re inviting you, basically what they’re saying is that you’re family. It’s a big deal to them,” Escarcega says.

Effective bilingual training: A best practices approach
What’s the best way to train and convey safety information if you have a crew of Spanish-speaking Hispanic workers and English-speaking Anglo supervisors?

That’s the question the Iowa State University Center for Transportation Research and Education set out to answer 18 months ago. Its report, “Identifying and Implementing Effective Training for Hispanic Craft Workers, American Supervisors, and DOT Inspectors,” published in June turned up some surprising results. Perhaps the most important practice the report recommended was that you should train English-speaking supervisors and Hispanic workers at the same time using what it calls an “integration approach.”

In this approach the information is delivered by individuals who are fluent in both languages and knowledgeable about both cultures. Putting the two groups together helps break the ice, builds trust and opens communication between the groups. The integrated approach also relates to the crew’s real world experience with face to face encounters. This, says the report, is much easier for everyone to remember than presenting the crews with written materials which might be skimmed, ignored or misunderstood by illiterate workers or workers who don’t read well.

Not surprising, the surveys also found that winter was the best time to receive training, Monday is the best day of the week, mornings are the best time, and the preferred duration is two hours per event. For more information, you can access the report online by going to this site.