Bridging the culture gap

Today's green industry workforce looks much different than it did 10 years ago. I think it's safe to say it will look even more diverse 10 years from now. Almost all individuals who are involved in either the green industry or the construction industry are utilizing Hispanic workers or have plans to hire Hispanic workers. Mexican workers comprise the majority of the Hispanic workforce in the United States.

I receive calls on a weekly basis from owners or foremen either complaining or wondering about certain behaviors or actions observed of their Hispanic workers. I don't profess to be a “know it all” Mexican psychologist or sociologist. However, I have worked with Mexican workers for many years; I am married to a Mexican-American; and I have embraced Mexican traditions. Further, I have worked with Mexicans in Mexico from the lowest to the highest economic level. My experiences may be helpful to others who are trying to bridge the “culture gap.”

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Why is it important to understand Mexican culture? I believe that understanding a different culture can help you make sense of various actions and responses. By relating better to your workforce, you, as the employer, can make better decisions.

Listed below are 10 common stumbling blocks employers encounter when working with Mexican laborers and some suggestions, or at least insight, to help solve these problems:

  1. The interview

    You hire a Mexican worker. As you are interviewing him or her, you notice they do not look you in the eye. You become suspicious that they are not telling the truth.

    Answer: A common myth among people in the United States is that this is customary in Mexico and that most Mexican workers do not look their supervisors in the eye out of respect. However, this action is really an environmental response. The greatest percentage of migrant workers in the United States are considered “Camposinos.” This term is used in Mexico to describe workers or individuals who have grown up in rural areas. Camposinos, or country workers, usually have the least amount of education and life experiences. In fact, some of these individuals' contact may have been almost entirely limited to family members. The lack of eye contact can be explained due to simple shyness or lack of confidence. As your relationship grows with each worker, you will notice eye contact to begin to increase as each worker's confidence and trust grow with their supervisor.

  2. The restroom

    While visiting your company restroom, you notice soiled toilet paper scattered or piled around the commode.

    Answer: This is definitely a cultural difference. In Mexico, most bathrooms provide a small wastebasket with a plastic liner next to the commode. Why? In Mexico and other Latin American countries, the sewer or waste pipes leading from the building are usually small in diameter compared with U.S standards. In addition, the water pressure or volume generated is also less and toilets are much more prone to clogging. Individuals are taught at an early age to dispose their toilet tissue into the basket provided. Companies can either provide wastebaskets or show workers that their toilets have plenty of horsepower to flush anything away!

  3. Broken equipment

    You send the workers out with equipment and they return at the end of the day. The following morning, you notice that one piece of equipment has been damaged or is not working. No one notified you of equipment being damaged or not working properly. You are quite agitated because now the equipment must be taken out of service and worked on when this could've been done the day before.

    Answer: This has nothing to do with culture. First of all, landscape equipment is pretty foreign to most Mexican workers. The Camposino feels he or she may be blamed for doing something wrong if a particular piece of equipment is not working properly. This problem may take awhile to fix, but continual training and encouragement will resolve it. You may notice that workers who have come from higher economic backgrounds in Mexico will not exhibit these same responses.

  4. Medical treatment

    You have a dependable worker who has suddenly and unexpectedly not shown up for work. Upon speaking with other workers, you find that this person has returned to Mexico because of a health problem. As an employer, you are furious because you were not notified. You would have been more than happy to provide medical aid for your valuable employee.

    Answer: This problem is a little more complex than some, but it is a common occurrence. There are two main reasons for the worker to want to return to Mexico. First, many times, the Camposino has only had access to one doctor his entire life. In fact, that same doctor probably delivered that person at birth. The thing you must realize is that in rural Mexico, relationships are the most important aspects in everyday life. The patient/doctor relationship is an extremely important bond in rural Mexico. Allowing a different doctor to treat their particular illness or affliction is in direct conflict with Mexican culture. According to a series of manuals published by the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, Hispanic families traditionally emphasize interdependence over independence. In other words, when a family member is injured or ill, he or she is normally expected to consult with other family members and, therefore, more likely to play a part in the decision making of the treatment of the patient. In rural Mexico, a trip to the doctor means more than just the patient in the treatment room…sometimes the extended family as well. If a worker is treated for an illness in the United States, this act alone may be perceived as a shunning of their culture and potentially puts the worker at conflict with his or her family.

    The second reason is the language barrier. If the worker does not speak or understand English, this alone may cause the worker to seek medical treatment in Mexico rather than in the United States.

  5. Work cooperation

    You inform one worker to perform a task that only requires one worker. You find out later that the one worker picked another worker off the crew to help him complete the task.

    Answer: I'm not sure where this action originates, but I can tell you in my travels in Mexico, I see this all across the country. I always called it the “two-side effect.” Working in cooperation with another worker is more desirable than competing against another. This is just the social make-up of the society. In the United States (at least in my generation), we were taught at an early age to strive to be the best. Individual excellence is rewarded.

    Mexico is the complete opposite. Group excellence is rewarded. For example, the school system in Mexico from elementary to college emphasizes cooperation and interdependence as a group. The class will work together on a project. Individuals who shun working with the group are ostracized and are not rewarded for their efforts. Everything revolves around working as a team. If the team has an individual who is lagging behind, the group will stay behind to pick this person up and not leave him behind. Further, failure as a group is more acceptable versus individual failure.

    How do you change the two-side effect? Constant teaching and reminders. You will not change it overnight. When workers feel more confident and trust in their employers, the Mexican worker will want to win his employer's praise.

  6. Promotions

    You have a number of Mexican immigrants you would like to promote to a higher position, perhaps to foreman. When you approach the individual, they decline immediately. You don't understand why, because you are offering an increase in salary.

    Answer: This is another complex problem, and does not relate to all Mexican workers. Again, the U.S. employer must realize that the majority of Mexican immigrants who have made their way to the United States represent the lower end of the Mexican socioeconomic system. This problem can be traced back to the social hierarchy. Often, a worker will not assume greater responsibility and authority because it will risk his relationship with the group.

    This is a common problem when a company has a workforce that is made up of all relatives. If you bring in a Mexican worker who is not related to become a foreman or supervisor, he may be rejected and the clan will do everything in their power to discredit the new foreman. U.S. employers have to be especially aware of these dynamics! As I stated in the beginning, this is a complex problem and many issues must be considered. Often the leader of a group may not be the brightest or most experienced individual, rather the toughest one — the enforcer in the group who can keep everyone in line. This type of leader can be an effective foreman; however, you risk losing opinion and consensus of the group.

    Often, a company will select a young foreman who speaks English well, but have a number of immigrant workers who are much older. You may think your young foreman is towing the line, but in reality, often the eldest worker who has the most respect is, in effect, the foreman. I see this often in many green industry and construction work groups. The young foreman is forced to take the title because he is the only one who can translate. He has to walk a thin line not to appear he is working as an individual or disrespecting his elders.

  7. Alcohol

    You have Mexican workers who do excellent work but almost every other week, and sometimes more often, they drink too much and either don't come in to work or they do come to work and you must send them home.

    Answer: As with any other group, you will find that some Mexican immigrants abuse alcohol. The first step is to show genuine concern over the employee's long-term health. This may be a tough problem to tackle as it can be considered “macho” to consume large amounts of alcohol. Some companies maintain a zero-tolerance attitude to curb any potential problem. From a safety and liability standpoint, companies have to remain firm. On the other hand, it is sometimes helpful to acknowledge that alcohol abuse is a sickness and sometimes help is needed.

  8. All in the family

    You have a Mexican crew that is primarily one extended family. Everyone is related to one another in some way, whether by blood relation or marriage. Whenever you hire a new worker who is not related to this family, the new worker gets run out of town!

    Answer: This is one of the biggest dangers in hiring all family members. When you have a problem with one worker, you may really have a problem with the entire group. However, in my opinion, this is not a Mexican cultural problem. You would have the same problem if you hired an all-Caucasian family for your workforce. Whenever you hire all family, you will have problems. Problems from home come to work with the workers and vice versa. I recommend making sure your workforce is diverse and not all related. Often, when you hire a new worker who is not related to the other workers, he will be asked to slow his work down to make sure the others are not made to look bad. Again, this is not a Mexican cultural problem, it's a management problem. Family workforces can pretty much dictate how your business is run, how productive it is and even how profitable it can be. Be careful when you hire an entire family. Your problems may be only beginning!

  9. On strike

    Whenever the Mexican crew has a disagreement with management, they organize a sit down strike until things are resolved.

    Answer: Ever heard the old saying “all for one and one for all”? This is common in Mexico. In fact, sit-downs are popular with college students as well as groups dissenting with rule of law in Mexico. The thing you should determine is if the entire group feels the same way about something. Often, only a few people have a gripe with management but are able to convince the entire group to go along. You definitely need to know your employees. A good foreman will sniff out potential problems before it comes to a sit-down. Merely dismissing the group's claims will only cause more grief in the future. You do need to listen to their objections and come to an agreeable solution. Often, many of these situations are a result of poor communication and misunderstandings.

  10. Mixing it up

    You have a crew consisting of different nationalities and they don't seem to get along. You assumed that if they were all Hispanic there should not be any problems.

Answer: You need to be very aware of the types of groups you place together. Rule number one: Try to keep Mexicans and Puerto Ricans away from each other. I have no scientific evidence to back my opinion other than 15 years experience. Also, workers from Argentina and workers from Mexico seem to have some bad blood between them. Why? I have no clue. Perhaps a bad call during a World Cup match? Again, this is just based on my personal experience.

I realize this only scrapes the surface. It is important to acknowledge the differences between our two cultures. Hispanic labor is not a passing fad, so we should learn to deal with it positively in the future. Beginning to understand our differences and attempting to gain a better insight to different backgrounds will invariably allow us to make better decisions as employers.

Jeffrey West is managing partner of GTO International (Pinckney, Mich.), which specializes in processing and recruiting green industry workers through H-2B and H-1B visa programs. www.gtoint.com; 810-797-4422.

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