Hiring across borders

Green-industry businesses are discovering the benefits of hiring immigrant Hispanic employees. But what challenges should your business be prepared for?

"They are just good guys, hard-working, not a bad apple in the bunch."

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Michael Kerton, president of Landscape Concepts, hired 75 Hispanic workers on a temporary basis this year. When the labor market grew tight for his company a few years ago, he decided to look for his workers outside the United States. He began participating in the H-2B program, which allows Hispanic workers to come into the country for temporary jobs when there is a shortage of U.S. workers.

With unemployment remaining low in the United States, some green-industry companies are turning to the Hispanic labor force. However, a new labor force presents a new set of challenges. Managers not only have to deal with more paperwork for an immigrant workforce, but also a different culture. Different languages and backgrounds can lead to communication gaps between managers and employees. Learning about the Hispanic culture and the immigration hiring process can help make the workforce more productive for managers and employees.

Bridging the language gap "My class is similar to the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. The Hispanic culture is great. The U.S. culture is great. But problems may arise when the two groups interact together."

Jennifer Thomas, a Spanish language and leadership consultant, recognized the need in the green industry for Hispanic culture/language classes. She teaches 2-day classes for businesses with Hispanic workers. The first day focuses on teaching American employees the basics of the Spanish language and the culture. The second day, Hispanic workers learn the English language and American culture.

"Lack of communication can really hit the owner's profits," says Thomas. "It can lead to time wasted, mistakes and a lot of rework. For example, one employer said he sent someone to prune the shrubs, and the workers misunderstood and spent seven hours pruning the trees."

The first morning, the American employees are taught Spanish skills. The class differs from a general college Spanish class in that the lesson focuses on specific industry terminology, such as "plant," "prune," "dig" and "oil." They learn to assign tasks, follow-up, correct and praise employees. Thomas says the students don't need to learn perfect grammar to get their point across. Therefore, they spend their class time learning words that would be used on the job, rather than learning how to conjugate verbs.

While having one bilingual employee on staff can help bridge the gap, Thomas suggests that several employees should be familiar with the language. "Bilingual employees tend to get overworked because they are constantly translating. It's better to have a few people that take the class and learn the skills rather than just one."

Different cultural worlds During the second half of the first class, the American employees learn about the Spanish culture. They are taught how to manage a diverse crew with different perceptions. For instance, they learn how the Hispanic employees view authority differently.

"The Americans tend to `tell it like it is,' while the Hispanic culture is more sensitive," says Thomas. "Americans may take constructive criticism, but the Hispanics may see it as more of an insult."

Thomas says Hispanics may also seem to lack initiative, when they are really just showing respect to authority. "We live in a society of equality, and they are used to one of hierarchy. Employers often complain that they are not taking initiative, while the Hispanics believe they should wait for specific instructions from their employer."

On the second day, Hispanic employees get the opportunity to learn about our culture. They take an English class in the morning. Then in the afternoon, they learn about the American culture and how to better understand their supervisors. "They learn why their supervisor does the things he does, and that he's really not `loco.'"

According to Thomas, most employers in the classes say the Hispanic labor force is extremely hard working and has a good work ethic. However, with different cultural backgrounds, many Hispanics lack the training to advance to higher positions such as crew leaders. Employers can help make the workplace more productive by helping these employees learn to communicate more effectively with their co-workers so they can use their skills in leadership roles.

The hiring process Of course, any training or classes you provide may be wasted if you don't have the correct paperwork. You may lose your employees, and the time and money invested to train them. Before you hire immigrant employees, you should make sure you have all the necessary documentation.

First, ask the potential employee for a driver's license, social security card, resident alien card and a worker's authorization card, says Jeff West, vice president of GTO International, a labor-contracting company. Even if the social security card looks genuine, you may want to verify it. The Department of Labor reports that as much as 50 percent of the immigrant workforce has entered illegally. West says you can easily check up to five names by calling the social security verification center at 1-800-772-6270.

Employers can usually be protected legally if they hire an illegal alien unknowingly. Employers are required by law to fill out form I-9 for any prospective immigrant applications. The form says it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an individual that presents the necessary identification. Therefore, you may not be held liable if the documentation looks genuine. However, West says different cases depend on the immigration officer who is investigating.

If you do hire an illegal alien, you may not be legally responsible, but you will lose your employee at some point. West says that within 3 years or less, the IRS will likely contact you to tell you that the social security number is fraudulent, and you will be forced to terminate that employee unless they provide a valid card. All the time spent in training that employee would then be wasted. If several fraudulent social-security numbers are discovered, immigration may visit your business. Therefore, verifying any documentation may be worth your while.

If you are interested in hiring seasonal or temporary labor, the H-2B visa is required. According to the U.S. Embassy in London, the employer is required to get a labor certification from the Department of Labor to confirm that no qualified U.S. workers are eligible for the employment. Then, the employer must file a petition with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Center. According to West, the employee must provide a current passport with a work authorization stapled inside.

While there are many obstacles to hiring outside labor, you may not only gain a more productive workforce, but a new understanding of a different culture. Michael Kerton from Landscape Concepts has nothing but positive things to say about the workers he's brought on with the H-2B visa. And while they'll only be working with him for 9 months, he's planning on having them back next year.

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