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Culture clash? Managing diversity on the plant floor

In the U.S., Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority and are increasingly called upon to fill critical shop-floor jobs. Here, and elsewhere, in an increasingly globalized manufacturing environment, understanding cultural differences and similarities is an ever-more crucial aspect of doing business.

You don''t have to be a Mensa member or a mind reader of penetrating powers to realize that the surging wave of Hispanic immigrants is having a profound effect on American society in general, and on the plastics industry in particular. And whether managing a changing workforce in the U.S., a new relationship in China, or an expansion in Eastern Europe, appreciating different traditions and expectations, as well as common human needs, is a task increasingly high on the agendas of the industry''s successful players. (Also see "Eastbound processors face cultural, political, governmental hurdles," which addresses business realities in China: March 2004 MP/MPI)

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some 156,000 new jobs will be added in the plastics industry this decade, on top of the 744,000 employed in 2000. Many of these jobs will be filled by immigrants, mainly Hispanic, boosting the national average of Hispanic employment in the plastics industry to more than 19% in 2010, up from 16.8% in 2000.

A study just released by the Bureau of the Census shows that the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population is Hispanic. In 2002, there were 37.4 million Hispanics in the U.S., representing 13.3% of the population. About 24% of employees in American manufacturing are Hispanic, up from 12% in 1984. In some plants, Hispanic employees exceed 90%, particularly in California, the New York City area, parts of Massachusetts, and the industrial areas of Northern Illinois and the Rust Belt.

Smoothly integrating Hispanic newcomers into your production team means more than simply hiring a bilingual foreman. It requires a willingness to anticipate differences, quickly discern them, and then respect them. Motivating Hispanic employees is no different than motivating anyone else—understand who they are and honor their role as team members in the workplace.

Sounds good, but...

Consider this example: A new manager from rural Iowa was hired for a troubled, Chicago-area injection molder, which produced medical instrument components. It had a large contingent of Hispanic workers and a poor record for productivity and quality. Full of vim, vigor, and a burning desire to prove himself, this new manager decided to improve the situation by getting "closer" to the mostly Spanish-speaking workforce.

He doffed coat and tie, and dressed in jeans and a polo shirt. Asking his Hispanic supervisors and employees to call him by his first name, he toured the plant floor with a translator, looking for ways to "help" workers while correcting their errors. He felt he was "establishing good relations," by pushing hard for better quality and productivity while reducing the visible economic and status gap between him and his workers. He even learned about soccer. Despite these tactics and casual approach in dress and conduct, the plant''s performance continued to decline.

Why? Like many Anglo-Americans, he was unaware that managing employees with different backgrounds could be different than managing an Anglo workforce. Rather than perceiving him as egalitarian, the Hispanic employees considered the new plant manager uncultured and boorish. He didn''t know they might expect the "boss" stereotype to be reflected in appearance—the higher the status or importance of the job, the more formal the attire. He assumed that what would put him at ease would put others at ease. He had no bad intent, just a misperception of the degree of applicability of his own preconceptions.

Moreover, whatever the employees thought of him, continued poor outcomes were not caused because the casually dressed manager insisted on improving quality and productivity. Rather, it was because he shouted and cursed at his employees when the inevitable production problems occurred. Not surprisingly, productivity declined somewhat, and the quality of the plant''s products took an unwelcome dive.

Know-how, courtesy, and recognition

While it can generally be said that recent immigrants admire Americans for their know-how, technology, and energetic approach to work, many Hispanics have said they feel that American facilities are too business-like and lack the normal human sentiments they value. These workers expect courtesy during training, and correction of mistakes rather than criticism. The effectiveness of training programs can be greatly increased by emphasizing its ceremonial aspects.

As with all the best team-building organizations, recognition is especially important. Managers need to make efforts to invite Hispanic employees to job-training classes and require attendance in order to graduate. Special diplomas for course completion, with displays of graduation photos in the plant, are meaningful formalities. Employee recognition and its manifestations go to the heart of employee relations and ultimately proved to be very effective at this Chicago-area plant.

Many recent immigrants from Mexico expect their supervisors to behave like the sorts of teachers we all want and need at work—paternalistic and kind; anxious to correct and guide; and with an understanding of human frailty. All employees respond well when the actions of managers and supervisors demonstrate real interest in and respect for them.

In particular, Hispanic culture places great emphasis on the recognition of the "place" of the employee, on the use of phrases of respect when correcting an employee''s work, and on maintaining professional relationships, especially between male supervisors and female employees.

In the Chicago plant, a list of common workplace phrases in English was prepared for those with limited knowledge of the language. The ability to communicate effectively and meaningfully was an important status symbol for the new employees. At the same time, Anglo supervisors were provided common Spanish phrases, which they learned and used—simple, appreciated, and effective.

Quality and communication

Many newly arrived Mexican employees may be under the impression that American standards require perfection. It is important not to take for granted one''s own assumption that good quality has range and can still meet quality standards. Plant management, for example, can post pictures showing acceptable product quality.

Most Mexican employees in American plants are usually not predisposed to filing grievances or protesting working conditions. They may even be bewildered by the idea that a worker has the right to complain about a superior''s behavior. Appealing a supervisor''s ruling goes against the cultural grain, is perceived as a disrespectful challenge to the supervisor, and is something a Hispanic immigrant would be unlikely to do. Likewise, new arrivals to the U.S. from Latin America are less likely to join unions or strike unless they''re given cause to by being ignored, treated as adjuncts to the machinery, or having their dignity compromised.

Alternatively, periodic employee audits by outside experts can identify worker concerns and highlight their ideas to improve productivity and quality, especially when employees are reluctant to voice concerns, whatever their reasons. Recent immigrants, for example, may fear reprisals. Face-to-face interviews can reveal irritants of which neither plant managers nor supervisors were aware, especially those concerning abusive managers, whose behavior is unacceptable.

For plastics processing executives and plant managers who make the effort to understand Hispanic culture and outlook—as they should strive to understand all their employees—and who try to improve communications and institute special training procedures, the payoff can be huge—higher morale and productivity; less waste and regrind; lower labor costs; and greater profitability.

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