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Managing in a Multicultural Environment

Aug 17, 2007
Effectively managing a multicultural business requires at least a basic knowledge of your employee's culture and traditions. Familiarity with both is essential because each has a bearing on an employee's every day behavior.

Our cultural identity helps us feel like we are "part" of the society around us. It keeps us from feeling isolated and sometimes it even helps us know how to react. For example, as Americans, we know it's appropriate to stand and place our hands over our hearts when we hear "The Star Spangled Banner" because it's part of our culture.

Traditions involving family, religion, education, and nationalism play a large role in anyone's life. Personal appearance, ethics, and etiquette are also factors to be considered.

Whether we realize it or not, culture and tradition are powerful principles we always carry with us. It's almost like carrying a cell phone. We take it for granted that our phone is in out pocket, but we don't think about it until it rings. Culture is like that. It's always with us even though we are unaware of it.

What rings your cultural bell?

Even tough it's hard to make broad generalizations about culture, many studies have been conducted over the years on its importance to Hispanics. There are certain basic principles about Latino culture and tradition that make good survival skills for all American employers.

Family: Nuclear families are the foundation of Hispanic society. An intense love of family is a strong feature in Latinos employees.

To most, the family and its needs are even more important than work. Work is often seen as a "necessary evil" done for the purpose of earning enough money to satisfy the needs of the family.

As managers, we must also take into consideration the fact that many Hispanic employees have left close members of their families in Latin America. This is true for both first and second generation Hispanic employees.

Personal sacrifice in Hispanic families is the rule, not the exception. The estrangement and isolation that comes with being separated from parents, wives and children can be devastating. This causes severe depression, isolation and even substance abuse. Each of these becomes high risk factors for on the job accidents.

Children: Children in Latino families are cherished, protected and loved. A typical weekend is spent enjoying time together, preparing meals, visiting friends, or extended family. Children are more heavily influenced by their parents and extended family members rather than by those outside the family.

Religion: Religion and spirituality are also deeply rooted in Latin American culture. Almost 90% Latin Americans are Roman Catholic and most observe basic religious traditions, even though they might not attend church on a regular basis.

Throughout Latin America religious practices play a more visible role in the workplace than they do in the US. Many Hispanic managers feel these practices make a valuable contribution to overall worker morale.

An unusual feature of Latin American spirituality is an indefinable fatalism or fatalismo which is pervasive in the culture. Many Latinos have the underlying sense that their lives are controlled by fate; consequently, whatever success or tragedy befalls them is no result of their own actions. Whatever is supposed to happen, will happen.

This is almost opposite of the American belief that our success or lack of it depends solely on the choices we make and the hard work we put into it.

Nationalism: Nationalism is deeply ingrained in Hispanics. This is a fact that most Americans don't realize fully. When we see a person speaking Spanish, many automatically assume that the person is Mexican. Often that just isn't true. Spanish is spoken over a wide geographic area that includes many very different countries.

All of us are deeply proud of our roots. Latin Americans have deep attachments to their homelands and the unique culture that comes with that. Because you speak English, would you like to be mistaken for a Canadian instead of an American? Probably not!

It's savvy management for employers to know which countries their employees come from. Getting to know individual employees is a basic feature in successful Latin American management strategies. The boss becomes personally acquainted with each employee and knows a bit about his family. This is called "personalizmo" and it's very important to workplace attitudes.

When "el jefe" or "el supervisor" recognizes an individual employee, he feels more respected and valued. That increases his loyalty to the company and to its leadership.

Etiquette: Basic etiquette and social skills are valued by Latin Americans. Good manners are a sign of solid upbringing. Training begins at the home and continues in school. Great emphasis is attached to shaking hands and greeting the staff each morning in the workplace.

Not only is this sort of etiquette valued in face to face interactions, it's also a part of good telephone communication. In a Latin American's eyes it's rude to "cut to the chase" on the telephone and immediately begin to discuss business without first asking how the person is that you are talking to. Next, to be truly polite you should ask how the family is doing.

Etiquette is so important on the job many think "por favor" and "gracias" are the two most important phrases in the Spanish language. These are definitely words that will help you get the job done.

Strategies for Success: There's no doubt that America's Hispanic workforce is going to become even more important to our country's economic growth and success. Now that you understand some of the basic attitudes your Hispanic workforce has, it's time to plot a course for your success in a multicultural environment.

1. Work aggressively to overcome the language barrier. Obviously, this means learning to speak some Spanish. You don't have to be fluent to be successful.

2. Make every effort to learn about the culture of your employees. This will help you build trusting relationships that Latinos value.

3. Develop an open culture in your workplace that accepts and appreciates the differences individual employees bring to your organization.

4. Establish employment policies carefully and communicate them so all employees understand your expectations for appropriate conduct on the job.

5. Acknowledge your employee's strong family ties and desire to return home periodically. Make every effort to develop staffing that is flexible enough to allow employees to return home for a period of time to visit their families and then return to the job.

Learning these simple, common-sense practices and principles will give you a positive edge in managing your multicultural work place.
About the Author
Myelita Melton is the author of the SpeakEasy Spanish TM series. She is a nationally recognized expert on language and cultural diversity. Her high energy presentations will engage your mind, touch your heart and foster a climate for understanding. http://www.speakeasyspanish.com
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