Why knowledge is power when it comes to culture, communication, compliance & planning
by Jacob M. Monty
July 23, 2019

In legally representing employers with large Hispanic workforces, many of the errors I have seen have been perpetrated by good-hearted employers who did not acknowledge the unique background features, social norms and histories of their Latino workers.

The right knowledge helps construction employers recruit and hire Hispanic employees efficiently; treat Hispanic employees appropriately; maintain their workforce; prevent costly mistakes; remain in compliance with regulations; and obtain a competitive advantage.

Taking the Hispanic Workforce More Seriously

The United States has seen an unprecedented growth rate in the Hispanic population. In 2017, the growth reached 58.9 million, constituting 18.1% of the nation’s total population.

Hispanic workers make up approximately 17% of the 150 million employed people in the U.S. That number skyrockets when it comes to the construction industry, where nearly 30% of workers are Hispanic. 

Hiring Hispanic employees can give your business a competitive advantage beyond the hardworking immigrant work ethic. However, the differences in culture and language present significant barriers.

If these barriers are not adequately addressed, employers can expect persistent problems with safety, quality and productivity, which could negatively affect virtually any other competitive advantage they may have. 

Cultural Factors

Employers should note that “Hispanic” is not a race, but an ethnic distinction, referring to a person or descendant of a family from a Spanish-speaking culture. Hispanics share a common language, but their cultures, values and beliefs are very unique.

To assume that all Hispanic cultures are the same, or lumping all Hispanic cultures into one demographic, is a critical mistake. Notably, this workforce group places a high value on family and culture, and they have a strong desire for self-improvement. 

It makes sense, then, that these three aspirations should be considered foundational points when a construction company is developing its recruitment and retention strategies. 

Understanding the varied Hispanic cultures and the law, both here and in the home countries of immigrant workers, helps employers capitalize on the great value these employees can bring to the workplace. The differences are important and need not be divisive. 

What Should Employers Know?

According to latpro.com, employers informed themselves about Hispanic workers’ cultural preferences, as they pertain to: 

  • Degree of intimacy—Many Hispanics. want to establish a personal connection, including a close relationship with coworkers. Small talk is the way of learning about the wants, needs and feelings of others.
  • Social harmony—Hispanic employees generally do not like to rock the boat and have a need to maintain smooth and pleasant relationships. Blatant confrontation does not come naturally, and they may prefer to use a more indirect approach.
  • Personal contact—In social situations, Hispanics find physical contact with others quite normal. Handshakes, hugs, kisses on the cheek and pats on the back are all part of daily interaction.
  • Respect for authority—Hispanic employees tend to treat those in positions of authority with a great deal of respect.

Employers should use universally common ground to unite a diverse workforce. Language, music, style and cultural practices are the currencies with which people define their identities and establish social capital. Something as simple as sharing a meal with your Hispanic employees is a big deal.

What Can Employers Do?

Additionally, latpro.com advises employers to do the following:

  • Make a conscious effort to recognize your Hispanic employees on a personal level.—Employers should initiate small talk and avoid discussions that involve the employee’s immigration status or the current politics in their native countries.
  • Be a leader, not a boss.—Hispanic employees respond to managers who lead through vision and inspiration, not fear and intimidation. As such, offer praise in front of others, and do not criticize publicly. 
  • Explain and align your actions with company culture and policy.—Many employee handbooks contain a section that describes the company. This is an important page for your entire workforce to read, but especially your Hispanic workers. 
  • Work to break down communication barriers.—Employers should learn more about their workers’ native languages. Misunderstandings can lead to poor job performance, low productivity, workplace injuries and violation of personnel policies. 

Preventing Communication & Workplace Injury

Imagine a Hispanic construction worker standing with fellow crew members at the start of the workday. The supervising contractor lists off safety instructions for the hazardous tasks they could encounter and finishes with the question, “Does everyone understand?” The worker nods along with the rest of the crew, except he didn’t understand. The instructions only given were in English, which is his second language, but he chooses the risk of uncertainty over the risk of speaking up. This situation poses serious danger for a construction company and its employees. Employers should always ensure that instructions are fully understood by their Hispanic workforce.

Careless Communication Can Cause Crisis

When dealing with a Hispanic workforce, careless communication can result in much more than hurt feelings. In one case, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EOCC), EEOC v. Koper Furniture Inc., “a dark-skinned Puerto Rican man was fired in retaliation for complaining to the company about harassment by his supervisor because of his dark skin color.” One immediate takeaway is that employers must educate their Hispanic workforce about communication in the workplace. 

Employers attempting to bridge language-barrier issues must be careful. English-only policies could get the company sued, soil its reputation and harm the life of an employer. In September 2018, The U.S. EOCC filed suit against La Cantera Resort and Spa in San Antonio, Texas, for discrimination and retaliation. 

Court documents said one manager directed strong racial slurs and derogatory comments toward employees in the banquet department, and at least two dozen Spanish speakers were barred from speaking Spanish, while employees of other nationalities were allowed to speak their native languages. When workers complained about the discriminatory behavior, the lawsuit says, they were punished through demotions and terminations, with some replaced by non-Hispanic workers.

Maintaining Compliance

Federal and state laws require employers to post certain notices to employees in both English and Spanish. Government-issued and other official employment notices are the first things an investigator will verify when conducting an on-site workplace investigation. 

Here are a few things to consider when deciding whether your company’s written material must be available in Spanish:

  • Does federal or state law require written communication to be in Spanish? Some administrative agencies, such as the Department of Labor (DOL) Wage and Hour Division and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), require certain communication and training documents be made available to employees in the language the employee understands best.
  • Non-mandatory translation into Spanish typically involves handbooks and other directives to employees. Putting these company materials in Spanish demonstrates that the employer made an honest effort to help workers, who do not speak English primarily, understand. 

ICE & the Hispanic Workforce

Hispanics make up a large portion of the U.S. workforce, which means the potential for work authorization violations is high. Noncompliance with federal laws could mean hefty civil and criminal penalties against an employer. 

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) enforcement strategy focuses on criminal prosecution of employers who knowingly break the law, and I-9 audits and civil fines encourage compliance with the law. According to USA Today, ICE was ordered to quadruple worksite enforcement in 2018—an order they carried out.

In 2018, 6,848 worksite investigations were opened. In 2017, 1,691 investigations were opened, demonstrating roughly over a 400% increase in worksite investigations. In 2018, 5,981 Form I-9 audits were initiated, compared with the 1,360 Form I-9 audits initiated in 2017—a 439% increase. In 2018, 779 criminal arrests were made, compared to 139 in 2017—a 560% increase in criminal arrests. And for administrative, worksite-related arrests, there were 1,525 in 2018 compared to 172 in 2017—an 886% increase.

Preparation & Planning Ahead

Employers can attract and retain a strong Hispanic workforce by making an effort to:

  • Understand and value the cultures of all employees
  • Present solid opportunities for advancement
  • Provide training 
  • Offer competitive salaries and benefits
  • Employers can remain in compliance with federal and state laws by incorporating a few of the following strategies concerning their Hispanic workforce:
  • Having an audit protocol in place
  • Knowing the percentage of workforce made up by immigrants 
  • Making copies of all I-9s and crucial documents
  • Understanding the business’s interruption risks
  • Taking advantage of attorney-client privilege
  • Developing an immigration-compliance plan