Finding reliable help has always been a challenge and is increasingly difficult. One solution is to hire workers from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and other Central American countries.

Interest in Hispanic workers has grown as they've proven themselves capable and enthusiastic. “They have a positive attitude and a strong work ethic,” says Tom Maloney, a human resources educator specializing in the Hispanic workforce at Cornell University's Department of Applied Economics and Management. “Because their whole reason for coming to the U.S. is to get a job to support their families, they're highly motivated to perform well.”

Latinos now comprise the largest and fastest growing minority group in the U.S., according to the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Hispanic Center. Latinos comprise 13% of the nation's workforce and are expected to account for half the growth in the labor pool between now and 2020, according to Pew estimates.

No progress, though, comes without cost. “If I had to isolate the major issues faced by employers with a rapidly growing Hispanic workforce, the first would be the language barrier and the second would be safety problems resulting from poor communications,” says Myelita Melton, president of Speakeasy Communications, a Mooresville, NC-based training organization specializing in Spanish programs.

Let's take those one at a time.

“We find that employers are open to learning a little Spanish to direct their employees more efficiently and safely,” she says.

Communication, of course, is a two-way affair: Hispanic employees need to increase their mastery of English. “Only 53% of Hispanics say they speak English well,” says Melton. “We need to concentrate on the others. They need our patience and encouragement to help create a safer workplace.”

On-the-job language instruction need not be formal or time-consuming. “You can start during lunch breaks, for example,” advises Donna Poisl, a Gastonia, NC-based author of guidebooks for immigrants.

Whatever your approach, patience is a virtue and a necessity. “It takes the average Hispanic seven years to become completely comfortable with the language,” Melton says.

As you speak, stay alert for responses indicating understanding or puzzlement. “When your employees look at you dumbfounded after you say something, they're trying to translate what you just said into their native language. Or they're shy and afraid to ask for clarification.”

Given this language barrier, it's important to reinforce verbal instructions with visual cues. “To effectively train and develop Hispanic employees, demonstrate what you want them to do,” advises Carlos Conejo, president of Multicultural Associates, a Thousand Oaks, CA,-based consulting organization specializing in the Hispanic workforce. “Then you have the employees practice in front of you.”

That last part is important, Conejo stresses. “You want employees to make mistakes in front of you because you can turn the situation into a coaching session,” he says.

Following practice time, advises Conejo, allow employees to give feedback. Ask questions such as, What do you think about this? “Hispanics are not accustomed to being asked their opinions,” he says.

The language barrier becomes particularly dangerous when it increases risk of injury. “Employers need to communicate safety practices to employees who may not be proficient in English,” warns attorney Sara Goldsmith Schwartz, president of Andover, MA-based Schwartz Hannum, a law firm that defends business clients and non-profits in employee-related litigation. Failure to provide adequate instruction can lead to fatalities and costly litigation for negligence if someone gets hurt on the job.

Not all employers have been successful in this risky area. “The injury rate is very high for Hispanic employees, and we suspect it has to do with the language barrier,” says Conejo, who recommends employers assure workers can read and understand safety words encountered in signs such as “Danger” or “Keep Hands Away.”

Provide safety manuals in the employees' native languages. “As an employer, you will be respected from day one because Hispanic workers come from a hierarchical society where authority is not questioned,” says Maloney. “Part of their cultural value system is to be very dedicated to pleasing the boss.”

Respect for authority, though, is a two-edged sword. On the positive side, it means workers are eager to perform as directed. On the negative, they may fail to communicate critical information they fear will upset the boss.

This communication failure results from experience in a Hispanic culture where workers are often fired for events beyond their control. Fearing for their jobs, workers may continue to use a faulty tool, for example, rather than admit something broke on their watch. And they may fail to report injuries, since in their native lands — which often lack disability and health insurance — employees are often terminated and replaced following accidents.

Finally, Hispanic employees may try to please the boss by affirming non-existent knowledge of certain work procedures.

All these problems can be reduced if the manager takes pains to encourage two-way dialog. “You can start by understanding that family is incredibly important to Hispanic workers,” says Maloney. “Indeed, a main reason why they come to the U.S. is to send money home to their families.”

Establish workplace policies and resources, then recognize and assist a family mentality. Here are some things you can do:

  • Provide easy and affordable access to long-distance phone calls home.
  • Give phone cards as incentives and gifts.
  • Express personal interest by asking about the well-being of their relatives.
  • Arrange for affordable transmission of money home.

Tie safety instructions in with the individual's love of family. Say something like, “Don't do it this way, because it isn't safe. Think about your family.”

“If you reduce the language barrier and learn more about Hispanic culture, you will go a long way toward creating a relationship based on respect,” says Maloney.

Keep It Legal

Employers must ensure that their workers are legally authorized to work in the U.S., says attorney Sara Goldsmith Schwartz, president of Andover, MA, -based Schwartz Hannum PC, a law firm that defends business clients in employment-related litigation.

The best way to assure valid work authorization, says Schwartz, is to complete and maintain the required I-9 forms for each individual hired. This recordkeeping is subject to audit by the Department of Homeland Security.

The path to I-9 compliance is strewn with pitfalls when documentation is inadequate, expired or false. “There are major penalties and problems for businesses that employ illegal aliens,” she adds.

The employer also needs to take note of any expiration dates on supporting documents such as visas, and then be sure those documents are renewed.

Information about the federal law regarding immigration and the hiring of foreign workers can be found at www.foreignlaborcert.doleta.gov/. Specific information about the I-9 form can be found at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Web site at www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis.

Learn More

  • “How to Live & Thrive in the U.S.” by Donna Poisl. A workbook in English and Spanish for immigrants — $12.95. Biblio Distribution y Quality Books. Web site: www.howtoliveandthrive.com.
  • “Survival Spanish,” by Myelita Melton. Series of workbooks and CD's devoted to basic Spanish in a number of industries. Web site: www.speakeasyspanish.com.