Lawn & Landscape White Paper: Managing Immigrant Labor- Successfully Managing the Hispanic Workforce

Features - Industry News

Hiring immigrant labor often represents the beginning of the challenges.

May 9, 2001

Sponsored by Husqvarna


The scene is one that many contractors dream of today - a bus pulls up in front of their office and dozens of able-bodied individuals climb off ready and eager for their first day of work. And these aren’t just the run-of-the-mill employees. No, these are diligent individuals who come from an agricultural background and who value a solid work ethic and the earning potential this job represents enough that they become upset when they can’t work 50 hours a week.

Obviously, such a situation is unlikely to occur as often as contractors would like, but if this magical busload were to arrive, the mere presence alone of the new employees wouldn’t necessarily solve all of a contractor’s problems, especially if these new employees were immigrants. In fact, the challenges associated with managing a multi-cultural workforce might not always be anticipated by a contractor, but they are significant.

¿HABLAS INGLÉS? The most obvious challenge related to hiring immigrant employees is the language barrier and maintaining effective communication among crews and with customers. Most companies hiring non-English speaking employees offer them some opportunities and/or incentives to learn the English language. The opportunities range from paying a tutor to offer regular English classes at the office to identifying educational opportunities for employees at local schools or community colleges. Incentives include bonuses delivered upon successful completion of an English course, pay raises and opportunities for promotions.

"A crew that doesn’t speak English turns our customers off," according to Ron Kujawa, president, Kujawa Enterprises, Cudahy, Wis. "We make sure there is always at least one person on each job that speaks English. That was a big learning curve for us because we never realized how much onsite communication goes on with the customer.

"Customer communication was second nature for the English-speaking employees, so they weren’t necessarily reporting it all back to us," Kujawa continued. "Now, our employees that don’t speak English carry a card that explains this so they can present it to any customers who approach them."

An asset for CoCal Landscape Services, Denver, Colo., is that Jesus "Chuy" Medrano, one of its partners, is Mexican, and he started out in the industry as an entry-level laborer.

"Every one of our Hispanic foremen takes English classes over the winter, and there are no if’s, and’s or but’s about it," emphasized Medrano. "The company pays for half of the cost and the employee pays for the other half. Now, we have Hispanic foremen communicating with our clients.

"Most of our employees are Mexican, with a few Colombians and a few Guatemalans," Medrano commented. "I try to use myself as an example for them to learn from so they can see what is possible if they are willing to learn English and keep working hard."

Rick Randall, president, Randall & Blake, Littleton, Colo., adding that aiding non-English speaking employees’ efforts to learn the language has benefited the organization as well. "We also make sure at least one member of each crew speaks English, and we teach English to the Spanish-speaking employees. If the employees learn enough English to handle basic conversation, they get a 50-cent raise."

In the interim, as Hispanic employees improve their English skills, contractors who have been down this road strongly recommend that key personnel within the organization learn to speak Spanish.

"Getting key people to speak Spanish is important so the employees see our commitment to them and that we work to mix our cultures, but the reality is that these employees are working in an English-speaking society with English-speaking customers and they need to be able to speak English," asserted David Snodgrass, president, Dennis’ 7 Dees Landscaping, Portland, Ore. "Learning to speak English is the key to moving up in our company, and when we can create a culture in our company that changes the Hispanic employee’s view of the job to more of a long-term focus is when we’ll really begin to tap the potential of this workforce."

Snodgrass said a key to his company’s recent growth has been the rise of Hispanic employees into foreman and crew leader positions.

"Half of our foremen and most of our crew leaders are Hispanic," he said. "We have developed a culture within our organization that delivers the family emphasis that is so important to Hispanic employees, and, as a result, we have Hispanic employees who have been with us for three or four years and who are learning because they want to learn. That is an attitude change, and that gives us a real competitive advantage.

"Now, we have potential Hispanic employees knocking on our doors looking for work because they’ve heard what a good place Dennis’ 7 Dees is for Hispanic employees," Snodgrass continued. "I don’t want the short-term employee that refuses to speak English and is always being trained and leaving. Addressing the needs of the long-term employee is the secret."

INTERNAL UNITED NATIONS. Another challenge can be managing the effects of international politics between employees.

"We have found that certain Hispanic groups do not want to work with other Hispanic groups, particularly based on the country they are from," observed Randall. "We don’t generally know where a new employee is from, and we’re not allowed to ask before we hire them for discriminatory purposes, so we end up with problems occuring once the employees start work."

"You can’t always force some cultures to work together because of the political and social situations in their home countries, and employers have to recognize that fact and accept it," recommended Medrano.

"We have found that Mexicans like working together with people from other cultures, Guatemalans don’t care who they work with and Haitians don’t like to mix in with other groups," added Joe Janssen, president, Stiles Landscape Service Co., Pompano Beach, Fla.

"We had a problem arise when we had a Puerto Rican crew chief supervising a crew of Mexicans, but the problem for us was that we didn’t really know the nationalities of the different people ahead of time and we couldn’t ask the employees where they were from for fear of discrimination claims," recalled Kujawa.

Other contractors have noted alien employees of different cultures getting along well in their organization, but these employers stress that extra efforts are necessary to ensure any immigrant employee’s happiness.

"Something that has benefited us has been getting our immigrant employees together and having a roundtable with them and key managers," noted Janssen. "As employers, we need to find out what these employees need from us, just like we would do with any other employee. Some real eye opening information comes out of those sessions."

"We ran into similar problems with our Hispanic employees, so we set up a Hispanic advisory committee that meets monthly," remarked Joe Aurilio, human resources manager, Mariani Landscape, Lake Bluff, Ill. "We target key personnel from different cultures and different parts of the company and we bring them together in a very informal environment to find out what their concerns are. This forum also lets us teach them about empowerment and the politics of inclusion so they feel a part of a larger team.

"Learning about the cultural barriers and differences is important because what’s important to us as American-born employers may not be important to Hispanic-born employees," continued Aurilio. "We make sure these meetings are held regularly with one of our managers in charge of the committee and making sure that we always "do something" as a result of the meetings."

"In Miami, we have Hispanic employees from a range of countries, with most being Mexican," noted Ricardo Leal, vice president, Villa & Sons, Miami, Fla. "Everyone seems to work pretty well together, and some groups just spend more time together during breaks."

"We have to convince these employees that they are part of a team that shares a mission and goals," noted Terri Feldhaus, Chapel Valley Landscape, Woodbine, Md. "We created a Hispanic task force in the company to create natural leaders and empower them with the responsibility to recruit within their own neighborhoods because they know what quality of workers they want on their staffs.

"We also offer recruiting incentives, and the fact that they are asked to be responsible for something as important as recruiting for the company brings these employees pride," Feldhaus continued. "Our Hispanic employees have done an excellent job bringing in qualified employees as well as helping us develop ads targeted to the Hispanic community."

MAKING THE COMMITMENT. Employees who feel their employer truly cares about them as people tend to be more loyal and effective employees. Obviously, the employee-employer relationship can be particularly important to employees struggling to speak the same language most of their coworkers and customers speak.

One commonality among many companies who have developed long-term relationships with their Hispanic employees has been their hiring of a bilingual individual to serve as a liaison between the management and the Hispanic employees.

"Having a liaison person helps communication a great deal," observed Feldhaus. "This person can be a real help in day-to-day communication but also in dealing with conflict and mediation, which is where communication problems can really arise."

Feldhaus pointed out that contractors who don’t employ such a person are putting their non-English speaking employees at a significant disadvantage compared to other employees.

"Think about how difficult explaining health care benefits is to English-speaking employees. Now, imagine trying to explain these issues to people who don’t speak English," she noted.

"We’ve come a long way since we hired a bilingual human resources person and a bilingual receptionist," commented Randall

MOVING ON UP. A frequent complaint about Hispanics employees is reluctance on their part to pursue positions of greater responsibility, even within a crew.

Challenges with the language and a fear of the unknown are commonly cited problems employers run into when trying to promote some Hispanic crew members to foreman or supervisor positions.

"How do we get the Hispanic workforce to want to move up and be interested in operating more equipment and driving trucks?" wondered Randall.

"Money can be part of the answer," responded Birdsong.

"Developing a training program tied to the employees’ compensation can help," agreed Jack Mattingly, industry consultant, Mattingly & Associates, Atlanta, Ga. "Just make sure it can be quantitative or measurable."

Cultural awareness matters again when developing these compensation programs.

"You have to remember that Hispanic employees may not even have a savings account, so they’re interested in receiving cash more so than benefits or a 401(k)," related Feldhaus.

"We pay out a bonus based on actual costs vs. estimated costs over the course of a year, and we pay it out in March to get the employees to come back each year," added Randall.

"A lot of Hispanic employees fear sounding different or funny when they speak English, so they don’t want to work in a position that requires talking to customers," observed Feldhaus. "The same is true with becoming certified by taking written tests - they fear failing. This fear has to be overcome before these employees will really start to speak English."

"I could read and write English when I came to the U.S., but I was afraid to speak it," recalled Medrano. "Employers need to ask employees how much education they’ve received so we know what they can do."

"Plus, you have to accept the fact that there will likely be more Indians than there are chiefs," Feldhaus continued.

"Being able to identify the right employees to promote is the problem," remarked Tim Jackson, The Davey Tree Expert Company, Kent, Ohio. "You would think that the most skilled or hardest working person would be the person to promote, but that is typically not the case. In fact, these are often the people not to promote. They work so hard because this work is what they enjoy and they don’t want to be responsible for other people."

When companies identify and target the right Hispanic employees for promotion, the effects among the ranks of Hispanic employees can be powerful.

"Getting this upward movement with Hispanic employees creates momentum and convinces other Hispanic employees that they can be promoted and work as foremen or supervisors as well," added Snodgrass.

Snodgrass has observed other cultural differences that employers need to consider when promoting Hispanic employees.

"Hispanic employees won’t criticize their fellow workers, particularly Hispanic coworkers, because they value loyalty so much," he noted. "Once some of these employees have been with us for more than a couple of years, however, they feel comfortable relating constructive criticism for issues such as safety on the job and proper performance."