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Employing Immigrants Means Adapting to Cultural Differences

During my managerial career, I have had the opportunity to work with a number of recent immigrants to our country. Most come here to make a better life for themselves and their families. They seek opportunity and access to the American dream by entering the labor market in entry-level jobs.
Some have suffered greatly and taken years to get here, and their life stories could bring most of us to tears. I have found this group of employees to be reliable and very productive.
I first started working with immigrants in Salt Lake City, Utah. Many of them were recent converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).
I thought the prevalence of immigrants was unique to the Salt Lake area, but throughout the years I have seen a consistent need for recent immigrants to find employment no matter what state I lived in. I have become an advocate of working with immigration services.
The employees in my laundry accurately reflect the various waves of immigration that have come to the Roanoke Valley. I have employees who hail from Bosnia, North Korea, Cuba, Somalia, Iraq and the Sudan.
Laundry managers regularly complain about the difficulty of finding good candidates to hire. Good entry-level employees are difficult to find no matter how the economy is doing. Poor hiring results in high turnover rates, poor productivity, poor morale, increased employee theft and an increase in industrial accidents.
Would it be worth learning to work with people who speak a different language in order to solve these problems?
My first management job was at the LDS Hospital Laundry in Salt Lake City back in 1974. I was responsible for a shift of 45 employees, the majority of whom did not speak English.
I had a large group of Polynesian employees from the island of Tonga who spoke their native language, as well as three or four Vietnamese, four Spanish and another person who spoke Portuguese. I was the only person in the entire crew who spoke English as their primary language.
I learned to train employees using the show-and-do method made popular by the Boy Scouts of America. First, I would show the employee what they were to do and then I would have them do it. I would correct errors in technique by example and would stay with the employee until they could do the job correctly. Training in this manner is far superior to just telling someone what to do!
Several bilingual employees helped me explain company policies to the other employees. I learned a few words in each language so I could say hello, thank you and good morning or afternoon. I felt like I needed to know a little just to make them feel comfortable and welcome.
I have learned several lessons the hard way about working with staff members who don’t speak English. First is that you must quickly gain an appreciation for their cultural differences. This came to my attention in Salt Lake City when I began to work with Vietnamese workers.
The normal hand gesture used to call someone over in our country – the uplifted hand with the four fingers motioning toward your body – was a major insult to these people. It seems that in their culture, this gesture is used only for calling dogs, pigs and cattle.
Their signal to beckon someone is the hand is straight in front of you, palm down, and you flex the fingers toward your body. It was a small difference to me but a huge difference to them.
I also learned about the extended Polynesian family. There are basically only four major family names on the island of Tonga. As a result, it seems everyone on the island is related in some way to everyone else.
When I had to discipline one of my Polynesian workers, I risked hurting the feelings of them all. It was important that I was overly fair and above reproach on everything I did regarding my Polynesian workers or I risked losing 30 instead of one.
As I have hired immigrants, I have had to deal with a certain amount of resentment from my existing staff. Their attitude often manifests itself in statements like “These people are taking our jobs” or “Those people are willing to work for less.” We have aggressively tried to manage this problem through diversity training and looking at current events from a historical perspective.
Some employees who do not understand foreign languages become paranoid and are sure others are talking about them and laughing at them. This, too, is a normal reaction and can often go both ways – English and non-English.
I also learned that there were strong prejudices among what appeared to be homogenous groups. It seems the inhabitants of each Polynesian island believes they are the only “true” Polynesians and that people from the other islands are inferior. It would have been difficult to hire a few Samoans to work with the Tongans on staff.
I also learned that people from Mexico consider Guatemalans to be from an inferior country. They do not like to associate with or work near them, even though they all speak Spanish.
To facilitate hiring recent immigrants, it is helpful to offer a salary premium to all bilingual employees (those who speak English plus their native language). You can also offer an added premium to individuals willing to serve as translators. They can help you effectively communicate with employees and easily resolve any misunderstandings.
The tone that management sets about the facility’s willingness to work with and employ recent immigrants can ultimately determine the program’s success or failure.
Recent immigrants are looking for entry-level jobs so they can begin to live the American dream, and we, as managers, need dependable employees who will give us an honest day’s work. It can be a perfect match if we overcome our own fears and give them a chance.

Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Matt Poe at [email protected].