The number of Hispanic and Latino workers employed in the construction industry is on the rise. Official numbers from the U.S. Department of Labor report 14.2 percent of workers in construction and extraction trades are of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, but other sources say numbers are much higher. The language skills of Hispanic and Latino workers varies greatly - some workers have lived in the United States all of their lives and grew up speaking English; others are more recent immigrants, both legal and illegal, and have limited to no English-speaking skills. As construction business owners struggle to ensure a safe and productive work site for all their crew members, they will find that focusing on bridging both language and cultural barriers is the most effective way to do so.
Tim Roorda, communications director with Zerah Services, Inc., a company that offers construction business owners resources for cross-cultural communication, says that Zerah's research has found about 35 percent of workplace problems are caused by language barriers while 65 percent are caused by cultural differences. While Spanish-speaking workers in the United States are from many different countries, and therefore many different cultures, the majority of Spanish-speaking workers on U.S. construction crews are from Mexico. Roorda offers a few lessons in understanding Mexican social culture that can help you and your crew leaders better relate to Spanish-speaking workers. Some are simple adjustments that supervisors can make or should be aware of on the jobsite, such as the knowledge that in Mexican culture finger-pointing is considered rude. Other issues are more complex and require ongoing consideration.
Roorda says that people in Mexico are generally very courteous and managers should consider this in their everyday interaction with Mexican employees. "Young children in Mexico learn about manners and respect from their parents; the concept of human dignity and how you treat a person matters greatly to them," Roorda explains.
Roorda speculates that most Americans don't think of saying "thank you" and "please" as signs of showing people respect, but he asserts that these expressions are simple tools that are of great use in communicating with Mexican workers on the jobsite. "The phrases let them know they are appreciated for their work," Roorda says. "It's a form of respect that Mexican workers hear."
Another cultural difference Roorda says Americans might not realize is that Spanish-speaking cultures have a broader definition of "family" than the average American does. If a Spanish-speaking worker requests time off to help care for a sick uncle, crew leaders should be aware of the importance of extended family for Spanish-speaking workers. Roorda says this doesn't mean you should have different sets of rules for different people on your crew - the authority for time off for a family or personal matter should rest with a supervisor. But understanding the importance of extended family for Spanish-speaking workers allows a supervisor to make the best decision when considering different situations with different workers.
Safety is serious business on a construction jobsite. Roorda says when it comes to safety, American and Spanish-speaking workers have different motivations to practice on-the-job safety, and knowing these differences will allow supervisors to help workers to realize safety's importance. "It took this country a long time as a culture to understand safety, and building that safety culture was hard," he says. "Then to bring in another culture can be very difficult."
Roorda explains that American society is very individualistic - many Americans believe that their actions determine their own fate. But Mexican society is a medium to high collectivism culture, meaning people believe that if they take care of their group, their group will take care of them. Roorda says that while supervisors convey a need for on-the-job safety to American workers by emphasizing personal health and safety, they should convey to their Spanish-speaking workers that they need to practice on-the-job safety for the sake of their families and the construction crew.