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USA Today

Hispanic Execs: Times Have Changed; Today's Topic: Tips On Managing An Ethnic Workforce

By Del Jones

June 30, 2003
Copyright © 2003 USA Today, Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

The U.S. Census Bureau this month made it official: Hispanics are the largest minority at 39 million. Is managing a multicultural workforce different? Are there nuances bosses need to know? For advice, USA TODAY corporate management reporter Del Jones turned to Hispanic executives at two of the world's largest employers:

    * Theresa Barrera, 38, is a Wal-Mart vice president in charge of the $5 billion stationery line. Wal-Mart is the nation's largest private employer and employs 110,000 Hispanics, more than any company.

    * Julio Arrieta, 38, is CEO of Adecco USA, the third largest employer in the USA and the $4.5 billion U.S. division of the world's largest staffing and employment services agency based in Switzerland. In 2002, Adecco placed 4 million temporary workers.

Barrera and Arrieta agree that workers generally respond to good management regardless of their race or ethnicity. There are, however, a few things bosses might want to know.

Q: Assume I'm your typical U.S. boss. I speak only English and know little about other cultures. What's the biggest mistake I'm likely to make with multicultural workers?

Arrieta: Assuming they will understand something that you haven't explained. When I was in Argentina, everyone would arrive at the office and say hello and kiss each other. In the U.S., that's just not done. It's important to explain things you wouldn't have to explain to workers raised in this country.

Barrera: Underestimating what they can do. They are capable. Research shows that Hispanic workers and customers are more loyal.

Q: Do multicultural employees perceive the boss-subordinate relationship differently? Are there countries where the dominant management style is command and control?

Arrieta: There are both good and bad managers everywhere. Good managers know that when people are treated fairly, they produce. In Hispanic countries, the relationship is more personal. It's normal to talk about families and problems at home. In the U.S., it is more professional. Sharing of personal information is uncommon.

Barrera: We're not different. We still want respect and acknowledgment that we did a good job. We're very respectful of our bosses. We understand that they're the boss for a reason. Titles are important, and we respect that.

Q: What steps can the CEO take or owner of a company do to help prevent discrimination in a multicultural workforce?

Arrieta: Go beyond the anti-discrimination policy and truly value diversity.

Barrera: The daughter-in-law of our CEO (H. Lee Scott) is Hispanic, and he wants his grandchildren to learn both English and Spanish. He can't guarantee that discrimination won't happen at Wal- Mart, but he sets a good example and the right tone.

Q. Is workplace discrimination common?

Arrieta: I haven't seen any. I visit a lot of clients, and I talk with many Hispanic workers in the production lines -- in Spanish. They tell me about their situation and how the companies treat them. Honestly, I hear good reports.

Barrera: No. Times have changed. Twenty years ago, it wasn't cool to be Hispanic. It is now. It's up and coming, it's the trend; it's what you want to be. We've been out there becoming doctors and lawyers and politicians and, if I may, retail executives. We've been working really hard educating ourselves. It's out there for immigrants looking for a better life. They have to have that fire in their belly and go out and get it.

Q: Being bilingual seems desirable, but can it serve to hold workers back? For example, a bank president does not need to speak Spanish, but many bank tellers do. Isn't that an incentive not to promote Spanish-speaking employees out of low-paying customer service jobs?

Arrieta: Speaking Spanish is important to middle managers, and middle managers have the opportunity to be promoted to top management.

Barrera: It's always helped me get promoted. When I was a buyer in the international division I could go to Puerto Rico and Mexico and talk to store associates and do things that other buyers could not do.

Q: If being bilingual is so valuable, why aren't bilingual workers paid more for the skill?

Arrieta: Mostly it opens up job opportunities. The U.S. is following the same pattern as Spain, where many years ago, wise people learned English to help themselves professionally. Today, wise people are seeing the same advantage in learning Spanish.

Barrera: It's a personal asset. We have stores in different communities. The store manager's incentive is to run a great store. To run a great store, he has to get involved in that community. Learning a little Spanish to talk to associates shows that they will go out of the way to communicate with the people and live in the community.

Q: I'm sure you hear this: "They came to the USA to work. They should learn English." What's wrong with that point of view?

Arrieta: If you are living in this country and you want to have a better job and a good social life, it would be good to learn English. I'm doing it. I've been speaking English for only 10 months.

Barrera: That's the old belief, but when a family moves here, they need to be able to communicate and function in the land where they're living. I moved to Puerto Rico as a child, and I learned Spanish in order to play with the kids outside.

Q: Should companies consider different benefits packages for the multicultural workforce? For example, some may need additional education or longer vacations to travel to other countries to see their families.

Arrieta: It would be discriminatory to offer different benefits to different groups of people. However, it is very important for companies to take the needs of all into consideration when formulating benefits so that they can be as inclusive as possible.

Barrera: Everyone has different needs. One of my associates came in and told me she owned two firecracker stands and needed two weeks off before the Fourth of July. We worked out a schedule. Every instance is different, and it can't be put in a handbook. All you can do is encourage people to let you know what their needs are.

Tips for employers

* Workers of any ethnicity respond to good managers.

* Workers new to the USA may need more explanation, but don't underestimate their abilities.

* Value the culture of all workers. Make the effort to learn their native language at least a little.

* Encourage and help workers to learn English.

* Multicultural workers might be away from families for a long time. Be open to concerns that are unique to them.

Theresa Barrera

* Born: Fort Worth. Grandparents came from Mexico. Married, two children.

* Education: Finance degree, Corpus Christi State University (1989). Wal-Mart gave her a scholarship for final two years after her mother died.

* Wal-Mart career: Cashier in college (Sam's Club, 1985-89); internal audit, 1990-93; international, 1993-95; housewares buyer, 1995-99; divisional merchandise manager, seasonal, 1999-2001; vice president divisional merchandise manager, 2001-present.

* Native language: English. Learned Spanish at age 8 so she could play with neighborhood children in Puerto Rico.

* Travel: Has gone to China 12 times.

* Favorite food: Sushi, fried rice, chicken enchiladas.

Julio Arrieta

* Born: Bilbao, Spain. Married, two children.

* Education: Mine engineering degree, Escuela de Minas, Basque Country, Spain ('86).

* Career at Adecco: General manager Argentina, Chile, Peru, Uruguay, 1998-99; GM South America, 1990-2000; GM Latin America, 2000-02; CEO Americas 2002-present.

* Native language: Spanish.

* English: First learned it 10 months ago, proficient.

* Plays rock guitar: Once in a band named Sweet Bodoque.

* Favorite dish: Ceviche from Peru, a seafood, vegetable dish marinated in lime, usually served with hot pepper.

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