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The Hispanic Work Force: How To Deal With Diversity: U.S. Apparel Businesses Should Understand The Many Factors That Can Distinguish Hispanic Employees From Those Of Other Backgrounds, And Alter Management Approaches As Needed To Improve Communication, Morale And Performance

January 1, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Information Access Company. All rights reserved.
Copyright ©2004 VNU Business Media. All rights reserved.

Imberman, Woodruff de Forest, Mariah

1 January 2004
ISSN: 1543-2009; Volume 45; Issue 5

It does not take a scholarly savant nor a crystal ball-bearing sooth-sayer to realize that the surging wave of Hispanic immigrants is having a profound effect on American society and on our apparel industry as well.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some 103,000 jobs will be lost in the apparel industry this decade. That is an improvement over the last decade, when apparel producers lost more than 400,000 workers. However, with the industry's traditionally high turnover (about 20 percent annually), many of the 530,000 surviving jobs will be filled by immigrants, mainly Hispanic. This will boost the national average of Hispanic employment in the apparel industry to 39 percent in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and industry sources. To improve productivity, maintain profitability and perhaps even survive, U.S. apparel producers and contractors must learn to motivate the zooming numbers of Mexican, Central American, Puerto Rican, and Caribbean workers.

Managing Hispanic employees means more than just hiring a bilingual supervisor as an interpreter. Motivating Hispanic personnel means understanding their cultural traditions, and honoring them in workplace practices. Doing this generates peak productivity, now essential in apparel markets dominated by low-labor-cost producers from Ecuador to Eastern Europe, and all points in between.

An example of improper management

A new manager from the Midwest was hired for a troubled New York cut-and sew contractor. The firm had a large contingent of workers from the Caribbean (primarily Puerto Rico and Haiti) and a poor record on productivity and quality. Full of vim, vigor and a burning desire to prove himself, this new manager decided to improve the situation by getting "closer" to the mostly Spanish speaking work force. Hispanic employees made up 87 percent of the contractor's team.

He doffed coat and tie, and dressed in jeans and sports shirt. Asking his Hispanic employees to call him by his first name, he toured the plant floor with a translator, looking for ways to "help" workers while correcting their errors and speeding production. He felt he was "establishing good relations," by simultaneously pushing hard for better quality and productivity while reducing the visible economic and status gap between him and his workers. Despite his "corrective" tactics and casual approach in dress and conduct, plant performance continued downhill.

Why? Because he did not understand the mindset of the Hispanic workers. Like many Americans, he was unaware that managing employees with different Hispanic backgrounds, cultures and psychology is different than managing an Anglo work force.

Hispanic employees considered this new plant manager uncultured, boorish. He did not know that Hispanics generally expect the "boss" stereotype to be reflected in appearance, i.e., the higher the status or importance of the job, the more formal the attire.

The poor performance was not caused because the casually dressed manager insisted on improving quality and productivity, but because his manner of address was not formal enough for his heavily Puerto Rican work force when the inevitable production problems occurred. The Puerto Ricans wanted him to be proper, aloof, reserved and very formal. Quality of the plant's shipments continued to be poor, and customer complaints about late delivery burgeoned. We will return to this apparel business' quandary and some solutions for it throughout this article.

Hispanic population and employment trends

A study released in 2003 by the Bureau of the Census shows the most rapidly growing segment of the U.S. population is Hispanic. In 2002, there were 37.4 million Hispanics in the civilian population, representing 13.3 percent of all people living in the United States. This percentage will increase substantially in coming years.

The very great majority is in our nation's metropolitan areas, especially inner cities. The relatively few Hispanics in rural areas are heavily employed in the food industry, i.e., poultry processors in the South, and beef and pork slaughtering plants in the Midwest and West.

Some 22.1 percent of Hispanics work in service occupations, and 20.8 percent are employed in industry. The percentage of Hispanics in the overall work force is growing faster than any other group. About 24 percent of employees in U.S. manufacturing are Hispanic, up from 12 percent in 1984. In some plants the percentage runs higher than 90 percent, particularly in California, the greater New York City area, Texas and the industrial areas of northern Illinois and the "Rust Belt."

A large and growing number of the Hispanics living in the United States are undocumented. According to University of Pennsylvania sociologist Douglas Massey, 3.5 million "indocumentados," or undocumented Hispanics, entered the United States in 2002, compared with about 2.5 million annually for most of the '90s. According to a study by UCLA sociologist Liza Catanzarite, this influx has decreased wage levels in a wide range of blue-collar occupations in America's big cities. "It all comes down to the marginal status of immigrant Latinos," she said. "Immigrant workers are willing to work for less money and are less likely to defend their rights in the workplace, which drags down wages of all workers in the industry."

As a result, the percentage of Hispanics living below the poverty line is much greater than non-Hispanic whites. During the 2001 recession and so-called jobless recovery of 2002, substantially the entire net drop in U.S. employment was borne by native-born Americans, whose work was absorbed by immigrants, according to a February 2003 study by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, Boston.

Strive for cultural understanding

Whatever their origin, pay level or citizenship, Hispanics employees should be treated in a way that motivates them to do their best. An Hispanic employee's inability to communicate well in English does not mean he or she cannot contribute strongly to higher productivity and quality, nor does it mean he or she has no ideas about how to improve plant operations.

The typical American misunderstanding exhibited by the New York plant manager for the customs and psychology of foreign-born workers results in alienation, sinking internal performance and a meager bottom line. The plant manager attempted to "solve" his problems by hiring more Anglos for lower-level jobs. He found few Anglos willing to take on the rapid work pace or piece-rate pay that Hispanics gladly accepted.

To gain the best efforts of an Hispanic work force, plant managers must deep-six the notion that Hispanics are like other workers, except they speak Spanish. Hispanics, in general, have a psychology and culture differ from the traditional American one. Hispanics, especially from Puerto Rico, are raised with emphasis on knowing one's place, working hard and practicing self-abnegation. Their general mindset is that because God put man on this planet, any station in life, be it janitor or president, is worthy of respect. Approaching the religious concept of predestination, this Hispanic attitude is reflected by polite speech, a courteous approach and an acknowledgment that every worker has an important role. People are identified by class and roles, and Hispanics expect them to act in accordance with those roles. A plant manager wearing casual clothes is regarded as "lacking in respect."

Women, too, have a special place in Hispanic culture. Hispanic women still expect a respect equal to that they received south of the U.S. border, or in their native islands.

Time and nature

Hispanic workers' conception of time and punctuality is based on nature, and is far different from the Anglo view. Many of the islanders in the New York City plant were from rural origins, accustomed to rising and going to bed with the sun. (This is also true of most Mexicans and of many other Hispanics new to the United States.) Training is necessary to stress the importance of punctuality, as well as the seriousness of absenteeism. In a work force made up of Anglo and Hispanic personnel, understanding of each others' cultures is a two-way street. The Anglo supervisors in the New York plant had to be specially trained in how to use proper terms and gestures of respect in their coaching of Hispanic employees about punctuality and attendance.

Know-how, courtesy and recognition

While Hispanics admire Americans for their know-how, their technology and their energetic approach to their jobs, they may also feel that American plants are all business and lack the normal human a Hispanics like a smile, or a "buenos dias" in the morning. They expect courtesy during training, and correction of their mistakes instead of criticism.

The impact of training oil Hispanic employees can be greatly increased by emphasizing its ceremonial aspects. For instance, recognition is especially important. Managers need to make special efforts to invite Hispanic employees to job training classes and require attendance fur them to "graduate." Special diplomas upon course completion, with displays of graduation photos in the plant are expected. Graduation ceremonies are well appreciated, and provide Hispanic employees with the respect they believe is deserved. Employee recognition and its simple manifestations are the heart of Hispanic employee relations, and proved to be very fruitful at the New York City facility.

Hispanics generally want their supervisors to be like teachers and fathers, paternalistic and kind, anxious to correct and guide, and with an understanding of human frailty. They respond magnificently when the actions of American managers and supervisors demonstrate real interest and respect for them. Hispanics place great emphasis on the need to recognize the "place" of the employee, to use certain phrases and formulas of respect when correcting an employee's work and to avoid any show of undue familiarity with Hispanic female employees.

In the New York plant, a list of common English workplace phrases was given to the Hispanic workers, who appreciated and learned their use. The ability to communicate with Americans was an important status symbol for some employees. At the same time, Anglo supervisors were provided common Spanish phrases, which they learned and used, drawing appreciative smiles (and better performance) from workers.

Friendliness, smiles and a kindly manner go a long way toward winning the loyalty and cooperation of Hispanic workers. Lack of Spanish fluency leads many American managers to rush through the plant, avoiding contact with Hispanic employees. Facial expressions can convey what language cannot.

Achieving quality and cooperation

Most Caribbean islanders believe American standards require perfection. It is useful to show Hispanic workers that good quality has range, and educate them on what is required to meet quality standards. To do this, plant management should post pictures illustrating acceptable product quality.

Most Hispanics in American plants are uncomplaining hard workers, and usually are not given to filing grievances, or protesting working conditions. Many are bewildered by the idea that a worker has a right to complain about a superior's behavior. Telling Hispanics they can appeal a supervisor's ruling to managers "upstairs" goes against the grain. This is a disrespectful challenge to supervisory authority, something almost no Hispanic would do. They generally don't join unions or strike unless ignored, treated as adjuncts to the cutting tables or embroidery and sewing machines, or gravely provoked by having their dignity violated.

Because Hispanic employees may not speak up about problems, it is important to be proactive in identifying irritants that may be bothering them and impacting their performance. Periodic employee audits by outside experts can quickly identify worker concerns and high light their ideas to improve productivity and quality. This means face-to-face interviews with Hispanic workers, which often turn up many irritants of which neither plant managers nor Spanish-speaking supervisors are aware. For example, a hole in the floor can cause garments to fail from their racks, poor work scheduling can lead to bundle pile-ups at one line or another; overlooked maintenance can defeat production goals and piece rate earnings. Most important, abusive supervisors can be identified and their behavior corrected.

Audits also may defuse unionization attempts of Hispanic workers, or avert strikes in unionized plants. Audits by outside consultants invariably highlight many helpful suggestions for improvement of morale and operations. Hispanics rarely reveal such ideas to company executives or interviewers for fear of reprisals. Yet after such a two-way communications system is started by an outside expert, Hispanic employees learn their ideas are welcomed. Then, the company human resource department can be trained to take over the audit function.

For apparel executives who make these efforts to understand Hispanic culture and outlook, who try to improve communications and institute special training procedures, the payoff can be very great: higher morale and productivity, less waste, fewer seconds, lower labor costs and greater profitability.

Isn't it time you made such an effort?



Distribution of U.S. Civilian Labor Force,

1990, 2000 and Projected 2010 (in thousands)

GROUP 1990 2000 2010 (projected)

WHITE 107,447 (78.7%) 117,574 (75.3%) 128,043 (71.7%)

BLACK 13,740 (10.0%) 16,603 (10.6%) 20,041 (11.2%)

HISPANIC 10,720 (7.8%) 15,368 (9.8%) 20,947 (11.7%)

ASIAN 4,653 (3.4%) 6,687 (4.2%) 9,636 (5.4%)

Source: Fullerton, H.N., and Toossi, Mitra, Labor Force Projections to

2010, Monthly Labor Review, November, 2001, Table 8, Pg. 32.

Management consultant firm IMBERMAN and DEFOREST INC. specializes in human resource administration, including alternative compensation plans tying pay to performance, employee communications programs, management development and supervisory training and diversity advocacy programs in both union and non-union settings. Company president DR. WOODRUFF IMBERMAN has lectured at more than a dozen universities across the nation, and has published more than 400 articles on various aspects of human resource and ministration and employee compensation programs. Senior vice president MARIAH DEFOREST has lectured at a half dozen universities and has published more than 40 articles on various aspects of managing Hispanic and other minority employees as well as diversity advocacy programs. The authors may be reached at,

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