Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Las Acciones Hablan Mas Que Palabras

From ISRI Safety this morning....
Working safely in a multicultural environment, actions really do speak louder than words.

From John Gilstrap, Director of Safety at ISRI

Anecdotal evidence shows that in the recycling industry, Hispanic workers suffer a disproportionate share of injuries. I’ve written in this space before about the importance of communicating safety in a way that is understood by all workers, but in the past, I’ve concentrated on written and oral communication. More recently, I’ve come to realize that cultural differences play a huge role in this communication

And when I say huge, I mean huge. Unless and until we get a handle on these differences, meaningful change is going to be slow in coming. “You have to understand Latino culture in order to train them effectively,” said Bob Ramirez, principal consultant for Ramirez Associates, a firm that specializes in helping incorporate Hispanic culture into American corporations.“If you want them to take it seriously, you need to present it seriously. In Hispanic culture, what you say means less than what you show. In Spanish, we call it ‘the big wink’.” And workers are very sensitive to it.

Born in Mexico and raised in the United States before heading back to Mexico to manage manufacturing plants, Ramirez says that the cultural differences between the two countries are startling. And it starts in childhood.

“American kids are born to be independent,” Ramirez said. “They are raised to question authority, to think on their own. In Latino cultures, we depend on our parents to take care of us, for priests to tell us what is right and wrong, and for the police to tell us what is legal and illegal.”

This cultural deference, he says, extends to the workplace as well. “A Hispanic’s worth as a man is based on how we’re perceived as workers,” Ramirez explained. “And
we’re very respectful of authority. So if the boss tells a Hispanic worker to do something, he’ll assume that it’s a safe thing to do.” Even when it’s not.
“We don’t like to say no,” Ramirez says of Latino culture. “It’s considered disrespectful. So when an American boss tells a Latino worker, ‘I need you to X, Y, and Z before you go home tonight,’ the worker is likely to agree, even when he knows that there’s a family commitment that will keep him from fulfilling his promise. He’ll consider it more respectful to tell a ‘little white lie’ than to say no.”

This is a common source of conflict between Latino workers and American managers. “In the United States, people see things in black and white,” Ramirez explains, “with a tiny area in between called the gray area.” Americans quickly lose
patience with people who dwell on the gray area. (Remember wondering what the definition of “is” was?) In Latino cultures, Ramirez explains, the perception is entirely different. “In Mexico, for example, it’s well understood that there’s yes,
no, then a wide freeway called the gray area. Everyone understands this.” What they don’t understand is why their bosses don’t understand. The white lie, they believe, is better than the insult of refusal.

Consider the all-too-common half-hearted safety training class, in which lip service is given to safety, while the real emphasis remains on production. Ramirez explains that a Latino audience culturally prewired for “the big wink.” They expect the nonverbal communication to convey the “real” meaning of what people say and weigh those cues at least as heavily as they weigh the word that are spoken. When safety equipment is provided, but there’s no emphasis on wearing it, everyone understands
that they’re expected not to use it. Come to think of it, that response is
common to all cultures. Still, there is a Latino cultural barrier to wearing safety equipment.

“In general, Hispanics believe that everything has been preordained,” Ramirez said. “If God wants you to die, you’re going to die. Therefore, what’s the use of taking steps that make you appear to be a bad worker?” Add to that the fact that the
Hispanic workforce in the United States is overall quite young, complete with the sense of indestructibility that comes with youth, and it’s easy to see why there might be resistance to hard hats and safety glasses.

In Hispanic culture, it seems that directions are in large measure negotiations. “You need to ask the question the right way,” Ramirez explained. “A fellow Hispanic supervisor might say, ‘We have this job to do, can you stay?’ and then he’ll watch for the [nonverbal] signs. The worker still might not say no,
but if he can’t stay, he’ll hem and haw, and this is the signal. The supervisor will then give him a graceful way out.” Or, if the job is really essential, the supervisor will explain the importance of staying.

I’ve said it before, folks: at the root of every unsafe act is a worker’s self-perceived best interest. When it comes to a multicultural workforce, the title of this column says it all: Actions speak louder than words.

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