Editor’s Note: In the following article, the term "Spanish speaker" refers to people who came to the United States as adults in search of employment, not Spanish-speaking persons born and raised in the United States.
The hospitality industry’s reliance on the Spanish-speaking workforce presents both opportunities and challenges for employers. It is easy to see how the language barrier can be a source of frustration and can result in lost productivity. However, few employers realize that the barriers most detrimental to their business are the ones that are not so obvious. As well as their language, Spanish speakers bring to the workplace a deeply entrenched set of beliefs that is often directly at odds with an employer’s priorities and initiatives.
One root of the problem is that Spanish speakers tend to harbor an “Us vs. Them” mentality. They feel strongly that what is good for the company will be bad for employees and that any advantage for them will be something their employers will oppose. What’s more, they tend to be very fatalistic, and feel that they are bound to their lot in life and there is nothing they can do about it. It is difficult for them to conceive of “win-win” opportunities within a workplace. For example, they don’t realize that a good package of employee benefits provides stability for them as well as helping to ensure a loyal and healthy workforce for their employer. They see that training a new-hire is good for the company, as there will be another productive pair of hands, but they feel that this jeopardizes rather than enhances their own job security (If a junior employee, who makes less per hour, knows what I know, why do they need me?). They are often looking for the catch, the scam, the way that an employer (or anyone else, for that matter) will be trying to take advantage of them.
Compounding this difficulty is that Spanish speakers are unaware of the role that communication plays in a workplace in this country, so they will be very reluctant to talk about such beliefs and misconceptions, except among themselves. People born and raised in this country, on the other hand, take it very much for granted that good communication skills make an employee or manager more effective and successful. We are bombarded by opportunities to improve our own strategies for team-building, listening, and leadership—webinars, seminars, and conferences that directly address our ability to communicate. Then we bring this knowledge back to our workplace, and do what? Have a meeting to share this wonderful new knowledge, of course. We also get excited when our employees are good communicators. Asking thoughtful questions, sharing suggestions, and pointing out potential problems all demonstrate that a team member is invested in the success of an initiative and, to our way of thinking, helps managers to be effective and on top of things.
Spanish speakers tend to be very confused by our reliance on meetings and conversations. They feel that their only responsibility is to work and to get the job done, and that their job security depends solely on their productivity. They feel that the best employees are the ones who do their assigned tasks without complaining and who don’t waste valuable time with foolish questions. To them, pointing out a potential problem is cowardly behavior that shows that they are unwilling to do the job. Even more dishonorable is consistently initiating communication with a superior—which is seen as an underhanded way to earn points. Therefore, Spanish-speaking employees can be very confused, not to mention resentful, when employees whom we would see as good communicators are rewarded.
Consider the following scenario. A group of housekeepers are expected to clean five rooms each on a given day. The only English speaker, Sally, is aware that for one of her rooms, special sheets have been sent ahead because of the allergies of a family member, who seems to develop hives from every laundry detergent under the sun. But when Sally arrives to clean, the sheets are not there. A typical Spanish speaker here would probably make the beds with the normal sheets, not because she does not wish to please the customer, but because she feels that it is her responsibility to meet or exceed her quota, rather than wasting time pointing out problems. Sally, however, leaves the room, seeks out her supervisor (who is extremely busy), hunts down the missing sheets, and uses them to make the bed. She also thinks to ask whether this guest might be allergic to the moisturizer in the bathroom as well, so the supervisor has guest services call this particular family to check. Because of this delay, Sally cleans only three rooms, and two co-workers work extra to cover for her. The guest fills out a comment card with rave reviews, thanks Sally by name, and posts enthusiastic recommendations on Orbitz and Expedia.
When Sally is named employee of the month, her co-workers are furious. As they see it, she spent valuable work time running back and forth whining to the supervisor while they are breaking their backs getting her job done. However, they lack the skills to communicate appropriately. They may well make it very clear in Spanish that they do not approve of Sally’s reward, but they will not simply ask the supervisor or other decision-makers what the criteria are for employee of the month. To them, Sally is simply management’s “favorite,” probably because she is an English speaker. If they hear about the positive reviews, they will see this as a “win” for the company, once again at their expense. On the other hand, to the management, it is so obvious that Sally has gone the extra mile to make a customer happy that their decision warrants no explanation. They are probably also blissfully unaware of the simmering resentment.
So what can be done? It is difficult to encourage employees who do not speak your language to communicate better, but it is not impossible. Making the effort to illustrate to Spanish speakers how their decisions impact the bottom line of the company is challenging but is well worth the effort. It is also important to present opportunities to strengthen their job stability while helping the company to be successful, and demonstrate clearly how both sides will benefit. Clearly delineating the criteria of an outstanding employee will help, especially if you are able to acknowledge that these criteria counter some of their deeply held beliefs. Rewarding Spanish speakers promptly and publically for making the effort to communicate can also be very powerful. Praising them for communication when they expect to be reprimanded will go a long way toward shifting their erroneous beliefs. This process will not happen overnight, but investing in building trust with this employee group, when it is done right, will have substantial and measurable returns.
Melissa Burkhart is the president of Futuro Sólido USA, which provides a wide range of customized Spanish language services and training materials to ensure a solid future for Spanish speaking workers and their employers. She can be reached at (303) 837-8224 or www.futurosolidousa.com.