Managing your Latino Workforce, Part I: Cultural Traits and Management Styles

By Dr. Claudio Pasian, Department of Horticulture and Crop Science

The Ohio State University

Who are the Latinos?  Latino is someone of Latin American heritage. Hispanic, on the other hand, means “of Spanish or Latin American background.” For the most part, both terms are used interchangeably. There are no definitive and accurate statistics about the origin of the Latinos working in US horticulture.  These Latino workers come from all over Latin America, but anecdotal information and some surveys indicate that most of them (at least 60%) are from Mexico.

Typically, Latino workers in US horticulture were raised in rural communities in Mexico and are young, and most likely in their 20s most likely.  Most often, they have a basic level of education with no knowledge of the English language or very basic English language skills, and are following a dream.  Some move to the US permanently, others plan to stay here only for a few years to work and to send money back home.

According to A. Saunders, a cross-cultural trainer, “A very big barrier for a new project team where members are from different parts of the world is not language. It is the baggage each team member carries in his/her own cultural suitcase”. We all carry a cultural suitcase containing a set of values. These values originate from the family and country in which we were raised and can be influenced by the organizations we belong to or even the work place. Therefore, to facilitate good communication it is important to have an idea of the cultural baggage or customs of other individuals.

In all my writings and presentations about this topic, I emphasize the importance of going beyond learning Spanish to communicate: learn about the culture of your Latino workers. In that vein, I want to share with you information about cultural traits and management styles I found in a book that should be a “must read” for everyone who supervises Latino workers.  The book is called “Management in Two Cultures. Bridging the Gap Between US and Mexican Managers” by Eva S. Kras.  Intercultural Press, Inc.

This book of only 104 pages is meant to be read by business managers doing business in Mexico.  However, most of the information in it can be applied to any situation in the horticulture industry where Latino workers are involved.  Ms. Kras’ book is based on a series of in-depth interviews she conducted with 72 Mexican and US executives.

In her work, Ms. Kras describes US and Mexican cultural and social traits and then describes, compares and contrasts the different management styles prevalent in the two cultures – without judging them.  This will be my approach while presenting some of her work.  You may agree or disagree with her findings and her interpretation.  What is important is that you consider these terms when trying to improve your communication with your Latino workforce.  Communication is much more than language.  It requires understanding the culture!

What are cultural traits?  Ms. Kras defines them as broad, strong, pervasive, and dominant generalizations about a culture.  Obviously, such traits are not universal because each person is unique.  The reality is that the perfect “typical” American or Mexican does not exist, and because of that, it is important to avoid stereotyping!  We all want to be respected and appreciated as unique beings. The cultural and management traits described in the book are shown below.

Cultural Traits Management Traits
  • Family
  • Religion
  • Education
  • Nationalism
  • Personal Sensitivity
  • Etiquette
  • Personal Appearance
  • Status
  • Aesthetics
  • Ethics
  • Work/Leisure
  • Direction/Supervision
  • Theory vs. Practice
  • Control
  • Staffing
  • Loyalty
  • Competition
  • Training & Development
  • Time Planning

Just as examples, let us choose two Cultural Traits, Etiquette and Personal Sensitivity plus two Management Styles, Supervision and Competition for a brief description.

Etiquette in Mexico. Ms. Kras’ research found that courtesy in Mexico is extremely important.  Mexicans consider courtesy as an indicator of education (“bien educado”) since they assume that good manners are taught in school.  First impressions are very important.  Poor manners (informality that we Americans like so much can be interpreted as such) when people meet can mark the relationship in a negative way for a long time.

In Spanish, the way titles and pronouns are used indicate the level of formality.  It is still common in Mexico to refer to a person of authority using a title such as “Señor” (Sir) or “Don.”  Both “TU” and “USTED” are translated in English as “YOU.”  However, TU indicates that the two people talking know each other well, and are possibly the same age and rank.  USTED is used when there is no familiarity or when rank is involved.  Most likely, a Mexican worker will refer to the boss as USTED.  American supervisors of Latino workers who are learning Spanish are advised to use the USTED, a sign of respect, more than the TU.  It is better to err on the side of formality…

In Mexico, it is common at work to shake hands when workers begin the day.  This is followed by greetings and chitchat about the weather, health, family, etc.  Mexican bosses earn the respect and loyalty of their employees through courtesy and diplomacy. A “good boss” never “toots his own horn” as it would be perceived as bad taste in Mexican culture.

Etiquette in the US. Efficiency is king in the US.  “Let’s get to the point” is the key attitude: “Don’t slow me down with stuff that is not job related.”  When addressing issues, Americans appreciate the “unvarnished truth” and sometimes without much regard to sensitivities on the other side.  Does this mean that Americans are insensitive?  No. It means that unlike Mexicans, Americans are expected to separate their emotions from their work.  Yet, this very emphasis on objectivity can be interpreted as “bad manners” by other cultures.  Outside of work, Americans are as sensitive and warm as anybody else is.  One way some Americans try to show friendliness is though informality.  It is more common in the US workplace to refer to a person of authority by first name instead of Mr., or to tell a joke to break the ice in an effort to establish rapport.  However, for the Mexican employee, this behavior may achieve exactly the opposite effect.

Personal Sensitivity in Mexico. Ms. Kras says it all in one sentence: “Mexicans are extremely sensitive to the world around them and have a marked capacity to empathize with the people with whom they interact”.  They are masters in avoiding confrontation and saving face.  Because of this, they are very sensitive to criticism.  Even at work, constructive criticism may be taken personally.  Never criticize your employees in front of other workers, much less if the employee is also a supervisor!  While face-saving is a human characteristic (found in all cultures), Mexicans have made an art of it to the point that they practice it even when not needed.

Personal Sensitivity in the US. As said earlier, Americans are expected to suppress emotions at work.  Therefore, constructive criticism is not only tolerated but also expected in order to improve efficiency. In the US, to be tough at work is, more often that not, considered a “virtue.”

Supervision in Mexico. Mexicans have great respect for authority.  Orders given by a superior are seldom commented on and much less questioned.  Delegation of authority is not common.  Employees will do as told, no more, no less.  It is the boss’ responsibility to communicate well all that needs to be done and how.  If a mistake is made, with this system it is the boss’ responsibility.  Typically, Mexicans value being part of a group;  work – often carried out along side other members of the extended family – is an extension of the group.

Supervision in the US. Americans place a high value on individualism and in the workplace, the “ideal” employee works independently.  American bosses appreciate being able to delegate authority and supervising workers who like to “take ownership” of the job.  Problems that arise on the job are seen as challenges and it is acceptable to make minor mistakes without loosing the boss’ support.  In fact, meeting these challenges may represent a valued learning experience.

A detailed contrast and comparison of all cultural traits and management styles can be found in Ms. Kras’ book. I strongly recommend that you buy and read it. While reading, consider that these are broad generalizations. If you do not identify with some of the traits and management styles described, that is okay. Most likely, you will be able to recognize these characteristics in some of your fellow Americans. Also, keep in mind that societies in general and people in particular change over time. Doing business with the US and Canada through NAFTA is bringing change to many Mexicans and their business practices. However, this change may be less noticeable in people coming from small towns in rural areas (the source of most Mexican horticulture workers). Also, remember that the poisonous effect of what we call “Hollywood” (the movies) is being felt all over the world and it is changing many traditional cultures – in my opinion, usually for the worst.