As a non-Hispanic employer or manager, you may be wondering how cultural differences might affect your work environment when you bring Latino employees into your organization. By taking the time to familiarize yourself with the Hispanic culture, you will be able to better understand and interact with Hispanic staff members, creating a more inclusive and comfortable atmosphere for everyone.
Indulge me for a moment and let me share my first-hand experience as a bilingual Latino professional. In Guatemala, every workday would begin by doing the rounds at the office: saying hi to everyone, asking about their lives, shaking hands with the guys, and giving a small peck on the cheek to the ladies. If you met someone for the first time, you’d be quite formal, but after this, it was a given that you’d act as I just described.
When I came to the U.S., I had a bad case of “don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone.”
On my first day at work, introductions were pretty normal… lots of handshakes and smiles. The following day was when the culture shock began. I walked in and, as I was used to doing, attempted to greet the office receptionist with a peck on the cheek. She swiftly evaded me with a move worthy of Emmett Smith on roller blades. Quite impressive.
I walked further down the hall and greeted my fellow staff members individually. Passing by their offices, I couldn’t help but notice their puzzled expressions. As I was getting settled at my desk, my new boss came into my office. I immediately stood up, walked towards him, and gave him a firm and effusive handshake. My jaw dropped two feet after hearing what came out of his mouth at that moment: “Why are you standing up and shaking my hand? Didn’t we just see each other yesterday?”
I have to confess at first it was somewhat liberating not having to interact with people the way I did back home. But the feeling quickly faded, and I found that I missed that type of connection. I wanted to be more than a co-worker; I wanted to be seen as a real person with a life outside the office, not someone who vanished after 5 p.m. and magically reappeared at 9 a.m. the next day.
While I am aware that this is not the reality in every U.S. workplace, my story serves to highlight some issues your Hispanic staff members may also be facing.
Hispanic Culture at Work: What You Need to Know
- Degree of Intimacy – Hispanics innately want to establish a personal connection, including a close relationship with co-workers. It may take some time in a new work environment to learn what is expected, but Hispanic staff members will adapt to a different level of intimacy. Or you may even find your office becoming a closer-knit “family” as you are exposed to a new way of working.
- Level of Interaction – Latinos want to get to know others as complete human beings. They are aware that their co-workers have a life after work and are interested in knowing more about it. Small talk is our way of learning about the wants, needs, and feelings of others.
- Social Harmony – Hispanic employees don’t like to rock the boat; we have a need to maintain smooth and pleasant relationships. Blatant confrontation does not come naturally to us. I have to admit that I still feel uncomfortable when my fellow non-Hispanic staff members clearly and openly express their disagreement on a given issue. For them, there is no emotion involved in the interaction; it is just a difference in opinion. As a Latino, I prefer to use a more indirect approach.
- Personal Contact – In social situations, Hispanics find physical contact with others quite normal. Handshakes, hugs, kisses on the cheek, pats on the back are all part of daily interaction.
- Respect for Authority – Hispanic employees tend to treat those in positions of authority with a great deal of respect. Don’t expect us to blurt out our disagreement in front of everyone. If you really want to know what we think on a given issue, get some one-on-one time with us and reassure us that you really need our feedback and are ready to hear it. That’s when you’ll get some frank and useful feedback from us.
Now that you are more familiar with the Hispanic culture, what can you do to relate to your Latino staff and promote an inclusive workplace?
- Make a conscious effort to recognize your Hispanic employees on a personal level. We will appreciate your effort to make small talk, show us your “unguarded” side, and be down to earth, even if it is only for a short while. If you just can’t do it, acknowledge it. It is much better to admit your discomfort than to create unnecessary friction or misunderstandings.
- Be ready and willing to shake some hands. Think of yourself as a politician running for office. You’ll get the hang of it and start to enjoy it.
- Be a leader, not a “boss.” Hispanic employees respond to managers who lead through vision and inspiration, not fear and intimidation. Rather than remain in a negative environment, Latino workers will search for a respectful, collaborative workplace.
I hope that these insights I have shared will help you better relate to your Hispanic employees. Just remember that these are generalizations; the term Latino or Hispanic refers to a very diverse group of individuals. Each person will be influenced by their country of ancestry, country of birth, language of preference, region where they live, years in the U.S., level of acculturation, level of assimilation, income level, and education. As a rule of thumb, the further away your Hispanic employees are from their ancestors that migrated to the United States, the less noticeable these characteristics will be.
It may sound complex, but it really isn’t: there are just as many things that make us similar as there are things that set us apart.