In today's environment, in which price-conscious consumers and low-cost imports are the name of the game, it is particularly crucial for U.S.-based apparel companies to operate as efficiently and effectively as possible. With a sizeable and growing Latino work force, understanding how to motivate this group of people to be productive can be the difference between failure and success.
This article is the response to Apparel Magazine reader interest in this subject: More than 70 readers from around the United States replied to the Apparel January 2004 article, "The Hispanic Work Force: How To Deal With Diversity," requesting tips about increasing the effectiveness of Latino supervisors in motivating workers to achieve better performance, including higher productivity and fewer garment defects.
The Census Bureau predicts that with employee turnover, nationwide Latino employment in the downsizing domestic garment industry will rise to about 39 percent by 2010. Some producers and contractors, especially in certain areas of California, Greater New York City, the southwestern states and industrial "Rust Belt" cities such as Chicago, report that Hispanics already comprise more than 90 percent of their total work forces.
About 85 percent of the Hispanic workers in the United States are from Mexico, with most coming to the United States as adults. On average, legal Hispanic immigrants have a sixth-grade education - the indocumentados, even less.
Cutting through the machismo
While most apparel makers identify Hispanic workers as hard-working and personable, they also report that they have trouble turning Latinos into effective supervisors, because, when promoted to supervisory positions, Latinos often adopt the more authoritarian postures under which they were raised.
The Latino model of authoritarianism is simply a reflection of the Hispanic concept of respect. To be respected in most Latin American countries, a supervisor or manager has to be perceived as a "strongman." Showing flexibility or willingness to compromise is regarded as a sign of weakness, and calls into question a supervisor's entire position. In fact, the concept of machismo, characterized by strength, stoicism in the face of travail and unquestioned rule over family and employees, often frames the whole notion of Latino authority. Many foreign-born Hispanic supervisors instinctively react to employee complaints as challenges to their authority.
By contrast, effective U.S.-born supervisors generally are culturally attuned to dealing with gripes and grievances, discussing issues with employees before making final decisions, handling union stewards and making the compromises needed to forge a "team" feeling among their workers.
The culture of machismo clashes with the democratic ideals that underlie today's management in America - the emphasis on equality, fairness and individuality. The challenge is to convince Latino supervisors to substitute these egalitarian values for those of the authoritarian cultures in which they were raised. When they learn to bridge this cultural gap, Latino supervisors can then motivate their workers to improve productivity and quality, boosting company competitiveness and bottom line profits.
Specialized training a must
To become more effective managers in U.S.-based companies, Hispanic supervisors need to receive specialized training courses conducted in Spanish. This specialized supervisory training, led by trainers who speak Spanish, is much more valuable than the garden variety training offered by well-meaning trade associations, or the vanilla, one-size-fits-all programs sold over the Internet.
This specialized training must be focused on the importance of evolving from a traditional authoritarian leadership style to a more "democratic," psychological approach to managing and motivating workers. Training should emphasize equality, fairness and employee coaching, with a goal of convincing Latino supervisors that compromise does not diminish personal honor - that by listening to workers and helping them accomplish their jobs, the result will be greater overall work force cooperation and productivity.
Conveying this approach to Hispanic supervisors requires more than a quick review of a Psych 101 textbook. Basic approaches and emphasis on behavioral conditioning must be explained to new Hispanic supervisors in a context and language suited to their needs.
Latino supervisors are most receptive to the new ideas involved in this training when lessons are presented in Spanish. This creates an automatic bond between trainer and trainees, leading the latter to realize that the trainer understands - and sympathizes with - their day-to-day job situations and problems.
Additionally, the training methodology is just as important as the language. Learning by example, discussion and mutual problem solving introduces Latinos to some of the very behaviors necessary to perform well as supervisors in a give-and-take culture. Interviewing mid-managers and hourly employees from the supervisors' own sewing floors enables the trainer to develop real-world training scenarios. Since these cases mirror the supervisors' daily experiences, they quickly recognize that the problems are real, not just "canned" textbook studies, and can see themselves in the simple case examples.
It comes down to the bottom line
Many garment producers and cut-and-sew contractors today are facing competition from waves of offshore imports and the sharp-penciled, big box retailers eager to take advantage of their low prices. Increasingly, these contractors are realizing that their prosperity, and even survival, in this environment require that they train their Latino supervisors to motivate the growing numbers of their Spanish-speaking workers to improve their on-the-job performance.
Isn't it time you got on the bandwagon?
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. He may be reached at tel.: 847-733-0071 or [email protected].