Hispanic culture at work – understanding and managing Hispanic employees

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 some common Hispanic cultural traits, 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 work day 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 that 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, I 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 Cultural Traits at Work: What You Need to Know

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 expresses 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. 
  4. Personal Contact – In social situations, Hispanics find physical contact with others quite normal. Handshakes, hugs, kisses on the cheek, pats on the back… it’s all part of daily interaction.
  5. 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, 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 Hispanic cultural traits, 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 employee is from his/her 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.

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  • Alejandro Carpy Velazquez

    Mr. Tornoe

    I agree with you. Us, latinos like to feel close to co’workers because that means to us be working in a friendly environment. Yes, working in a friendly, close to familiar environment makes us get the best out of us for work and for interaction with others. I think your article is good nurishment for those who want to become strong at creating a beter and productive environment at their companies or at their place of work with latinos. Thank you and congratulations for writing about such an important and realistic issue.
    Sincerely,
    Alejandro

  • Micaela Laporta

    Great Tips Juan! I’m from Argentina and now I was starting to look for a job outside my country and found this, really interesting and useful, I´ve never gone to USA but I heard that this happens very often, it´s a matter of culture, but at last I hope people can get used to each other :)

  • Ann

    As an employer of 2 Latinos, who are also my brother-in-law and his wife, I have quite a few issues that create problems in our work environment. I am 1st generation American (Western European), plus Old Southern Family, and my husband is LatinoSpanish.
    I have trained my in-laws to perform their responsibilities as we are directed by US and State governmental standards and requirements, but…but…they still want to do many things their own way, from the old country. Ten years of discord, un intended insults (constructive criticism, one on one), has made my life miserable. This work relationship has ruined my marriage, and affects my entire family negatively. Even though my in laws could both now change jobs within our field and make better money and benefits resulting from training them for ten years, and paying for continuing education, they won’t pursue any changes to their status quo. Getting up to speed with required Internet based training creates battles all around. Every change to the way they do things creates traumatic results, but these traumatic results are always exhibited through undercurrents. I am sick of these undercurrents that is breaking apart a lifetime of accomplishments my husband and I have worked hard for, including our eroding relationship. My next plan is to find a psychologist, maybe Latino, but definitely someone “non American” to come in and evaluate our work environment and make “non American ” assessments and suggestions to improve our situation.

    • eionke

      i think i can understand you very well. i used to be one of the supervisors of two Latinos for almost a year, they were still damaging our products, even after working in company for few months. and one thing that made me mad was when i told them they need to be careful, since they keep making the mistake. but wow, their excuse is, it is normal to damage the product after doing so many of them. and the thing they responsible was to disassemble about 20 desktop computers and unpack about 20 computer box, per day. But almost everyday, 1 to 4 computers would get damaged by them. i was like really? if they were only under me, wont last for a day.

      so in my impression about Hispanic is, they are really not a good rule follower, it doesn’t matter the rule is good or bad, make sense or no. they only follow their own.

      • Felipe Monsalvez

        You are saying “Hispanic” and you put them all together. You should be more conscientious because I could say that American people spend money on cigarettes, alcohol and DRUGS, but it does not mean that all the American people do it. Please have a little respect.

        (Ps, 90% of the American people that I have seen in my country are alcoholics and Drug addicts, and are you one of those?)

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Author Bio

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Juan Tornoe is the owner and Sr. Consultant at Hispanic Trending, the leading Latino marketing and advertising blog, and is a national and international consultant and public speaker. He has worked for more than 15 years on the media, agency and client sides of the marketing and advertising industry, with experience in copywriting, strategy development, media buying and consumer research.

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