All over the United States, in thousands of companies, there are two or more very powerful (and mostly frustrated) people in the precarious position of daily choosing loyalties between management and their countrymen.
These people control the stream of information between management and labor. These people are typically Hispanic bilingual people.
Most are now supervisors who were promoted from the labor ranks to a supervisory position primarily for their ability to speak both Spanish and English. Most have no serious leadership training or experience; they just speak English and Spanish. Most are on-the-job glorified translators.
These people are the liaisons between management and labor.
These people have way too much power for their good and yours!
A Serious ScenarioPicture the normal construction, wholesale or manufacturing company these days. It consists of Anglo or English-speaking supervisors, managers and administrators and Spanish-speaking laborers. In the middle, we have these very influential bilingual people who are in the incredibly difficult position of choosing between their countrymen (who many times are family members or close friends) and their employer on a daily basis.
Every day these people are asked to relay messages and needs from their fellow workers to management. Every day these people are asked to relay messages from management to the laborers. Every day these people are frustrated by both groups of people. Every day these people must choose their loyalties.
How does one choose loyalties between their family and countrymen and their employer? Very carefully, that's how.
How would you like to be living in, let's say Russia, and you are bilingual English and Russian. You are a supervisor and you have an English-speaking group of laborers. You are also responsible for making sure that your fellow family members and countrymen understand the desires and requirements of management and that management understands their needs.
Can you see how thankless of a position this really is? Can you see that many times you would have to choose to filter information to try to preserve both relationships?
You can imagine that information is filtered, filtered, filtered!
Who Shoulders Responsibility?Should you blame the middleman here? Of course not - you should blame yourself. You are the manager. It is management's responsibility to make sure there is good communication in the workforce. The fact of the matter is that management set up this crazy system out of an imagined necessity.
I have heard it thousands of times, “Juan does such a great job and Juan is very loyal to me (us).” Well, I'm sure that Juan does do a great job and that Juan is loyal to you to the degree he can be.
Understand, however, that Juan has to go and live with his fellow workers (i.e., family members and friends many times) and that he has to save his neck. Understand that he has loyalties that will cloud his ability to relay information accurately from you to labor and from labor to you. Understand that he must do this and so would you if you were in his position.
So, we know we have a problem. We have a huge problem here, my friends. We have managers who simply cannot manage because they cannot communicate with their Spanish-speaking labor force and they are using a friend or family member to manage for them by proxy. This is an organizational problem, and you are the one who can solve this problem, not labor.
This affects recruitment, hiring, training, promotion, safety and more. This affects your company in very serious ways.
You say, “Well, it's my best option, he's bilingual.” No, your best option is for you and some of your key management personnel to become bilingual and be the communicators you should be. One of the main responsibilities of a manager is to communicate and language is certainly part of communication. If you cannot communicate with your people, you cannot manage your people properly. I can't be any more straightforward than this.
It astonishes me to view companies so reliant on just a few bilingual people for the well-being of their labor force. Let me be clear - I am not against these Hispanic bilingual supervisors in any way. I am an Hispanic bilingual person. In fact, I am for them as much as I am for you - maybe more! Many of them do not like being glorified translators every day anyway, much less having to choose between you and their people so frequently. I am not writing this article for them. That's a different bottle of tequila. I am writing this for you, and you have a problem that needs to be solved.
A Strategic SolutionBefore I tell you how to solve the problem, let me tell you what not to do right now. Don't go to your Hispanic bilingual supervisors and question their loyalties based on this article. I mean, what are they going to say to you? “No, that guy doesn't know what he is talking about boss, we're totally loyal to you and we would never filter information.” Yeah, right! Let's keep this close to the vest for now, friends, until we can figure out how to best help everyone in the mix, including your Hispanic bilingual people.
Now, here's how to solve the problem.1We strategically determine where the Hispanic touch points are in your company. This means we identify which managers and supervisors are involved directly with Spanish-speaking people on a regular basis. We also look into the future a bit and determine the future needs of your organization in this area. These people need to learn at least enough Spanish to communicate on the job. You have legal and ethical liabilities and responsibilities here. This training should be every bit as important as this person being able to drive a truck. Trucks don't talk, people do!
2Once we determine who is managing your Spanish-speakers on a consistent basis, we pass out surveys to these people. This way we find out who among your managers has an interest or desire to learn Spanish. Yes, it is management's responsibility to communicate with labor, not vice versa. You can't go on like you have been. It's not good for you or your people. As already implied, the legal and ethical onus is on you,amigos.
3After we get surveys back and see who has a serious desire to learn the Spanish language, we start a Spanish learning program that will get real results. We do none of this nonsense of holding a group class once or twice a week that will have your people nowhere in three months. It's not within the scope of this article, but the worst result in language training is a group class where people who learn at different rates of speed are all trying to learn together and, to make it worse, people who don't know how to speak well are practicing together, just reinforcing their own mistakes. There is a much better way!
By the way, do not start an ESL (English as a Second Language) class. This does two things really incorrectly. First, you are saying again that it is labor's responsibility to communicate with you, and we already know that it is your responsibility to communicate with them. This is why you are the leader, my friends. Secondly, I just told you that group classes don't work well. If you are ever going to teach English, then do it the right way. Do it strategically in a quality program for people who are either present supervisors and need refinement in their English, or for people who are potential supervisors but are being held back because of their lack of English skills.
4Get all of your managers some training in how to properly understand and work with the Hispanic workforce. Let's face it, we Hispanics do not think like Americans about a lot of things. We will drive you crazy in many ways if you don't understand us. A manager who does not understand his people cannot lead his people. A manager who does understand his people is in a much better position to be a highly effective leader.
5Consider some leadership training for your present and potential Hispanic bilingual supervisors. Realize that most of these people have not had any type of formal leadership training, and God knows that the leadership models we have seen in Latin America do not help our situation. I mean, look at every Latin American government you can think of and ask yourself how much solid leadership we have viewed in our countries.