Recently a local newspaper reported the production and manufacture of computer software has shifted eastward, to India. The story also probed the presence of Indian contract workers in the Peoria area who work for Caterpillar, ATS, medical facilities, and other firms that have strong technology components.
Predictably, there’s been something of a backlash. Native-born American workers should be given preference in employment and training for such positions in the Peoria area, the letter-writers say. Let the Indian workers serve the Indian people. The respondents demonstrate a lack of understanding that we work in a truly global marketplace, and that American workers need to be competitive with their African, Asian, Hispanic, and European counterparts.
But there’s even more to the picture. We Americans tend to think people are just like us in other parts of the world—or they should be like us and should work like we do. I write this column while I’m traveling and working in France, where people definitely are not like Americans, tell us so with confidence, and have a very different philosophy and schedule of work.
Does that make the French wrong? No. Do they need to adapt to the way we live and work if they want to trade with us? No. Does that mean a French worker must adapt to American ways should she or he work for us? Not necessarily. The same thing can be said if we hire an Indian worker, Hispanic worker, or Chinese worker. Employers need to adapt to, or at least to try to understand, workers from other cultures.
One company I consulted for struggled with a problem with female Hispanic workers newly arrived from Mexico and Central America. Aside from some language challenges, the supervisors reported a problem with follow-through on instructions. Evidently the Hispanic women lacked training to carry out the specific instructions on how to do the work. The Anglo supervisors thought the Hispanic women were not very competent. The Hispanic workers thought the Anglos were insensitive and not very bright since they didn’t direct them to receive needed training so they could carry out the work.
But the women also didn’t speak directly to the Anglo supervisors, especially with any criticism of the directions given. Hispanic women from this particular country simply didn’t do that. That would show a lack of respect in the hierarchy. But there definitely was a communication gap, one the supervisors needed to address. The supervisors first had to overcome the cultural barriers that led them to such a conclusion.
When working multiculturally, it’s important to uncover our values positions. We can state that we believe in the dignity of people of any origin. That’s far more than pious politicking. We have to believe that statement and practice it consciously to get people to do the work we want them to accomplish.
Then we have to examine the ways we can put the values statement into practice. We must candidly assess our use of authority, our positional power, and attitudes toward work and the workplace. Our attitudes and preferences may work very well in one culture and not another. The point is the need to adapt doesn’t begin with the foreign worker.
On the coasts and in Texas, there’s been a multicultural awareness in workplaces for more than three decades. Here in central Illinois, the reality is much slower to become visible. Still, we have workers from all over central Illinois who call America home, and we have businesses with a global presence. It’s imperative we learn the newcomer’s way of thinking, acting, and speaking—not so we can imitate the immigrant, but so we can understand the mannerisms of our workers and clients, and their habits of relating to authority.
If we can understand the immigrant worker, we can communicate and direct more effectively and turn out a quality product in excellent time. American managers may set the agenda and decide on the work to be produced, but in the end the willing cooperation and undivided loyalty of immigrant workers must be nurtured and welcomed by Americans. We truly do live in a global village, even here in Peoria. Are you prepared for the multicultural challenge? IBI