Manage Employees Despite Language Barriers

Immigrant workers breathe life into Wisconsin's Rural Communities.

Published on: Jul 23, 2013

By Trisha Wagner

Employee management is one of the most important jobs of today's dairy farmer; as success in getting the job done is largely dependent on how well a farmer can do that through the help of other people. Hired workers, regardless of origin, boost the strength of the state's dairy industry and also enable dairy farmers to take vacations and have some time off during the day to attend their children's sporting events or other community activities.

Additionally, immigrant workers and their families bring their own joy, skills, and ambitions into Wisconsin, breathing new life into the state's rural communities. Moreover, farmers report difficulties finding U.S. - born workers willing to fill dairy farm jobs, while Latino immigrants have become an increasingly important part of Wisconsin's dairy industry and rural communities.

Manage Employees Despite Language Barriers
Manage Employees Despite Language Barriers

While becoming fluent in another language may be unrealistic in the immediate future for either dairy farmers or their employees, being aware of basic cultural norms can greatly improve communication and overall effectiveness with employees of different backgrounds, especially when the cows can't wait for you to learn Spanish.  In fact, it is not enough to simply translate a list of words or instructions for milking or feeding cows.  You must also address the cultural differences.  Understanding these differences can be equally, if not more important that the vocabulary itself. 

Understand cultural differences in employer/employee relationships.
*In many cultures, individual acknowledgement or attention is considered undesirable.  Therefore, an employee may hesitate to discuss an issue because they fear being viewed as the source of something negative.  Keep in mind that for some employees, who are "living under the radar" this can be especially true.

*Not only can this apply to problematic situations but also to instances where an employee is recognized positively.  If you want to provide incentives, consider what is valued most by your employee, and evaluate how recognition of one may affect relations among a group of employees.

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*Typical U.S. employee/employer relations, include a firm handshake and direct eye contact.  However in many cultures it may be considered a "challenge" to look at the boss in the eye. In fact a sign of respect may be to not directly look at the employer.  It's important that you be aware of your expectations for communication, and share with employees. 

Learn to evaluate an employee's understanding of job-related tasks.
The potential for misinterpretation is probably the most important thing to keep in mind when trying to communicate with someone of another language.  As mentioned above, an employee doesn't want you to think they are problematic by not being able to perform necessary task.  Hence an employee may not totally understand what you are telling them, however may not tell you so.  In order to make sure your instructions are being understood, ask the employee to perform the tasks described in front of you, and when/if a mistake is made, demonstrate the correction for the employee.

Build trust with employees of different backgrounds.
Learning a second language is not easy however, it is important to attempt, and even more so, learn more about cultural differences in the workplace and at home. Greetings and salutations are very important in Latin culture, so at least be sure to do so in English, if not attempt them in Spanish.  

Find out what it is that is most important to your employee, and why. Surprisingly, many studies find it isn't just money.  Flexible scheduling, ability to learn new tasks, traditional, and non-traditional benefits, demonstrated respect, and many other things rate high with employees. 

Help your employees locate resources for themselves and their families. Introduce them to area health services, grocery stores, second-hand stores, Extension office, etc. This may include helping them with transportation.  Demonstrating you are interested in their well-being can go a long way in successful employee management.

Wagner is the Jackson County Extension agriculture agent and UW-Madison Farm & Industry Short Course Instructor – Spanish for the agricultural sciences.