Weaver Street Finds Success in Recruiting and Retaining Latino Staff

The Treehouse bar was filling up quickly. Employees and their friends were gathering for the Weaver Street Market annual holiday party. Lively salsa rhythms alternated with hip-hop and rock and roll favorites. Piled high on the food table, the best tamales in town, supplied by a Weaver Street Market cashier, were flanked by the usual hummus, chips, and vegan pizza. As an entertainment highlight, an employee team organized a special performance—songs and dancing by “Selena,” a Mexican drag queen. Everyone was excited.

Since the late 1990s, the population of Latino immigrants in North Carolina has quadrupled. During the same period Weaver Street Market rapidly expanded its foodservice operation. Necessity met opportunity, and we embarked on a plan to attract Latino staff, with the goal of reducing turnover and stabilizing our workforce. Today, Latinos make up 23 percent of the staff of 200 in our two grocery stores and restaurant. The turnover in our prep foods departments is less than 10 percent—and we have great guacamole at our employee parties.

Our increase in Latino staff has been good for our organization as well as for our operations. It has helped us achieve our mission to be inclusive, it has broadened our community, and it has made our work life more interesting. Working at our co-op has also been good for Latino workers. As a co-op, we have been able to be more attentive to their work needs than conventional businesses. We have unique resources—such as member volunteers—to provide key support. Our experience suggests that food co-ops are, in many ways, an ideal place for immigrants to be introduced into work life in the United States.

Strategic steps

We found that four steps are important to recruiting and retaining Latino staff. The first step is treating this staffing change as a strategic decision. While changes in recruitment practices can happen organically, effective planning and resource allocation will yield better results. Recognize that it is a project, and put someone responsible for the outcome in charge. The HR manager is the likely choice, but in smaller stores the general manager will likely need to fill this role.

Second, there are significant additional costs to recruit, train, and develop people who are linguistically and culturally different, so it is important to budget additional resources. It will also take more time from department managers, so the project needs to be reviewed in terms of its long-term potential benefits to supervisors and staff. Achieving buy-in at the beginning will help you survive the inevitable bumps and misunderstandings along the way.

The third step is to identify and develop the necessary resources. We advertised in our co-op newsletter for bilingual volunteer members who could interpret, advise, and translate in return for their member discount. (And our advertisement resulted in positive PR: we received many encouraging e-mails from members who applauded our initiative.) We also made significant investment in our Spanish proficiency. Spanish fluency is now a job requirement for our HR assistant, our HR manager learned Spanish, and several department managers learned some Spanish. The volunteer support and Spanish language skills were instrumental to our success.

Finally, it is important to hire a critical mass of immigrant workers. The importance of relationships in Latino culture makes the presence of social support in the workplace doubly important for retention. Until we hired two immigrant workers together, the new hires kept turning over after a short time. They needed someone to talk to and help figure out the new foreign work environment.

Understanding differences

Working with the volunteers, we learned about the immigrants in our area, who are predominantly from Mexico and tend to come from rural areas and have low levels of education. We learned about the important role the family and trusted friends play in Mexican culture. We also came to realize that in many developing countries the system exploits those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, making them more likely to try to “cheat the system” at work. Considering these cultural and economic differences was critical to successful recruitment, employee orientation, training, benefit participation, and communication in general.

Low literacy levels meant that in addition to creating a bilingual application, we had to complete the application with the candidate as part of the interview. Volunteer interpreters helped interview in Spanish and we quickly learned which questions were most effective. Questions such as “Do you have restaurant experience?” would invariably be answered “Yes” regardless of the applicant’s inexperience. It was more effective to ask “What kind of work did you do in Mexico before you came here?”

Training and orientation

In the beginning we oriented our Latino new hires by pairing them with an interpreter and putting them in our regular co-op new employee orientation. While there was certainly some social value in this, it became clear that the new Latino employee was often lost. On the job, the new staff person seemed to lack basic job understanding. Although absenteeism was rare, tardiness was rampant, and Latino staff were reluctant to let on when he or she did not understand something. Batches of hummus would end up in the compost bin before a new hire would admit he or she didn’t understand how to use a piece of equipment or where to find an ingredient.

The solution was a cultural orientation in Spanish for all new Latino hires that focused on what it meant to be a worker in the United States. Some of our staff had never been paid by check, so we made it a point to explain the relationship between dependents and taxes. We made the orientation fun and joked about the difference between Latin time and American time. We explained that in Mexico 7:00 a.m. may mean 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. but here being scheduled for 7:00 a.m. means clocking in at 7:00 a.m. We talked about how in America it is important to ask questions, which is not a sign of stupidity or inattentiveness but signals a desire to learn and get it right. Here in the U.S., we would tell them, the way to make more money is to advance on the job, not just work extra hours. All of a sudden, the need to learn English as a road to advancement made sense to staff.

On the job, our kitchen and bakery managers learned to think about training Latino staff in stages. Often the first job was the dish room, and basic instruction is entirely in Spanish. Tasks were broken down, and the organization of the dish room was simplified. Managers used more “show” than “tell.” Again, we relied heavily on volunteer interpreters to help explain topics ranging from schedule changes to new procedures. With time, dish stewards were trained as prep cooks and, working with English-speaking cooks, their language comprehension improved. Prep cooks, even those functionally illiterate in Spanish, learned to read simple English recipes.

Making the next step to shift leader brings a significant raise and increased responsibility but requires enough English to interact with customers, vendors, and other departments. Managers encouraged this process by tying advancement and more pay to learning English, and the co-op facilitated the process by providing on-site English classes. Five of our Latino immigrants have become shift leaders, and one worker’s English is good enough for work in a service department.

Benefits

Initially we found that our Latino staff did not enroll in our health insurance plan. To address this issue, our HR staff sat in the break room during lunch to talk to staff individually about our plan during the annual enrollment period. We enlisted volunteer help to call every doctor participating in our plan to identify the ones who offered Spanish. With that information we prepared a Spanish guide that included basic information ranging from using an insurance card to the tiered costs of prescription drugs. If an employee had a positive experience at the doctor’s, we made a point of asking him/her to share the experience with others. As a result, we saw a dramatic increase in our health plan participation.

With time, we developed other low cost benefits that our Latino staff particularly appreciated. For example, the cost of going to Mexico or Central America is so high that staff would want a month or two to make the trip. In the early years of our immigrant staffing initiative, we would wonder why our Latino employees would disappear out of the blue. Now we offer the opportunity to take an unpaid leave of absence for several months. This benefit built loyalty and substantially increased stability. Finally, offering pay advances has helped staff who are prone to financial emergencies because they send a large portion of their paycheck to family members in Mexico.

Communication

To build a sense of community in the face of cultural and linguistic differences, we have had to build mechanisms for mutual understanding. Our biweekly staff newsletter, the “Market Messenger,” has been a useful communication channel. Each edition has a Spanish section. If an employee has something interesting to contribute, we make an effort to translate it into English or Spanish. The calendar includes holidays ranging from Columbus Day to Benito Juarez’s birthday. Inclusion extends from publications to serving on employee teams, like the team that planned the annual employee party.

Challenges

Our efforts have not been without challenges. The co-op’s participatory management style is often difficult for Latino immigrants to comprehend. Most Latinos immigrants are accustomed to authoritarian managers and organizations with a strict hierarchy. As a result, it has been very hard to explain participatory decision-making. Similarly, getting immigrant workers to evaluate their managers honestly as part of a performance review process has taken two or three years. When they did take part, however, their responses were revealing: the overwhelming Latino feedback to the kitchen manager was to be tougher. Many confessed to taking advantage of the manager because she did not get “angry” enough.

Another cultural disconnect has occurred with respect to the honor system. We use it to regulate many things, including taking paid breaks. The success of the system relies on trust and employees monitoring themselves. It has taken some Latino workers a long time to understand that they are responsible for making the system work, rather than taking advantage of it.

Finally the machista Latino culture served as a barrier to accepting equal rights for homosexuals and women. In response, we learned to ensure that consequences to harassment were quick, clear, and firm. Some time ago, a new Mexican cook was observed ogling and making lewd comments under his breath to young female bakers. His manager explained that his behavior was sexual harassment, but still he didn’t stop. Finally, he was told to publicly apologize to the women involved or be fired. Sitting in a room surrounded by the offended female workers, he finally said he was sorry and never did it again.

Conclusion

In sum, making changes to the way you staff your cooperative takes time, patience, planning, and resources. Given economic and demographic trends, recruiting immigrant workers can make good business sense. Our experience with Mexican and Central American immigrants shows that several strategies are important: Make a strategic decision, find a champion, and allocate resources. Enlist your volunteer members to help. Research and understand the culture. Then embark on an adventure of international understanding that will enrich the life of your cooperative and your community.

See other articles from this issue: #112 May - June - 2004