Managing a Diverse Workforce
By Tom Dossenbach
If you are typical of those in the wood products industry, you find yourself today with a much more diverse workforce than 10 years ago. This diversity manifests itself in many ways in different parts of the country. Some manufacturers are seeing a shift in the age of their employees while others find the ethnic make-up of their workforce contains members from a growing list of countries. Whatever the makeup, new opportunities and challenges abound.
Employee recruitment and retention continues to be at the top of concerns for managers and supervisors throughout our industry. A solution to the shortage of skilled labor has been to look outside the traditional labor pool. Some woodworking factories are hiring part-time retired workers while others are hiring immigrants who are young and speak little English.
There are many scenarios in between, but these examples represent two groups who have a deep desire to work and do their jobs well. In the case of the retired workers, they tend to have the work ethic of a generation that had to work hard to achieve everything. These experienced employees are wise enough to know that if all the associates in the company do not put forth their best effort, the company will suffer. They know that waste — in lumber yield or careless use of sandpaper — will contribute to an eventual weakening of the company and even to the threat of possible plant closings because they may have witnessed it during their career.
Ways To Manage A Diverse Workforce
Adopt and believe in the philosophy that your workers are the most important element of your business.
Take the time to learn the special needs of each unique group of workers.
Supervisors should invest the time to get to know each employee and their personal needs.
Treat everyone with the highest respect and expect others to do the same.
Formulate rules and procedures and publish them in a company manual in all languages necessary.
Conduct regular sessions to communicate, educate, and listen.
Make the adjustments necessary to balance the needs of your diverse workforce.
Have a zero tolerance policy toward workplace violence.
Have a well-organized, ongoing training program for your new employees.
Promote fellowship among the diverse with several social events during the year.
Immigrants offer a great opportunity for us in this industry. They have come here with the desire to work in order to reach their dreams. Some are here working to support, not only themselves, but also their families back home. Their motives generally drive an excellent work ethic including a keen desire to learn.
A diverse workforce demands awareness by its management of the difference this will make in the company and what must be done to adjust to it. In a 12-man store fixture company, all employees can quickly be intimidated — and even angered — by an immigrant who gives his or her job 120% effort day after day and week after week. In fact, I witnessed a threat to a worker from Cambodia to “slow down or else, because you are making the rest of us look bad.” Unchecked, this could have lead to trouble, or violence or a motivated and dedicated employee being corrupted by others’ intimidation.
I have witnessed serious consequences of a company not properly preparing for and managing its diverse workforce.
A few years ago a large millwork company in the Washington, DC, area was in a period of rapid growth. The company found it hard to keep up with the demand the housing boom was generating. Ten-hour shifts, including Saturdays, were the norm.
Blue-collar workers for manufacturing jobs were not abundant in that area and the labor force to fill the jobs of making windows, doors and other specialty millwork was hard to identify and recruit. The company recognized that a growing population of immigrants (many of them refugees) were moving into the area. Washington was one of the areas that Amerasians from Southeast Asia were settling and calling home. Other refugees from the former Soviet Union and other regions around the globe also were moving into the area.
Over the years, this millwork company has worked with social workers to provide refugees with jobs. It is a good arrangement because not only do the refugees find employment, but the company is able to find the labor necessary to meet their demands. At one time, the employees of this company came from fourteen different countries.
Several challenges are obvious in this situation. One is the training process required to take someone from rural villages of Southeast Asia and develop them into skilled woodworkers who can read shop drawings and produce custom millwork. This challenge was solved through a series of apprenticeship programs whereby a new employee would be placed with an experienced craftsman who spoke his or her language.
When you have immigrants from 14 countries in your plant, you have a very high potential for misunderstandings and conflict. One such case turned to tragedy at this company.
There were, among the 50 or so Vietnamese workers, two nice young men whom I will call Chau and Chin. If you walked through the window shop, you would usually find them smiling and laughing while working hard. One day, Chin was building a transom to go over a door unit. He was running short of jamb material and noticed that Chau had a piece exactly like he needed at his workstation across the aisle. He decided to use it and walked over to get it. Chau noticed this and said he was getting ready to use it for the unit on which he was working. An argument ensued with a little shoving. The supervisor was made aware of it after things had settled down a bit near the end of the shift. Both men exchanged threats in front of their peers as they left the plant that afternoon.
That evening (as it was later learned) the argument continued in the Vietnamese neighborhood where they resided. The next morning Chau and a friend arrived at work at 5:45 a.m. They were in the parking lot smoking a last cigarette before getting out of the car to go inside to begin work. Chin had been waiting — with a gun — and shot and killed Chau and then emptied the gun as he fired trying to kill Chau’s friend who began running for his life. Chin got into his car and sped by the security guard as he fled the company parking lot. Even though he was on the FBI most wanted list, Chin was never apprehended.
Why did one man turn murderer and cause one to die and another to suffer wounds and untold terror? How could an argument 2 two board feet of moulding escalate into this? Of course there were several issues that contributed including the strong need in their culture to never “loose face” in front of peers. Chin was willing to kill rather than to have this happen.
I hope every reader will think about this example and form their own opinions on why this happened. This millwork company realized that they must implement a Zero Tolerance Policy toward workplace violence and did so immediately. From that day forward, any violence or threat by anyone either by word, gesture, or action lead to immediate dismissal. If two employees get into an argument, they both are gone —right then.
However, a tough policy against workplace violence is not enough. If you have a diverse workforce, you need to be proactive and invest the time to learn more about the workers who are so important to you. Every employer, supervisor and manager needs to act as though each one of their fellow workers are important partners and treat them as such. The more diverse the workforce in a woodworking plant, the more attention needs to be given to their needs. This applies to a small shop as well as a large factory.
One of the most effective ways to build a spirit of teamwork and family in a diverse workforce is to have several gatherings each year to bring everyone together to blend their cultural differences. This millwork company now has Chinese food brought in for the annual meal the last workday before Christmas and the annual summer picnic has activities including horseshoes, softball, soccer, fishing, and games for kids — all in order to address diversity.
In these few paragraphs, I have focused on one vivid example of the challenges that a diverse workforce can create. A few of the many management issues that must be addressed can be found in the side bar. Diversity is good — just take the time to analyze that diversity in your company and then manage it diligently.
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