Natural Foods Merchandiser

Managing The Multicultural Workplace

The Natural Employer

Helena Economo saw the demographic writing on the wall, and seized an opportunity that has blossomed into a successful multicultural workplace. As human resources manager at Weaver Street Market, a consumer- and employee-owned natural foods store in Carrboro, N.C., Economo was finding it hard to staff the growing foodservice department. Other parts of the store tended to draw younger, socially conscious candidates who were committed to healthy living and sustainable agriculture, but the kitchen drew restaurant workers who were more likely to have substance abuse or other disciplinary problems, and turnover was high. With Weaver Street Market poised to open a restaurant, Panzanella, Economo saw the need to tap a new labor market.

At the same time, North Carolina was experiencing a rapid influx of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Economo realized the potential for staffing the restaurant and deli kitchens, but where to start? ?We?d had one or two [Hispanic employees] who found their way to us accidentally, but they didn?t stay. We needed a critical mass.? She understood that to recruit in the Hispanic community, it would take personal relationships, not an ad in the paper. She knew someone who owned a Mexican restaurant in the area and asked him to send her applicants that he couldn?t hire.

At that time, no one on the Weaver Street Market staff was fluent in Spanish. The co-op?s member newsletter put out a call for volunteer interpreters. Economo learned enough Spanish to conduct the first interviews and has now become fluent. When she hired an assistant, proficiency in Spanish was a requirement. Application forms are now bilingual, and ads in Spanish are posted on job boards at local stores and churches, where potential applicants ?know people who can say, ?Yes, that?s a good place to work,?? Economo says.

But recruiting is not enough. ?You have to create shared meaning between you and immigrant workers,? Economo says. ?In everything you do, there has to be a step of cultural adaptation. You can?t just throw in an interpreter.? For example, the HR staff at Weaver Street takes extra time to explain the decision-making system at the co-op, the importance of punctuality and deductions from paychecks. The co-op offers English as a Second Language and Spanish classes, encouraging bilingualism throughout the work force. Simultaneous interpretation is provided through headphones for quarterly staff meetings. Now Weaver Street Market is considered an employer of choice in the local Hispanic community. Turnover is very low, openings are publicized by word-of-mouth and several candidates apply for every job. Twenty percent of the work force is Hispanic.

Economo?s challenge now is to encourage advancement so that Spanish-speaking immigrants are not all clustered in the lowest pay ranges. ?In their culture, the way to make more money is to work more hours rather than add responsibilities. They may be working another part-time or full-time job in addition to their 40 hours at Weaver Street Market.? The co-op is developing an in-house training program for shift leaders in its kitchen, restaurant and bakeries, where participants will be trained in English and Spanish so that they can move between languages as needed. Five of the first group of shift leader trainees spoke no English at all when they started at the co-op two to three years ago.

To employers contemplating hiring non-English speakers, Economo advises:

  • Hire a critical mass
  • Recruit through community relationships
  • Provide adequate information so that people can be successful
  • Adapt your message before you translate—use plain language
  • Be attentive to whether your employees get your meaning

Your reward could be a stable, high-contributing addition to your work force.

Carolee Colter is the principal of Community Consulting Group in Seattle. Reach her at 206.723.4040 or

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 1/p. 32

TAGS: Archive News
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