I recently worked for a construction/oil field service company in Dickinson, North Dakota. There were a group of new-hires that started at about the same time. This company usually starts everyone out as a laborer, whether they are an equipment operator or not. They want to see if all employees are capable of doing physical work, if they are normal, if they can follow instructions, and if they can get along with everyone, before they put them in an operator position or a position of more responsibility.
The make up of the laborers was approximately 30% White, 30% Native American, and 30% Hispanic. Two of the new-hire Mexicans were above average in just about every way: they worked harder, they worked faster, they had more common sense, they had good judgement, they had a lot of work experience, and they were good equipment operators. One of the new-hires, Jose, could have or should have been a foreman before long, except for one thing, he kept speaking Spanish, and he didn’t know how much this was hurting him. I will try to explain very clearly why speaking Spanish at work is a very bad idea, and how it hurts Mexicans.
When I was riding in the crew truck with two Mexicans, they would begin conversing in Spanish about personal and family things, and this would continue on to include talking about workers, about work, and about work plans. As far as the discussion about work and work plans, I needed to be able to understand what they were talking about so that I knew what was going on, and they knew what was going on, because work instructions from the foreman and the superintendent changed about every fifteen minutes.
For instance, if they were discussing going and picking up a trailer, I would need to know this to be able to tell them, “No, don’t try to get that trailer, the trailer jack on that trailer is broken, go to the other yard” or “You will have to turn around and get the ball hitch back, they took the ball hitch off this truck and put it on another truck.” If they were talking about removing erosion control straw bails, I might need to know this to be able to say, “We don’t have a sledge hammer in this truck to break the stakes, we need to get one off of the other truck before we leave.”
But what hurt the Mexican new-hires even more was this. The foreman of the equipment operators had met a young man who was about 28 years old, who had received trades school training on operating equipment such as dozers, backhoes, skid steers, and excavators. He had work experience operating equipment, and his father was a life-long equipment operator. The foreman of the equipment operators liked everything about this young man, and told him to apply with the company. He started out with the other new-hires, working as a laborer for two weeks, but then the equipment operator foreman intervened, and began putting him on equipment, because this it what they had planned for him all along.
When this young man was riding in the crew truck with two Mexicans, they talked on and on in Spanish, and he did not understand what they were talking about, and when they turned and looked at him and started laughing. He did not like this, and he was sick and tired of the Mexicans talking in Spanish like this.
I did not like it, the new-hire who has now moved up to the next level and will be a foreman eventually did not like it, the equipment operators do not like it, and the foremen do not like it. Just about everyone on the job site who is not Mexican, does not like it when the Mexicans go on and on speaking in Spanish, so they are certainly not going to be promoted, because no one likes this when they can’t understand what they are talking about.
In order to be able to complete the work without mistakes, and without re-work required, everyone needs to pay attention, and clearly let everyone else know what is going on: Do not dig there, there is a fiber optic cable there; Do not drive on that land, the land owner has already complained; No one drive on the embankment, it is too wet and you will rut it; Do not park there today, the scraper has to remove most of the dirt there today. There are all kinds of things that people need to know throughout the day, and this communication doesn’t happen when the Mexicans keep speaking Spanish. This is one of the reasons why the Mexicans are not promoted to equipment operator, or foreman, because they keep reverting back to speaking Spanish, and not everyone can understand Spanish.