Editor's note: This copyrighted article is being reproduced with permission from Gempler's ALERT, the newsletter of Ag/Hort safety and employment law compliance, Web site: www.gemplersalert.com

How do you teach employees and supervisors from a different culture about the importance of sexual harassment laws and other workplace practices that may be foreign to their upbringing?

This is an issue that many agricultural and horticultural employers struggle with these days, as more and more of the agricultural work force is comprised of Hispanics/Latinos, Asians, and other persons of differing ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds.

While it's critical that agricultural and horticultural employers not stereotype Hispanic males, for example, as "sexist," Attorney Frank Lopez of Fisher & Phillips LLP in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says, it's also important to take steps to foster an understanding of the laws and workplace practices for which you, the employer, may be held liable.

"The first thing to be aware of is that in some of these Latin American countries, women more often than not are stay-at-home wives," says Lopez, who is a native of Cuba. "They are known as the caregivers. They raise the children, or they may run a home-based business. So, a lot of these men are not used to working in the same environment as women."

Lopez, whose own mother - as well as the wives of his father's four brothers - did not work outside the home, says the result is that some men from Latin American, Asian or other countries who suddenly find themselves working alongside women "may attempt to treat these women in a more subservient role."

"They may make comments about why are they working and where are their husbands, and may treat them differently than their co-workers. The males will take a more dominant position," he says.

If both the male and female employees are not educated by their employer in their native language that this is not an acceptable practice here, the employer could wind up facing a lawsuit alleging discrimination based on sex.

"The employer has to educate these individuals - let them know what the laws are and how it's different. Let them know that in this country, we don't discriminate on the basis of sex and we don't tolerate it," Lopez says.

"Unfortunately, disrespect from males to females runs in every culture," he continues. "The difference with some cultures is that they still see women in a more subservient role."

Women may not complain
What starts out as a minor problem could turn into a major one, in part, because in many other countries and cultures, it is not the acceptable practice for women to complain, Lopez says. "By and large, these Hispanic women (from Latin American countries) won't complain. They come from the same culture (as the Hispanic men). So, there may be a person who wants or deserves to be treated equally, but she won't complain about it."

Part of the education process on the part of the employer should include telling such women that "they need to complain," Lopez says. "There can be no different treatment based on sex, and, if there is, they need to report it immediately."

Even in instances where a female employee from another country or culture does feel she is being sexually harassed or otherwise discriminated against, "a lot of times they don't complain because they're not comfortable with the person to whom they have to complain," he adds.

"They won't complain to a white male," he says. If you have female Hispanic employees, it's important to provide "someone they can talk to who can speak to them in Spanish," he says. If possible, a Spanish-speaking female manager or high-ranking Spanish-speaking female employee is the best option.

While training your employees and supervisors in these issues does take time, it's a less-costly alternative than facing a potential government investigation, Lopez believes. "Training and understanding can save your business from the high costs and headaches associated with litigation," he says.

For more information, contact Attorney Frank Lopez at Fisher & Phillips LLP in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Ph: 954/525-4800, e-mail: flopez@laborlawyers.com