Hispanic Heritage Month: From Playlists to Future of Work

We’re nearing mid-November when corporations across the country have wrapped up Hispanic Heritage Month and moved on to other heritage celebrations. But what are we celebrating? Despite having spoken to more than a dozen audiences eager to understand this growing consumer and employee market, I still feel that companies are missing the point. Few are unpacking the real gifts available to us in Heritage months. Real inclusion requires more than monthly curated playlists. More than a short shared reading or quote. It requires leaders and entire organizations to recognize and value what from the identified heritage is key to our future. Together we can expand an understanding of the attributes and obstacles of a workforce that is vital to our success and figure out how to embed this knowledge in business and people practices.

Companies have to be willing to move beyond celebrations to shine a light on the unrealized gifts of Hispanic employees and the cultural and structural obstacles that limit their advancement in the workplace. Instead of expecting Latinx employees to meet a rigid and dated white male standard of leadership, they should train and hold their leadership teams and managers accountable for creating an inclusive culture where all employees can thrive. Why? Because if they fail to effectively recruit, advance and engage this rapidly growing workforce segment, they risk their bottom line, brand, and chance for success. 

So what should companies do differently for Hispanic Heritage Month? They should gain insights about how to achieve inclusion and belonging all year long, and then apply them. Here are a few tips:

Keep them. 

Hiring people from underrepresented groups isn’t enough - all of your employees need to feel safe, valued and respected, and they need to genuinely believe they can have a successful career at your company. Instead of making grand gestures about the value of increasing the ranks of Hispanic talent in your organization during one month of the year, you should be intentionally supporting and nurturing this talent all year long by understanding what is tripping them up, what are their unique advantages, and how you can reduce obstacles to their success. With that information, you can build an inclusive, equity-minded organization where Latinx employees stay and thrive because of safe, fair and dignified structures, processes and organizational norms.

Understand Hispanic identity. 

The real work is not about fixing Latinx employees but rather the cultures and structures that marginalize, stereotype and exclude them. Cultural traditions will vary depending on national heritage - this community traces its ancestral origins to Spain and more than twenty Spanish-speaking nations in Central America, South America and the Caribbean. For some, there isn’t an immediate immigrant experience to speak of but rather a deep American generational lineage. Personal or familial histories with right-wing dictatorships and corrupt governments may be reflected in a comfort with hierarchical structures, a deep mistrust of authority figures or a combination of the two. Some have escaped extreme poverty and political persecution while others grew up in similar conditions to that of the wealthiest ten percent of Americans. Lighter skin Latinos may experience less discrimination but make no mistake, false hierarchies of race and colorism continue to oppressively impact this community. This is not a monolithic group, and yet as a demographic segment, the Latinx community has and will continue to shape the future of U.S. commerce and work. 

Where should you start to expand your understanding? Begin by encouraging your team members to share their stories in one-on-one conversations, depending on their comfort level, or small group meetings and employee resource group events. Welcome a conversation about the identity term - Latinx, Latino, Hispanic - they prefer. Model inclusive leadership behaviors by attending Heritage month events and requiring that your leadership teams do the same, listening deeply, asking for feedback, challenging your assumptions, making genuine connections, and seeking to learn about others’ perspectives. 

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Shape new leadership norms. 

According to Latinos At Work, 76 percent of Latinos feel that to succeed in their workplace, they need to repress a part of themselves (43 percent of Latinx females and 33 percent of Latinx men). Latinx employees face daily snubs and exhaustion from constantly modifying or playing down who they are, including their appearance, body language, and accent. This leads to further marginalization from the experiences that have traditionally ensured career success in corporate America. So how should you properly honor Hispanic Heritage Month? By ensuring that Latinx employees are included in major content development and product roll outs, that every employee has access to sponsors who can advocate for their promotions, recommend stretch assignments, and provide “air cover” to take risks, and that Hispanic employees are recognized and celebrated for their successes.

Also bear in mind that employee engagement surveys are particularly difficult to interpret for this employee segment. In my experience as a diversity executive, survey results of Hispanic employees regardless of industry and company generally average neutral to positive. What do you expect from a community where record keeping efforts have been used against them? Or who are told repeatedly, as I have, “M’ija, just keep your head down, get your work done and stay out of trouble”? Formally recording all of the offenses I faced on an everyday basis did not hold much promise and far too much risk. This data gap often results in limited ERG resourcing and lack of Latino-focused employee programming. To set this right, get in the habit of encouraging employee suggestions in multiple forms - team meetings, all hands, one on one meetings - ask specific questions, such as “what two changes would make it easier for you to do a great job?”, commit to action, and then do something. Bring them along and champion Hispanic contributions in setting new organizational expectations.

Use your power to change broken systems. 

What I find most lacking in heritage month conversations is a forward-looking view of what’s possible. Historical barriers to the economic security and professional advancement of Hispanics have included language, citizenship status, and lack of access to higher education. But today’s Latinx professionals, and women in particular, are better educated and prepared to advance in their careers than ever before. While the future of work requires a reskilling of workforces, that’s not what’s at play here. 

Your people and culture strategies must be designed to be substantive and long-lasting rather than superficial and short-lived monthly celebrations. Otherwise you risk diminishing trust, damaging criticism of your leadership, disengaging your teams and, worse yet, losing the talent that your company needs to succeed. Leadership means being intentional in using your power and influence to remove barriers and clear the advancement path for all employees in your organization. Begin today by sharing a company-wide summary of your Hispanic Heritage Month programming along with lessons learned, and commit to changing one to two organizational practices where bias negatively impacts Latinx talent. The work you do today will ensure that next year’s Hispanic Heritage Month, and all other heritage celebrations, reflect progress made forward not another cursory look back.

Daisy Auger-Dominguez