HR Magazine - November 2000: Strength in Numbers?

By Carla Joinson Nov 1, 2000
HR Magazine,   July 2000Vol. 45, No. 9

As Hispanics become the largest minority in the United States, HR will have to be increasingly sensitive to the needs of this growing segment of the employee population.

A huge shift in the demographic makeup of the U.S. population is occurring right now. It will soon show up in workplaces across the country—and HR professionals need to be prepared.

In less than five years, the U.S. Census Bureau projects, the Hispanic population will become the country’s largest minority group, increasing from 11.7 percent of the total population—31.3 million people—to 13.3 percent of the total population, or 38 million people. By 2050, Hispanics are expected to make up one-quarter of the population, or 96.5 million people.

These numbers undoubtedly will be tweaked—probably upward—when figures from the 2000 census are released.

The numbers include both U.S.-born Hispanics and immigrants. The majority (70 percent in 1997) are U.S. citizens. It’s important to note that only Hispanics in the 50 states and the District of Columbia are included in the census count; U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico—though Hispanic—are excluded from this data.

(According to the federal government definition, Hispanics are an ethnic group descended from the old Spanish Empire and include the Spanish-colonized peoples in South and Central America, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico and other areas; South Americans in French Guiana, for example, are not Hispanic.)

The U.S. Hispanic population is a young one, meaning much of the population has yet to enter the workforce. The median age of Hispanics is 26.5—nine years younger than the median age of the U.S. population as a whole.

For HR professionals, there are many implications to the growth in the number of Hispanic workers. Hispanics as a whole lag behind other groups in education, income, employment and English-language skills. And the influx of Hispanics into the workforce may challenge some HR-related functions.

But, there are strategies HR professionals can use to better recruit, train and successfully integrate Hispanics into their workforces.

An Economic Snapshot

While the number of U.S. Hispanics has been growing sharply, the economic standing of this group hasn’t tracked the same upward Graph 1trend. Most Hispanics in the United States occupy the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Census statistics based on 1998 income indicate that Hispanics are three times as likely to live below the poverty level as non-Hispanic whites. (See chart on page 48.) As a whole, unemployment rates for Hispanics (around 5.7 percent this year) tend to be higher than for non-Hispanic whites (3.8 percent), according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL).

Further, Hispanics have a lower education attainment level. In March 1999, 11 percent of Hispanics 25 years of age and older had graduated from college, according to the Census Bureau. By comparison, 56 percent of Hispanics held a high school diploma, and 28 percent had less than a ninth-grade education. In addition, about half of Hispanics reported in the 1990 Census that they did not speak English very well.

As larger numbers of Hispanics enter the workforce, HR may face an increasing need to provide education, English-language courses and cross-cultural training for these workers and their non-Hispanic colleagues.

Graph 2 

Sonia Pérez, deputy vice president for research at the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of La Raza, the largest constituency-based Hispanic organization in the nation, and editor of La Raza’s recent book Moving Up the Economic Ladder: Latino Workers and the Nation’s Future Prosperity, says Hispanics need help from employers on a number of issues.

Pérez notes that Hispanics are not likely to work in jobs that offer health care and pensions, and that they are unschooled in financial tools to prepare for retirement, primarily because they tend not to trust financial institutions. "Hispanics in general aren’t familiar with vehicles for planning and savings," she says, "so they may need more training on these subjects."

Hispanic women tend to fare better than their male counterparts, moving into technical, sales and administrative support occupations that often give them access to better benefits and mobility, according to Census. Perhaps that’s because Hispanic women are more likely to attain higher education. In the past 20 years, Hispanic women have surpassed Hispanic men in post-graduate enrollment (60 percent vs. 40 percent in 1996).

That lack of higher education often leads Hispanic men to jobs that don’t offer as much stability and growth. For example, the share of Hispanic men in managerial and professional specialty occupations is lower (12.1 percent) than that of Hispanic women (17.4 percent), based on 1996 Census figures—the latest ones available. When recruiting Hispanics, advocates say to look for other experience and possible training options to make up for a lack in higher education.

Do Biases Hold Back Hispanics?

When you hear the word "Hispanic," what immediately leaps to mind? A stereotype, such as a Mexican man wearing a big straw hat? Hispanic maids working at hotels? Migrant workers picking lettuce?

While there may be grains of truths in any stereotype, advocates argue that these negative preconceptions are one reason that members of their community are having difficulty improving their status.

Hispanic employees interviewed for this story—all of whom asked not to be identified—recounted numerous stereotypical assumptions they have had to confront. For instance, a Hispanic English professor was told by a male Anglo alumnus that because she was Hispanic, she shouldn’t be teaching English—only Spanish. One Hispanic woman relayed that her brother didn’t get a job in marketing at a Dallas radio station because he doesn’t speak Spanish, even though the station didn’t require Anglo applicants to speak Spanish. Another U.S.-born Hispanic was asked by a co-worker if he knew of all the good Mexican restaurants in the area.

The anecdotal evidence is backed up by a DOL study titled Futurework: Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century, which revealed a shocking trend. As reported in the study, similar resumes were written for white and minority job-seekers and sent to the same set of firms. Hispanic testers received 25 percent fewer job interviews and 34 percent fewer job offers than other testers.

Ana M. "Cha" Guzmn, executive vice president of administration, institutional advancement and community affairs at Austin (Texas) Community College, and currently on sabbatical serving as chair of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans in Washington, D.C., has seen this type of discrimination firsthand. "I have sat through many hiring discussions," she says. "When Anglo men apply for a job and have an interview, the discussion afterward centers on what the white man ‘brings’ to the job. For the Hispanic applicant, the discussion is on what he is lacking."

Guzmn, who is originally from Cuba, believes HR professionals bear the responsibility of training hiring managers to be aware of the subtle discrimination that may exist in the hiring process. Interviews and the discussions afterward for all applicants should be even-handed so that "discussion applies better equity to all applicants," she adds.

Once Hispanics are in the job, discrimination still may hinder their advancement, contends Gilbert Roman, deputy general counsel of the Hispanic National Bar Association and partner with Roman, Benezra & Culver LLC in Lakewood, Colo. He says hiring is not the only issue. "There’s a glass ceiling for Hispanics."

Roman says discrimination against Hispanics in the workplace is hard to root out because it is subtle. In fact, his lawsuits mostly deal with the more subtle acts. "Discipline is handled differently, for instance," he finds. "It may not be in dispute that an employee violated company policy. The dispute is that the act was treated with more severe discipline than it was for an Anglo who [either] was not disciplined for the same thing or was dealt with more leniently."

To prevent subtle discrimination, HR needs to ask questions along the way, Roman believes. If a promotion comes through for approval, don’t just rubber stamp it, he says. Make sure everyone qualified was considered. "If a red flag jumps out, follow it up and do the same thing for the disciplinary issues as well," he says.

Another factor that may be limiting Hispanics in the workplace is that non-Hispanic employees and managers may equate poor English-language skills with less education or lower intelligence, advocates say. This, coupled with real statistics that show Hispanics lagging in education, may color perceptions about the capabilities of an individual Hispanic worker.

Still, even highly educated Hispanics may be hindered due to misconceptions, observers say. "A lot of Latin Americans are coming to this country for education, then staying and working," explains Randy Martinez, CEO of the National Hispanic Corporate Council in McLean, Va. "They may be incredibly smart but hard to understand because of an accent," and therefore, may get passed over for a high-level position.

A study released in August by the University of North Texas at Denton showed that accents may have an effect in hiring decisions. The "U.S. Regional Accent Discrimination in the Hiring Process: A Language Attitude Study" asked participants with typical, but not exaggerated, accents to read a 45-second passage. Executives with a say in hiring decisions listened to the passages, then rated the speakers on such factors as energy and competence. Executives then placed the readers into job categories ranging from "no prestige" to "high prestige."

"There was an incredibly strong statistical correlation between judging someone cultured, intelligent, competent, etc., and placing them into prestigious jobs and their lack of a readily identified accent," says Dianne Markley, director of cooperative education at the university. She says that "linguistically speaking, everyone has an accent," but when listeners couldn’t identify the origin of the accent, they rated the person more highly.

Though the study did not specifically target Hispanic accents, Markley believes the results indicate that Hispanic employees with discernable accents are likely to suffer discrimination. "Most people can filter out that bias," Markley believes, "but you need to expose the fact that it exists."

Culture Clashes

To help eliminate unintentional bias in the workplace, HR professionals working at organizations with a growing Hispanic constituency may find it worthwhile to educate managers on the general cultural traits of their employees.

One example where cultural differences may lead to misunderstandings in the workplace is the concept of time. "To a Hispanic, ‘now’ can mean a lot of things, but not generally ‘within the next two seconds,’ whereas Anglos consider time to be extremely exact," says Trula Michaels LaCalle, an organizational trainer and consultant in Sebastopol, Calif.

LaCalle says that something like the time issue, however, becomes more diluted the longer Hispanics are in the U.S. culture and adapt. Experts say HR should encourage managers to be particularly clear and specific when discussing deadlines with Hispanic employees.

Newly emigrated Hispanics may exhibit other behaviors that can be misconstrued in a U.S. business environment. Sandra Stokes, a registered nurse and HR development consultant at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Health Care System in Chapel Hill, observed many such characteristics starting about four years ago, when the hospital began hiring more Hispanic employees and seeing an increase in the number of Hispanic patients.

"This culture tends to be very agreeable," says Stokes, "and as children they’re taught to be somewhat passive.

They see doctors, nurses and clergy as authority figures and find it hard to make eye contact with them."

Passiveness and lack of eye contact can be viewed as negative behaviors by U.S. employers, who may base promotion and opportunity decisions on what they feel these behaviors mean—lack of initiative, evasiveness, untrustworthiness and so on. To avoid destructive biases, HR can make sure that newcomers understand U.S. business behaviors, and that current employees understand cultural differences.

For Hispanics, family ties are a strong influence and also may affect their advancement potential. Karen Jennings, senior executive vice president of human resources at San Antonio-based global telecommunications company SBC Communications Inc., says that because of these close familial relationships, Hispanic employees may decline relocations that would provide upward mobility. "Regrettably, in an industry as dynamic as ours," Jennings says, "you have to experience different locations and customer bases to move up in the company." Hispanics who are unwilling to move may get left behind.

The strength of the extended family relationship also can be an issue when Hispanic employees request leave. "Companies tend to define family very narrowly," explains Gloria Zamora, vice president of HR at Coors Brewing Co. in Golden, Colo., whose parents came to the United States from Mexico. "For Hispanics, an aunt or an uncle can be just as close to an individual as a parent or sister. But when a Hispanic says, ‘My godmother passed away and I need time off,’ the supervisor says, ‘Wait, we don’t recognize that.’" Zamora suggests that companies consider companywide accommodations for situations like this "so there’s no backlash."

Cultural misconceptions can go both ways. Burke Stinson, a spokesman for AT&T in Basking Ridge, N.J., taught English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to people from Central America and South America. He frequently asked for their impressions of Americans.

"I taught ESL for 20 years to people who generally ended up as housekeepers, and I got a very consistent impression from them," says Stinson. "They told me that Americans were people who raised their children in separate rooms, threw parties where they didn’t dance but usually discussed money, and then fed their children Pop-Tarts for breakfast in the car on the way to school."

Of course, generalizations are just that, and there are always exceptions. But Mary Herbert, global diversity strategy director with Naperville, Ill.-based Lucent Technologies, believes HR can benefit by using common traits to educate other employees about what they may confront with their Hispanic co-workers.

"There is diversity within the Hispanic group—we should look at commonalities, instead," Herbert explains. "The focus of your sensitivity training should be broad enough that people walk out understanding they shouldn’t make assumptions about any kind of accent."

HR Offers Practical Assistance

Companies that successfully recruit and retain Hispanic employees don’t usually employ programs specifically for Hispanics, say many leaders. But there are exceptions. For example, when UNC Health Care System began hiring more Hispanics at the same time that the hospital began receiving more Hispanic patients, it found that language became an issue, says Stokes.

To help Hispanic employees, HR began offering spoken Spanish interpretation at orientation sessions and had job applications and Graph 3written orientation materials translated into Spanish. UNC Health Care System also offers ESL through its Interpreting Services Department, which was originally developed to coordinate interpreting services for Hispanic patients.

Additionally, HR created cultural classes, medical terminology classes, and introductory and intermediate Spanish classes for employees who needed to understand Spanish. The courses have proved popular, with nearly 100 employees taking the medical terminology and introduction to Spanish classes within the past year. Both ESL and Spanish classes are free to all employees.

"Language always separates people," says Stokes, "so bilingualism is important." She suggests that HR hire more Spanish-speaking employees who can welcome Hispanic employees in their native tongue when they walk through the door.

On the other hand, some companies impose English-only rules because they feel that having two languages in the workplace causes problems. This can be appropriate sometimes, says Jana Howard Carey, partner and immediate past chair of the labor and employment law department at Venable, Baetjer & Howard in Baltimore, Md., and co-author of the Society for Human Resource Management’s white paper "Beware the Native Tongue: National Origin and English-Only Rules."

"The most common reason for such a rule is when supervisors and employees have difficulty communicating in the same language," says Carey.

Carey adds that an English-only restriction may be appropriate under these circumstances because there’s a business reason for it, but that "the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] frowns at restricting language beyond work situations."

LaCalle points out that English-only rules are difficult for some Hispanics who slip into Spanish casually. "To say, ‘We’re going to discipline you for this’ is like saying, ‘We’re going to discipline you when you hiccup.’"

This may be an issue for which sensitivity training is needed on both sides. Hispanics may consider it no big deal to slip into Spanish, but Anglos often find it rude. As one Anglo employee says, "You can be with a group, sharing a conversation, and all of a sudden, two Hispanics turn to each other and start speaking Spanish. That just strikes me as deliberately exclusionary and rude. If they have something that private to say, why not wait until later?"

English-only rules also may put up barriers to advancement for employees who don’t speak English as a first language. "No good HR manager wants a situation where people are restrained from becoming the best employee they can be," says Carey. "If you do impose such a rule, find ways to help the folks who won’t do so well." (For more information on English-only rules, see the Legal Trends column in the September issue of HR Magazine.)

Recruitment, Development And Retention

Companies that use Spanish-speaking recruiters, advertise in Spanish-language periodicals and develop relationships with Hispanic organizations and schools that Hispanics attend will find it easier to attract good candidates. Many Hispanics, however, find jobs through networks of friends and family, so current Hispanic employees are a good place to start.

Shawn Mood, director of recruiting services at Plantation, Fla.-based, a leading electronic job board for Spanish-speaking professionals, says that "Hispanics in general don’t respond well to ‘cool’ or trendy tactics." He says that ads using words like "young, dynamic, entrepreneurial" tend not to attract Hispanic candidates. In addition, trendy come-ons such as "define your own job" and flat organizational structures where everyone has the same job title also are not a draw.

In essence, Mood says the things that tend to attract the Internet community or an out-of-college dot-com seeker don’t attract Hispanic candidates, who, in his experience, tend to look for more solid opportunities.

Hispanics using LatPro respond best to positions at "brand-name" or large companies, to companies with a clearly defined career path or levels and to powerful or influential-sounding job titles or positions, he says.

Mood adds that "Hispanics are skeptical of, and averse to, ‘diversity’ positions that offer opportunity mainly on the fact that the candidate is Hispanic." And they look for ads with specific requirements that make it clear that they would have something valuable to offer.

When Hispanics do enter a company in greater numbers, Martinez says HR can help assimilate employees through internships and mentoring programs, and by providing role models. "The U.S. corporate environment can sometimes feel a little dry and cutthroat to Hispanics," adds Martinez, "and one way to help employees feel comfortable is through employee groups."

Lucent Technologies currently has seven sanctioned "employee business partner" groups that were created to help groups such as Hispanics, blacks and Asians that felt disenfranchised. Belkis Peña, HR senior business partner and officer of HISPA (the Hispanic association of Lucent employees), found support through the group. "Accents cause different reactions from people," explains Peña, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic at age 14. "People sometimes spoke louder or moved closer to me because they didn’t understand what I was saying, and that made me feel shut out."

An employee network group for Hispanics is a cost-effective way for companies to illustrate that they recognize that these employees may face obstacles and are willing to help. Peña says Hispanic employees at Lucent "saw a need to find each other." She believes HISPA is like a family inside the work environment for employees. The group focuses on internal employee development and also draws up a business plan to address specific needs such as language or family needs. Because of its role in the company and visible community presence, HISPA is a valuable recruiting and retention initiative for the company.

‘In America’s Best Interest’

Hispanic workers will make up a large percentage of the workforce in the future, and will be responsible for carrying an increasingly large percentage of America’s workload burden. To make sure they succeed, HR should get involved.

"This is not a matter of ‘being nice to Latinos,’" argues La Raza’s Pérez. "We are already a very significant part of the current workforce. We will be even more significant in the future as Anglo birthrates decline, and Anglos grow older and retire. It’s in America’s best interest to invest in the Latino workforce."

"It’s a learning curve for everybody," Peña adds. "But it’s the HR of now, not tomorrow, that needs to be changed."

Carla Joinson, a contributing editor to HR Magazine , is based in San Antonio. She specializes in writing about business and management issues.


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