Oye Como Va! Reflections on Hispanic Heritage Month and HR

By Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP September 27, 2018
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​It's no secret. I am a Cuban-American and uber-proud of it. 

Growing up in Miami, I heard all about the family: my paternal grandfather who was a district attorney in Havana, and my maternal grandfather who was an Army captain who taught at the Cuban equivalent of West Point. Both of my grandmothers were entrepreneurs and very modern women. 

I ate Cuban delicacies every day of my youth: pan con bistec, ropa vieja and arroz con pollo. (And I don't care what you say, my abuela Araceli's arroz con pollo was the best—especially when she added the mini-can of Budweiser.) 

Memories like these make me cherish my Hispanic heritage. Memories like these are what I want to create for my three daughters. And memories like these have helped me connect with my team. 

Sure, it's easy to make friends when you bring pastelitos and croquettes to share with your afternoon café. But that's not what I mean. I'm referring to the shared experiences with my colleagues in acknowledging my Hispanic heritage. 

My heritage has helped me connect with others around the globe. I've shared stories of my upbringing with a colleague from Serbia who had similar experiences growing up in the U.S. I've gotten to know Salvadoran colleagues who told of their experiences learning English. I've had polemic debates with colleagues from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba over who has the best baseball players. We all share a love of our heritage, Hispanic or otherwise. 

Recalling the commonality in these experiences makes me realize how much of a vital role HR can play in helping people celebrate their heritage—and I don't mean with a potluck lunch or PowerPoint show at an all-hands meeting. I offer the following suggestions for helping all members of your workforce celebrate their heritage from day to day: 

  • Exposition matters most. People like to show off their culture's uniqueness. Find ways to help them do that without offending anyone. How about a "heritage hall" or photo exhibit? Offer interesting opportunities to share what makes a culture unique.

  • Flexibility drives the day. Celebrate the factors that matter to your workforce. The common thread in any celebration of diversity is flexibility. This might mean emphasizing one aspect of heritage over another, rather than everything all at once. Every workplace is different.

  • Inaccuracy can ruin it. Don't fall into the trap of inauthentic, commercialized ethnic "celebrations." I'll never forget my last employer's Cinco de Mayo fail—it's actually not a huge holiday in Mexico, but the boss felt it was the perfect way to celebrate Mexican heritage. Not a great idea.

  • Think more broadly. Heritage is about people's experience beyond the alcohol-fueled elements of their homeland. Hispanic heritage, for instance, is not limited to margaritas, mojitos, pina coladas or other cocktails (even though these are great contributions to the world if you are a drinker!).

  • Feed me, Seymour! Yes, I just scoffed at the potluck idea, but if I learned anything from the late, beloved Anthony Bourdain, it's that people love food. Breaking bread is universal. Just make sure you approach any food situation with diversity and equity in mind. 

Sept. 15 through Oct. 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month, which means the world to me because it sparks memories of my childhood, and more importantly, of my abuela. In the workplace, I find that no one is better suited than HR professionals to help build diverse environments for meaningful work, engaged workers and the greater social good. While I never advocate for HR as party planners, diversity calls for celebration. I'll be here, daiquiri in hand (Cuban like me), waiting for an invitation to talk about my Hispanic heritage. 

Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, is chief knowledge officer for SHRM.

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