It's a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't. After trying to fit in a mostly white corporate culture in the 1980s, Jim Huerta's boss challenged him about whether he was "being Latino enough."
Huerta spent the first 12 years of his corporate life working in the mining industry, where most employees were white. People regularly butchered his name, so he pronounced it without a Spanish accent. Huerta developed a relationship with a white-male mentor, who, upon hearing Huerta say his last name without the Spanish accent, corrected him, using the Spanish pronunciation of his name.
Following that interaction, Huerta regularly used the proper Spanish pronunciation of his name and "the response became immediate. It was a look or a question asking, 'Where are you from?'"
"The conversation was different," Huerta recalls. People started asking him "'How do your people do that?' or 'Do you eat that kind of food?' Those questions never came up before and I wasn't taking them as flattering investigation of who I was. I was being categorized as not necessarily 'one of us,'" says Huerta.
Questions and comments steeped in stereotype can alienate Latino executives. The problem for the company is that the best and brightest will leave for places where they feel welcomed and like a valued member of the team.
Here are 10 things you should not say to Latino executives:
1. "Don't worry, you'll get the promotion, you're Latina."
This comment tells the Latino person that his or her ethnicity speaks louder than accomplishments; it's a classic affirmative-action stereotype that Latinos and Blacks deal with constantly. Donna Maria Blancero heard that comment regularly when she was the lone Latina professor at a university in Arizona. Now the senior vice president of research and intellectual development at the National Society for Hispanic MBAs, Blancero says her methods of coping changed over the years. "At first it would leave me speechless and then leave me angry," says Blancero. After years of hearing that line, Blancero started to respond with, "Really? I thought it was because I had a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university, teaching awards and a publishing record."
2. "When did you arrive in this country?"
This comment assumes that everyone of Latin descent is a foreigner.
3. "Hola! Habla Ingles?"
This question is patronizing, especially when those three words are the only Spanish the speaker knows. Just speak English.
4. "Do you live with your parents?"
Don't assume that because someone is Latino, he doesn't live on his own. When Huerta worked for a white male who was president of the division, his boss asked him if he lived with his parents. "I would at first joke to try to make him see I was uncomfortable, but finally I stopped answering him ... He slowed it down, but keep in mind this guy was a money maker for the firm. You almost have to bite your tongue until there's a little blood seeping out the side of your cheek. If you get angry and offensive, it's not a matter of right or wrong. It's a matter of a senior leader saying you're too sensitive."
5. "You're not like them."
"My first response is 'How do they act?' because I might say, 'Well, I do act like that,'" says Huerta.
6. "Can you show me your knife?"
Raymond Arroyo, chief diversity officer at Aetna, No. 30 on The 2010 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity® list, was asked this question by a sales associate 20 years ago when he traveled to Toronto with three other Latino executives. At the time, mainstream news reportsout of New York City told about Puerto Rican gangs wielding knifes. Arroyo suggests that Latino executives, when facing such prejudicial comments, not "be too sensitive and educate [people] when you can."
7. "Why don't all you Latinos stop doing that?"
This statement assumes that because a person is Latino, he or she can influence an entire group. Latinos certainly are a varied group, from different countries of origin and with different race/ethnicities/cultural background. Lumping them all together is a common and silly assumption."The question is steeped in stereotypes. Another stereotype is that ... because we are Hispanic or Latino, we are going to solve the problems of our communities. They will come to us with questions about selling [to Latinos] or human-resources questions," says Federico Preuss, counsel at Aetna.
8. "You're not white."
Earlier in his career, Preuss was filling out forms as a new employee when a human-resources executive asked, "What are you?" Preuss, who is from Argentina and whose grandfather is from Germany, has a typical "white" look. Latinos can be of any race.
9. Butchering a Latino's last name.
"It's no one's fault," says Preuss, who has given up trying to correct people who mispronounce his last name. At Aetna, while other executives may refer to each other using surnames, most times people refer to Preuss using his first name, Federico. Preuss suggests Latino executives correct people in private rather than public. "Try to talk it out and not get angry to a level where both of you won't get over it," says Preuss. "If you really want to be an executive, you need to take a positive view of things and try to teach and not correct. The person corrected will be embarrassed and might look at you as a candidate who won't grow well in the organizations."
10. "Do you speak Spanish?"
"That'scode for, 'How Latino are you?'" says Henry Hernandez, a management consultant and former vice president of diversity and inclusion at American Express, No. 12 in the DiversityInc Top 50. "It's almost a double-edged sword being asked that question. Being Latino, many times the challenge a lot of us face is that we may not be Latino enough or Hispanic enough for some of our peers. But you can't make an assumption that because someone is Latino they're bilingual or that they're first- or second-generation [U.S. citizen]. My wife is fourth generation and I am second generation and her Spanish is much better than mine."