What can companies do to leverage and support Latino talent in a way that lets Latinos know it’s okay to be their authentic selves?

By Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Noni Allwood and Laura Sherbin

Harvard Business Review —

Hispanic Heritage Month, which is generally observed from September 15th-October 15th, is a time to celebrate the contributions and unique heritage of Hispanics and Latinos — except, according to many Latinos, in the workplace.

According to a new study published by the Center for Talent Innovation, Latinos at Work: Unleashing the Power of Culture, most Latinos in the U.S. do not feel that they can bring their whole selves to the office. We found the vast majority of Latinos (76%) repress parts of their personas at work. They modify their appearance, body language, and communication style — all components of executive presence (EP), that intangible element that defines leadership material.

“You’re always moderating yourself,” agrees a Latina executive, who feels Latinas “are always tagged with the emotional thing. They’re always told, ‘Calm down. You’ve got to be more cool. Be careful with your voice, be careful with your hands.’” Hispanic men echo her observations. One ruefully told of moving from a Hispanic-dominated company, where he could gesture eloquently and speak passionately, to a Caucasian workplace where he had to “scale back” his expressiveness. Another Latina executive recalls the countless times that she’s been asked to anglicize her name. “My father, who died when I was young, chose my name,” she says. “It’s one of the few links I have to him, and I’m not willing to let it go. I am twisting myself into a pretzel to adapt to my company culture, and they can’t budge an inch to call me by my given name?”

More than half (53%) of Latinas and 44% of Latinos say that EP at their company is defined by conforming to traditionally white, male standards. Furthermore, 43% of Latinas and 33% of Latinos say they need to compromise their authenticity to adhere to the EP standards at their company.

The sad reality is that Latinos who decide to change who they are and modify certain aspects of their personas are achieving real results. Those who expend a great deal of energy repressing themselves are also more likely to say that they are being promoted quickly. Despite their success, this is problem — rewarding self-repression is not a good talent strategy.

Previous CTI research found repression not only impacts employee engagement and morale, but can have serious ramifications for a company’s brand and bottom line.

Teams with one or more members who represent the culture of the team’s target end users are 158% more likely to understand that end user, boosting the likelihood of that team innovating for that audience. Yet, even smart companies are often clueless about how to leverage their employees’ insights that would enable them to tap into this huge and exploding Latino market — a market that is projected to reach $1.7 trillion within the next four years.

As repression resonates throughout an organization, it undermines its ability to attract and retain Latino talent. Among the enormous wave of Millennials flooding into the workplace, as one talent specialist observed, “authenticity and self-expression are of the utmost importance.”

When Latinos repress who they are in order to rise into management, incoming or up-and-coming Latino talent is motivated to look elsewhere for employment.

As one Latino focus group participant said, “I look up, see no one like myself, and have to wonder if there is a future here for me.”

Multinational companies based in the US are desperate to unlock this growth market. The key? More insight from those who represent it. Yet 63% of Latinos that we surveyed do not feel welcomed and included, do not feel invited to share their ideas, and/or do not feel confident their ideas are heard and valued in the workplace. CTI research on diversity and innovation found that 56% of employees say that leaders at their companies fail to see value in ideas for which they don’t personally see a need. So if leaders lack inclusive leadership skills, they’re not likely to get behind ideas from Latinos that identify unmet needs or solve for critical business problems.

What can companies do to leverage and support Latino talent in a way that lets Latinos know it’s okay to be their authentic selves?

One fundamental step is to incent senior leaders to sponsor across race and ethnicity. Latinos with sponsors — senior-level advocates — are 42% more likely to be satisfied with their career progression than Latinos without sponsors. At the same time, sponsorship helps senior leaders better understand and tap into the diverse perspectives and skills Latino talent can bring to the workplace. But a mere 5% of full-time, high-earning Latino professionals in large companies have a sponsor in their corner.

Companies can also help Latinos feel valued and included by cultivating culture-smart leaders. Among the steps these leaders can take: act as staunch allies when Latinos are diminished or snubbed, even in a conversation where they’re not present; and support employee resource group (ERG) efforts to celebrate Latino heritage and show support by attending ERG events and sharing efforts company-wide.

Smart companies understand diverse perspectives have impact on the bottom-line and are working to better leverage these insights. Bank of America’s Hispanic-Latino Leadership Council (HLLC), for example, was formed in 2012 to connect Hispanic and Latino leaders to grow the pipeline of Hispanic-Latino employees across the company, and develop strategies to better serve and attract Hispanic-Latino customers and clients. The HLLC, however, first had to confront a challenge — identifying Hispanic and Latino leaders. This was difficult because many of the bank’s Hispanic and Latino leaders at the time had not self-identified when they first joined the bank. “We’re focused every day on being inclusive, and creating an environment where all employees have the opportunity to achieve their goals,” said Denise Harris, Senior Audit Director, member of the HLLC’s advisory council and one of the Bank’s Global Diversity and Inclusion Council members. “Yet, we found leaders reluctant or unaware that they should share their heritage. We encouraged our leaders to be proud of their heritage. By doing so, they realize how it fosters that inclusive work environment and gets them more involved in programs and initiatives, like our HLLC.”

Through a concerted effort to encourage employees to be their authentic selves, attendance at the HLLC Annual Summit has grown from 50% to 80% over the past three years and the Summit received an impressive feedback score of 95% from participants for content and networking. “We have worked hard over the last few years to increase participation and provide participants with robust content and strong internal and external speakers, including members of our management team,” says Harris. “In turn, those leaders pay it forward by creating opportunities for other Hispanic-Latino employees at the firm. Our HLLC members are in key roles throughout the bank to make that happen.”

Employers need to create a workplace where Latino professionals feel they can be true to themselves, contribute their insights and opinions, and lead in an authentic way. When Latino talent thrives, organizations are much more likely to meet their goals of diversifying leadership, attracting and retaining top talent, and tapping into the enormous market opportunities.

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Sylvia Ann Hewlett is the founder and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation and the founder of Hewlett Consulting Partners LLC.

Noni Allwood is a senior fellow at the Center for Talent Innovation and managing director at Hewlett Consulting Partners. She’s the coauthor of Center for Talent Innovation’s recent study Latinos at Work: Unleashing the Power of Culture.

Laura Sherbin is CFO and director of research at the Center for Talent Innovation and CFO at Hewlett Consulting Partners. She’s the coauthor of Center for Talent Innovation’s recent study Latinos at Work: Unleashing the Power of Culture.