SHPE and Growing up Hispanic in Corporate America
I am often asked why I spend so much time with SHPE as a volunteer. It is an interesting question because I didn’t know SHPE when I went to college, so I am not the product of SHPE. SHPE was barely starting and limited to Los Angeles at the time, and I went to school in Puerto Rico, literally the other side of the country. Additionally, I spent 40 years+ in Corporate America and now have my own business, so the kind of professional development SHPE offers today doesn’t really apply to me. Not that I don’t have anything to learn, one learns until the last day, but the focus of SHPE currently is the first few years at work and I went through that long time ago. So, the time I spend with SHPE doesn’t benefit me professionally in any way (other than the personal satisfaction of helping others), and that seems to puzzle some of my friends. But there is a reason.
I want Hispanics as they come out of school and go into the workforce to become as successful as they can right away and not waste years trying to figure out how to fit in culturally as I did.
When I started work, I was one of the first, if not the first, Hispanic ever hired in Research & Development (R&D) at my company. While today Hispanics number about 60 million, and are fairly distributed through the country – not to mention a constant topic in the news due to politics, events, entertainment, sports, etc. – that wasn’t the case back then. At that time, there were barely 14 million Hispanics mostly concentrated in key specific areas, like New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc. I had moved to Ohio in the Midwest where I was an oddity that the company didn’t really know how to manage as an employee.
My first 5-10 years were incredibly frustrating. I myself didn’t even know where I fit. This became clear to me as time progressed and I felt I was an outsider, a stranger in my own country. Not only didn’t I understand the culture of an Anglo corporation, but the corporation also didn’t understand mine, or even know what to do with me.
For example, in my first 6 months I received a visit from an HR manager quite concerned about my employee file, which surprised me since all my school graduation and degree papers were correct. She was very polite but emphasized the issue was grave. You see, she could not find my green card on file, so they had no record of my permission of employment. At first, I freaked out, I didn’t know I needed permission of employment and told her so. She said that all foreigners needed paperwork to be able to work in the United States. At that point I realized she must think I am a foreigner because of my accent so I told her I am a U.S. citizen. She said we were ok then and left, only to return the following week to tell me she had checked with her manager and I did need a green card because I was born in Puerto Rico and not in the U.S. That really got me very irritated, so I told her I did not need a green card, considered the issue solved, and went back to work. She got quite upset and said she would return.
The HR manager returned the next day with a corporate lawyer. The lawyer patiently explained to me the law and why I needed a green card to work in the U.S. I patiently thanked him and told him I did not need a green card because I was born in Puerto Rico. To which he stared at me in disbelief for a second, turned around to the HR manager and said, “why are you wasting my time?” At that point the HR manager turned to me and said, “I don’t get it, it is the law.” She then got up and left too and never came back. I assume someone must have set her straight. But that was the first or many instances where coworkers referred to me as a foreigner or as an immigrant, a never-ending reminder that I was an outsider and didn’t belong in my own country.
What I didn’t realize is that I was continuously reinforcing the perception because my behavior and approach were different than anyone else at work. In fact, I describe the first 5-10 years of my career as hand-to-hand combat, having to prove myself every day. I had to be twice as good as anyone else to be considered just half as bad. I would be in meetings and share an idea and the meeting leader would thank me for it, ignore it, and move on. Only to have someone else in the meeting say the same thing and be praised for the great idea. At first, I didn’t say anything but after a while I started complaining that it was the same idea I shared only to get condescending agreements without explanations and my concern totally ignored.
One particular day I had a test in the pilot plant and had to make a certain amount of product for testing. Because the amount was going to take me overnight to finish, I asked my coworker, Peter, if he could stay over and help me. We were good friends and he agreed, and we had a fantastic run, made all the product at target quality for testing. We finished around 7 am and we left to go home, clean up and change (it was a messy process), and I was to return for the 9am team meeting to talk about the overnight run. On my way out of the office, dead tired and feeling like I needed 10 beers and three days of sleep, I ran into…the boss! He asked me how I was doing, and I told him I was doing great, was just going home to change and would be back. He smiled, I smiled, and I went home.
Back at the office for the 9 am team meeting we were all in the conference room and the boss started the meeting. He said, “before we start the meeting, I want to congratulate Peter for the outstanding run of product last night.” This surprised me. Peter was not at the meeting. I spoke up and said that had been MY run. To which the boss said, “of course ,and Miguel too for helping.” I was in disbelief! Peter had taken credit for my work. My actual friend had done that!
When I saw Peter the next day, I was very upset and called him on what he did, but he had no idea what I was talking about. We argued for hours and eventually I went to talk with boss. Well, it turns out Peter was right, he never took credit, at least not on purpose. What happened was on his way out he also ran into the boss and the boss asked him how he was doing. Unlike me, who said I was doing great even though I was dead tired as I was taught by my upbringing to always be positive, he actually said how he was. He said he was dead tired, was at the pilot plant all night and while the team made all the product, he needed sleep badly because had been up 24 hours making the amount of product needed. Boss assumed the run was Peter’s and not mine given our answers. That was the first time I realized my culture was getting in my way, and my company’s culture was not agile enough to understand this or help me understand it.
The second and critical time this was made clear to me was about a year later when I was fired.
The boss of my boss came to see me and told me the management team had done evaluations for the year and my rating had not been good. He said I was rated 5 (on a 0-100 scale), because they felt rating me 0 was demeaning (as if being rated 5 was not demeaning enough…). I was shocked! I had been working hard, long hours and I had done all that my boss had asked of me. I thought I was doing great. However, he indicated my performance was poor, I was only executing orders without any initiative, any self-direction and while the output had been ok, anyone can follow orders. Additionally, they deemed me unassertive, meek, quiet, uninvolved, and simply I was not the kind of person the company wanted so they were going to let me go. This was a shocker. They were firing me! So, I said no. I said I liked it there, I liked the work, and I didn’t want to leave. He indicated that was not my decision, but they would provide me with assistance and resources to find another job. And I again said no. And he got up and left. I suspect no one had ever refused to be fired before so he didn’t know what to do.
I kept coming to work every day for the following week and no one told me anything. But I wasn’t getting any work and my boss had no time to meet with me, in fact he wondered why I was still coming to the office. After several days I realized I needed to do something and reached out to a senior leader in a different division with whom I had become friends. Not surprisingly his first reaction was to ask me why I was still there since they had fired me. I explained I didn’t want to leave, and I told him I thought I was doing a great job. He shook his head and said I was not. Thankfully he took a few hours and explained why.
It took me a long time, way over a year, to realize my culture, and importantly how I behaved, was at play here. Everything I was taught. The non-assertiveness, like not making eye contact with persons of authority as that was disrespectful. Being non-challenging, because challenging authority was wrong even if you knew the person was mistaken. Just following orders - I had great ideas, but it would have been disrespectful to tell my boss my idea was better than his, and so on. It opened my eyes. I didn’t know how to fit in, the company didn’t know how to help me fit in either and, worst of all, neither I nor company were aware. The assumption was it was just poor performance.
I asked the senior manager for another chance. I told him I understood what the issue was and that I could turn that around, if only I had a chance. He didn’t quite believe me, and he took another week to think it and talk to other people but eventually he came back and he gave me the chance. They moved me to another division to have a fresh start unencumbered by my previous experience.
I struggled dearly with the issue. Struggled to figure out how to change the manner I interacted with people, to erase or suspend some of the behaviors I was taught, but still be myself. To change and fit in without losing my identity. No work was worth changing who you are, but eventually I realized I could change my approach and behavior. I studied all my friends. I actually paid attention to how they went around tooting their own horn, how they challenged authority, how they behaved in meetings, how they spoke up when needed, etc.It was incredibly difficult since it really touched everything that made me who I was, but I learned. I fought long and hard to adapt, to learn how to work in the Anglo corporate culture. And 2.5 years after I was fired, the boss of my boss, who originally fired me, started reporting to me.
Critically important, the only thing that changed is that I learned how to adapt to the culture I was working in, which was quite different than the culture where I grew up. I didn’t become more intelligent, my degree did not become better, my accent did not disappear. I simply understood what corporate Anglo America valued, what they wanted, what is the proper behavior, not good or bad, just the one accepted for the company. Because nothing was against my principles, I adapted to the work and was able to move forward.
This is why I am with SHPE. I don’t want any graduating Hispanic to go through the kind of hand-to-hand combat and painful discovery that I went through when I started. There is no need for that, we now know how to train people to be successful, how to share best practices, how to develop leadership skills so that everyone rises to the highest skill level possible. I’m still not good at tooting my own horn, but I understand the need to share with our managers what we do. Working in silence and magically expecting rewards doesn’t work.
Granted, today’s environment is different. Companies have learned that there are other leadership styles. They have learned that some new hires require specific training to help them fit quickly with the company’s culture and some don’t. My own organization has gone from not knowing what to do with the Hispanic kid to being one of the most progressive workplaces for Hispanics in the country.
But there will always be more work to do. Students are moving from an environment with curves to one with actuals; from an environment where you are assessed in the absolute to one where you are assessed against your peers; an environment with no worries about social media to one where anything you post can and will impact your career and employment; an environment where diversity is normal to one where is getting better but is not quite there yet.
The key point is that it was very difficult to succeed as a Hispanic in an Anglo company 40 years ago, but organizations like SHPE have changed that by training students who later on become employees and help others, as well as, creating awareness in the workforce by working with our industry, academia, and government partners. This is why I support SHPE, to help it continue to evolve our society until these differences disappear. In fact, absolute success would be not needing SHPE. We are not there yet, and we won’t be there for another generation or two, so we need to continue supporting SHPE and the work it does for our community. We need to maintain our course and have many more people help us.
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Chair, SHPE Board of Directors