September 23, 2005

Hispanic Caucus surveys corporate hiring prejudice

By David Kassabian
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON – Lawmakers surveying the hiring gap between Hispanics and whites in big business say early returns show signs of promise, amid criticism by groups that racial equity for corporate executives hasn’t improved in decades.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus sent the voluntary survey to Fortune 100 companies in August. It is intended to measure if Hispanics are adequately represented in corporate leadership, said Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., who is also a vice chair of the caucus.

“Part of our responsibility is to look at corporate America and make sure its faces look more like America’s,” Baca said Wednesday. “All we’re saying is we want a fair and level playing field.”

With half the returns in from the survey and a month to go before the reporting deadline, some positive results are already showing up, Baca said. About two-thirds of the companies have at least one Hispanic on their corporate board and half have at least one Hispanic among their top executives.

Hispanics made up 14 percent of the U.S. population in 2004, and have an estimated $1 trillion in consumer purchasing power, Baca said.

Despite having a growing economic presence, upper-level Hispanic executives and board members are still scarce. Hispanics make up nearly 11 percent of the U.S. private sector workforce, but less than 5 percent of officials and managers are Hispanic, according to a study last year by the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility.

Not only does a clear hiring gap exist, but assessing the extent of the problem and prescribing solutions further complicate making corner offices and boardrooms more diverse, some business leaders and others counter.

“People being discriminated against need to know it,” said Cathy Areu, publisher of CATALINA Magazine, which portrays Hispanics in a positive light. “Most Hispanics don’t realize they’re being discriminated against in the workforce.”

Attempts to measure racial distribution at the office are often flawed due to companies being asked to self-report information without any fact-checking, Areu said. Many of the companies that are lauded for being minority-friendly are simply misrepresenting themselves, she added.

“The only third party that’s supposedly monitoring Fortune 100 companies are magazines getting paid by the very companies they’re auditing,” Areu said. “There are no real surveys – if you’re asking a husband if he beats his wife, he’s going to say no.”

Companies are beginning to see how having a more diverse leadership will allow them to tap into the considerable Hispanic buying power, but change is occurring slowly because it takes time to train top executives and minority groups have less access to higher education, said Steve Denson, director of diversity for the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

And many companies still exhibit institutional racism, Denson added. “Some people talk a good game, and some people play a good game – sometimes people don’t realize when they’re being racist,” he said.

Eli Portnoy, chief executive officer of the New York-based Hispanic job-finder Web site agreed.

“Even those companies that are actively trying to reach the Hispanic demographic are doing an awful job at it,” Portnoy said. “Although I don’t think it’s the hiring process of the corporations.”

Cultural, linguistic and technological barriers are to blame for preventing Hispanics from advancing into senior positions, Portnoy added. Educating and mentoring new workers can help bridge these obstacles, he said.

For Areu, who is also president of National Association of Latino Leaders, many times the only thing Hispanics can do when they suspect they’re being passed over or paid disproportionately is to keep abreast of the issues and maintain a dialogue with state and national lawmakers.

The caucus survey will also look at the level of contracts corporations award to Hispanic businesses, and the philanthropic support that they provide to organizations serving the Hispanic community, Baca said.

When the survey is completed later this year, the caucus will identify unsatisfactory corporations and make recommendations to further combat any disparity, Baca added.

“We must hold America’s major corporations accountable, so we are going to name names,” Baca said. “We’ll give credit where it is due and provide constructive criticism to businesses that warrant it.”

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