When Hiring, Look at Talent not Surface Features
I often receive phone calls from advertising colleagues who are looking to add Latino talent to their teams. The caller might own or work for a Hispanic market agency, or a multicultural agency or a general-market agency. He might be a headhunter hired to work with any of these agency types. In most cases, the request is simply about who I know that is talented, easy to work with and has all the right skill sets. However, in some cases, certain biases rear their ugly heads. I’m asked questions that have no business being asked in this day and age. At a time when jobs are hard to find, it pains me to believe that there are worthy candidates being passed over because of:
Skin Color: General-market agencies are often criticized for the lack of diversity within their ranks and, in many cases, they certainly should be. But if truth be told, there are U.S. Hispanic agencies whose staff photos simply do not reflect the diversity of the U.S. Hispanic population as a whole. Black Hispanics have historically found it difficult to find acceptance within some Hispanic circles. The same holds true for the more brown-skinned Mexican-Americans or those who self-define as chicanos. Occasionally, the white, blond, blue-eyed Hispanic will also lose out on a job opportunity because he doesn’t fulfill the agencies expectations of what a Hispanic is, particularly when general-market agencies are trying to hire window dressing to check off a diversity box or create the illusion of having a Hispanic competency in-house.
Social Status: Often U.S.-born Latinos, and particularly those of Mexican descent, are judged based upon their parents’ social status, regardless of what the candidate’s U.S. social reality is. This stems from country-of-origin practices that prioritize a more European-influenced presentation skewing toward lighter hair, lighter eyes, lighter skin and a facial bone structure that does not shout “indigenous” (or doesn’t bear “la mancha de platano” as a friend of mine used to say). I know that there are Latinos in hiring positions that will rule out candidates because they remind them of the maids and cleaning ladies that were a part of their foreign-born reality. I know there are non-Latinos that will do the same based on their U.S.-born frame of reference. While the hiring of foreign-born Latinos from Argentina, Colombia and other South American countries is often discussed in terms of the need for better language skills, there are most definitely other factors, including social status, that in some agencies make a U.S.-born Latino a less desirable hire.
Accents: Of course no one is going to hire someone who can’t make themselves understood to an English-only customer base, unless the role does not require direct client contact. However, there are any number of accented Latinos who not only can make themselves understood, but also can out-think and outperform some of their non-accented co-workers. Nonetheless, over the past six months, I have received at least two calls from general-market colleagues about creative positions they were seeking to fill. And in both cases they were hoping I knew someone who “didn’t have an accent” because they didn’t feel their clients would be comfortable. On the flip side, I’ve seen clients fall head over heels in love with accented Latino creatives, deeming them to be somehow more authentic because of their accent. Sometimes the adoration is warranted because the quality of the work is that good — accent or not. But frankly, I’ve seen really poor work get pitched by heavily accented old-school salesmen and get approved because of the illusion of authenticity and therefore the implied expertise that the accent created. Perhaps worse off than the accented creative is the accented account person, who is often not considered client-worthy regardless of intellect and ability to write, present and handle the requirements of the job.
I have always found the hiring process to be complex. Resumes get screened and, no matter how free of bias one believes themselves to be, perceptions get formed based on names, colleges, who-knows-who in common, and a myriad of other pieces of information. All that before the person ever walks in the door. Then there’s the voice on the answering machine, the grammar in the e-mail and the first impression when they do finally walk in and shake your hand. Even the handshake sends its own message of strength or weakness, confidence or insecurity.
We are none of us perfect. That said, we still owe it to ourselves and each other to work at being fair and impartial. We must leave our prejudices and personal preferences at the door.
I know that every job candidate turned down for a position could cry foul regardless of ethnic or racial background. Maybe it’s age or gender. Maybe it’s the cologne he wears. Who knows? But the fact is that for Latino job candidates trying to deal with the day-to-day realities of the advertising and marketing industries (including the multicultural and U.S. Hispanic advertising agencies), there are subtle and not so subtle forms of discrimination that often go undetected or are rarely acknowledged or discussed. If putting it out there helps one person go from unemployed to employed during these most difficult of times, this blog will have served its purpose.