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Orlando Sentinel

Recognizing Staff Heritage Can Help Business Succeed

By Cristina Elías

October 13, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

Hispanic Heritage Month has generated a new workplace climate where Hispanic culture is not only accepted, but also encouraged and regarded as a commodity.

"The difference today is that companies are driven by new business trends," said Fred Soto, director of the Institute for Applied Leadership in Orlando. "These five new business trends are globalization, purchasing power, language, recruiting and strategic advantage."

Hispanic Heritage Month gives companies that understand these new trends an opportunity to showcase their command of the new market forces, and Hispanic employees a chance to strut their stuff.

Since the 1960s, government agencies have sought to lead the way in public policy and in integrating and celebrating the diversity of its employees, and Orange County is no exception.

Unlike most government agencies, where such celebrations tend to be controlled by the administration, in Orange County, Hispanic initiatives come from the Hispanic employees. This is the fourth year that Lizette Valarino and a committee of 18 county employees volunteer their time to prepare events for Hispanic Heritage Month. The events are aimed at the county's 1,200 or so employees. But the Hispanic Heritage Celebration Committee of Orange County also helps to host public events sponsored by the county.

On Friday, the committee will present a Hispanic Heritage Employee Fiesta. It also will participate in the Annual Chairman's Hispanic Luncheon and in the Annual Hispanic Heritage Scholarship Gala.

This partnership between the employer and employee helps make the county more accessible to a portion of the community that may be intimidated by government, and prefers a more familiar connection.

"We handle a lot of citizens here in the county and they come here because they do not know where else to go," said Valarino. "But there is this familiarity that exists between Hispanics that is different from American culture. When they deal with an Anglo employee they might think that employee is cold or rude, whereas they might be trying to be polite. That is when I or another Hispanic employee come in."

Orange County is not typical of government agencies, Soto said. No other sector is more notorious for having less Hispanic representation than government, he said.

"Political appointments are different," he said. "Political appointments strive to reflect the political diversity of America. This is not true for regular government jobs."

The private sector does a better job of pushing for diversity, Soto said. Nowhere is the pressure to identify with a market more important than in the private sector, where the ability to communicate with consumers affects the bottom line.

Hiring Hispanic employees gives employers the ability to tap into new markets and to tap into old markets in new ways. At the Lake Underhill plant of Lockheed Martin, a defense contractor, employees will celebrate their fourth annual Hispanic heritage event Tuesday.

The idea for this event came from Angel Martínez, a software development manager who is Puerto Rican. "I was very involved with the Hispanic community," said Martínez. "I direct the Rondalla of Orlando, a musical group that plays traditional instruments like cuatros and guitars. I noticed we weren't doing anything for Hispanic Heritage Month. And it was just a matter of taking the initiative and asking permission."

Martínez and Kathryn Garcia of human resources at Lockheed Martin agree the company has been very supportive of their efforts.

García added that the growing Hispanic work force at Lockheed reflects not only the company's desire to celebrate diversity, but also the increasing availability of qualified Hispanic candidates.

Minority associations play a key role in the new environment, Soto said, because they help bridge the gap between work and culture.

Culture and heritage were things that were discouraged or ignored in educational and work environments when he was growing up, Soto said.

But nowadays, young and educated Hispanics, such as Martínez, not only market their job skills but also their culture in the new workplace.

"This is what we bring. It's the whole package," Martinez said.

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