America's Hispanics Lament A Low Profile in Business

The minority occupies few top positions in corporations, though hiring has increased since passage of NAFTA

WITH $200 billion in purchasing power, the United States Hispanic population is no small market player. But the racial makeup of US corporate boardrooms only faintly reflects the size of that consumer base, says Richard Bela, president of the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility (HACR) in Washington, a corporate watchdog body. Hispanic representation is often ``tantamount to tokenism,'' he says.

Only 105 of 11,248 directorship positions and 49 of 12,304 corporate officer positions among Fortune 1000 companies are occupied by Hispanics, according to data released by HACR last month. This is less than 1 percent of the available positions, while Hispanics make up 9 percent of the US population.

HACR's goal is to push the number of top corporate positions held by Hispanics to 10 percent, Mr. Bela says. Many industries do not have a single Hispanic director, including the aerospace, mining, furniture, and transportation industries, the report finds.

The biggest problem Hispanics face is that ``the American public believes minorities have been sufficiently or overly compensated [in the work place],'' Bela says. Hispanics often are subject to the same ``glass ceiling'' women face - the inability to progress above a certain level in a company. Recent corporate downsizing has also hit successful Hispanics harder, Bela says, because they are often ``last in and first out'' on corporate boards.

The shifting composition of America's customer base - the Hispanic population grew more than 50 percent between 1980 and 1990 to more than 25 million - also has reinforced the need for more management positions for Hispanics.

PATRICIA ASIP began working at J. C. Penney's corporate headquarters in Plano, Texas, 14 years ago as a catalog editor. As she helped Spanish-speaking friends fill out catalog orders, Ms. Asip persuaded the company to make more of a marketing effort with Hispanic consumers. The strategy, which included printing special instructions in Spanish, ``was a way of sensitizing the company,'' she says, as well as attracting new customers. As J. C. Penney changed its approach, Asip moved from lower- to upper-level management. She is now manager of minority public relations.

Both Bela and Asip say that opportunities for Hispanics have increased in corporate America since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Companies are hiring more bilingual Hispanics, Asip says. She gives as an example J. C. Penney's plans to open stores in Mexico next year.

This need for corporate America to employ more diverse talent was recently stressed by Federico Pena, secretary of transportation and one of the most visible Hispanics in the Clinton administration. ``Think of this as simply good business practice,'' Mr. Pena said at an HACR symposium in Washington earlier this month. Corporations must be ``mindful of [the] changing market,'' as Hispanics become a larger part of the US population. ``Yes, it's a little bit of social justice, but it's a good business decision,'' he said.

Hispanics must sometimes combat the image that ``when it comes down to business, we don't know much,'' says Marta Calas, associate professor of organizational studies and international management at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Because Hispanics are often less affluent and less educated than the mainstream, companies may assume a short supply of qualified candidates. Businesses must continue an active approach to include Hispanics in their upper ranks, Ms. Calas says. ``There should be plenty [of qualified candidates],'' she adds.

This year's HACR survey results represent some progress. The number of board seats increased 25 percent over 1992, while the number of directors grew 24 percent.

In today's marketplace, the price and quality of many products are virtually identical, Bela says. The way the consumer feels about the company may be the deciding factor in a purchase - therefore, the image of the socially responsible company is crucial.

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