Latino Worker Project: Executive Summary
Within the next 20 years America will become a “minority-majority” country, driven primarily by the growth of the Latino population. This demographic transformation will have significant implications for America’s workforce - and employers will need talent strategies that leverage the vast potential of this labor pool. Understanding the wide variation in backgrounds and experiences that make up the tapestry of the Latino workforce is essential to meeting this challenge. Read the full report here.
Latinos in America: By the Numbers
The overwhelming majority (81%) of Latinos are US citizens, tracing their origin to over 20 countries. The largest group (60%) is of Mexican descent. In addition to differences based on country of origin, the experiences, behaviors, and attitudes of Latinos vary depending on the number of generations since migration to the US.
The diversity of the Latino community is also reflected in where they live. Most Latinos in the southwest and on the west coast are Mexican, while the population in the cities in the southeast and east coast is more diverse (Puerto Ricans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Cubans and Dominicans are all represented). Latinos are also younger than other ethnic and racial groups, with only 8% being over age 65 (compared to 17% of the total population.)
Significantly for employers, Latinos have the lowest educational attainment of any racial or ethnic group, with only 20% holding a college degree. Latino men have the lowest educational attainment rates and the highest labor force participation rate of any group. Latinos are concentrated in a few occupations and industries (such as construction and hospitality) and are underrepresented in technical and managerial roles. They are also more likely than other racial or ethnic groups to rely on the gig economy to earn a living.
The Voice of the Latino Worker
“It’s not one thing, but everything.”
Competing for talent is one of the most critical tasks facing HR teams, and the demographic transformation of the workforce will add another layer of complexity to the challenge. The Latino Worker Project spoke with over 150 Latino workers over a six-month timeframe to better understand how their culture and values shape their attitudes towards work. We interviewed Latino workers in an array of industries, employment levels, geographic regions. We held conversations with groups and individuals, in-person and remotely and with workers from various countries of origin.
We examined all aspects of the employment value proposition in an attempt to answer a simple question: what is important to you at work?
Our discussions revealed that Latinos place the highest value on work environments where all aspects of the value proposition work together to create a positive overall experience. They see the employment relationship as an integrated whole - and when any one aspect begins to fall short of their needs, their satisfaction with their work experience begins to weaken.
While no element alone determines the quality of the work experience, the work environment and company culture were most frequently mentioned as the most important facets of the value proposition. A good work environment is a place where Latinos feel a sense of belonging, are welcomed, and feel that their work is valued. For those who work in areas of the US without large Latino populations, they sometimes feel a pressure to conform to different behavioral norms in order to advance in their companies - to become less overtly Latino.
Integral to creating a work environment that works for those we spoke to was flexibility - not only formal policies but also a culture that supports workers in taking advantage of those policies. Flexibility is essential to creating the right balance between work and family, especially for Latinas.
Pay and benefits, while not the most frequently mentioned aspect of the value proposition, are important for the role they play in helping Latinos provide and care for their families. Transparency in how pay is set is important, since pay is considered a sign of recognition and respect. And good benefits were rated very highly by many workers in low-wage jobs, even though the cost and complexity of health care coverage is an obstacle for some.
The Latino Experience at Work
In many ways, Latinos value similar things in the employment relationship as other ethnic or racial groups. So what - if anything - makes Latino workers different? During our conversations, three core elements of Latino culture emerged that influence their attitudes toward work and their experience in the modern organization: familia, relationships, and hard work.
The importance of familia (family) and the role of parents influence how Latinos relate to work, the workplace, and their coworkers. Latinos prioritize the well-being of family above all else, and the role of work is best understood in this context. Work is a means to care for loved ones, and to create a better future for them. “Success” is viewed in the context of how a career improves the quality of family life, not the individual’s alone.
Consequently, Latinos have a deep appreciation for the sacrifices made by their parents to provide for them and seek to honor them and make them proud. Recognizing parental sacrifice is one motivator to career success, and Latinos consider professional accomplishments a shared achievement of the whole family.
The importance of familial bonds helps explain the value Latinos place on flexibility in their working arrangements. Workers value flexibility not for its own sake, but for how it helps them care for and be with family.
Establishing relationships at work is a priority for Latinos, who often view coworkers as an extended family. Especially important is the mentor at work, whom many spoke of with great respect and fondness for their willingness to offer advice on how to navigate specific situations, organizational politics, and career choices. These mentors fill a gap that many Latinos face - having no exposure in their upbringing that prepares them for the modern corporate workplace.
Being mentored in an organization seems to create a sense of responsibility to pay forward those benefits by mentoring others. This is the case even with early career Latinos, who willingly seek to help their newer coworkers make their own way in the organization.
The “Latino work ethic” - the value placed on hard work - manifests itself in the workplace as a willingness to put in the effort required to overcome any obstacle or setback. Underlying this commitment is the Latino belief that any challenge can be met if one works hard enough. This behavior can be interpreted as evidence that Latinos are committed and loyal to their organizations - and that is often the case. Engaged Latinos work hard, going above and beyond what is asked.
But hard work is not always a sign of an engaged Latino worker. Often, Latinos will work hard even when they are not happy. Believing that their hard work should speak for itself, Latinos struggle when their efforts go unrecognized. When that happens, they often work harder in the hope that recognition will eventually come. A cultural reticence to “self-promote” their accomplishments compounds this dilemma.
The Latino work ethic is foundational to a belief in meritocracy: that if given a chance to compete, through hard work they will achieve success that will allow them to honor and care for their family. Latinos reject the idea of receiving special treatment; they only want a chance to be recognized for their work.
The unique challenge faced by Latinas
Positioned at the center of the Latino family, women are expected to put their familial obligations ahead of everything else. These commitments can create tension between a Latina’s work and home lives. First-generation Latinas find it especially difficult to balance work with caring for home and family in the absence of the infrastructure of family support systems. Flexibility in work arrangements is key to helping Latinas navigate this challenge.
The Path Forward
This emerging Latino labor force presents significant opportunities - and challenges - for America’s employers. Broadly speaking, Latinos are proud of and define themselves by their ethic of hard work, but most lack the requisite educational levels and trained skills needed for a technology economy - and have precious little in their life experience that prepares them to succeed in large, often impersonal organizations. But given their sheer numbers, companies who figure out how to win with Latino workers will win the new war for talent.
Our conversations over the past six months yielded fascinating insights into how Latino workers are similar to their colleagues of other ethnicities, but also shed light on how unique aspects of Latino culture influence their workplace experience. Based on these insights, we offer six recommendations for companies to consider as they develop talent strategies for a changing workforce.
ONE: To engage the growing Latino workforce, employers will need to adapt and expand traditional approaches to diversity and inclusion.
The growth of the Latino community means that America’s traditional framing of racial issues may no longer adequately explain how 21st century Americans relate to each other. Rather than a binary, "minority (black) /majority (white)" framework, companies need to invest in understanding in greater depth how the values, experiences, and desires of each group impact their attitudes, behavior, and experiences at work.
Organizations will need to work to find the right balance between understanding individual identities while recognizing the dramatic changes taking place among the larger communities in our society. While no community - including Latinos - is monolithic, each group shares common experiences and values that we need to understand, while acknowledging the individuals within each community. One opportunity to achieve this understanding is by leveraging the potential of Employee Resource Groups, which can offer valuable insight into how a group’s culture influences their experience at work.
TWO: Employers will need to adapt to a workplace that is becoming society's primary source of interaction between people from different racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural groups.
Concurrent with the demographic shift towards a minority-majority country, America is experiencing an increasing “self-sorting” into groups with similar backgrounds, viewpoints, and ideologies. The workplace is the last major institution where the ability to self-sort has limits. Workplaces, especially those of large employers, are populated by individuals from diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and ideologies. Employers will need to navigate tensions that are already evident in the workplace as social and political issues that divide Americans make their way into the day-to-day interactions among workers. While Latinos often have strong personal views on many of these social issues and political debates, most of the workers we spoke with felt that it was not the role of the employer to engage publicly on these issues.
THREE: Large companies need to address the fact that they are not relatable to many Latino workers.
Employers have what Latino workers want - but they need to invest in building relationships with this community before their stories can be heard. Large employers can be the pathway to the American dream, but they need to clearly articulate how the things they offer - good, stable jobs; welcoming workplaces; cultures that emphasize teamwork and collaboration; and a higher level of financial security - match the things Latinos value. In crafting these outreach strategies, employers can gain valuable insights from the experience of the higher education system in California following the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, which outlawed the use of race, ethnicity, national origin or gender in public employment, education and contracting. The significant investments in outreach made by the California State University and University of California have raised the profile of both universities in the community and helped drive progress in recruiting underrepresented students.
FOUR: Companies should design talent strategies based on an understanding of how the values of familia, relationships, and hard work shape Latino attitudes and behavior in the workplace.
Like other groups in the workplace, Latinos value jobs that make it easy for them to fit work into their lives, enabling them to fulfill their roles in the familia. One of the most important elements in helping create this harmony is flexibility; companies should consider expanding approaches that allow workers some measure of control over when, where, and how work gets done. Latinos also prioritize relationships in the workplace, and especially value the chance to have - and be - mentors. Many Latinos have little in their personal background that exposes them to the norms and valued behaviors of large corporations, relying on their strong work ethic as the primary means of proving their value. Because Latinos are not inclined to promote their own accomplishments and abilities, employers should raise the awareness of leaders about the nature of the Latino work ethic and encourage them to recognize the potential for Latinos to become disengaged over time if they feel the value of their work is not recognized and rewarded. ERGs can also provide valuable insight into developing culturally appropriate ways for Latinos to network and promote their work and interests.
FIVE: Employers need innovative approaches to bridge the Latino education gap.
Latino educational underachievement means the fastest growing segment of the available labor pool is ill-equipped for today's jobs, let alone those of the future, and the burden of preparing those workers will fall to employers. As currently structured, traditional educational assistance programs are not likely to be effective in closing the education gap that will accompany the demographic transformation of the workforce. Instead, companies will need to create the conditions that allow workers to take advantage of the financial support offered by traditional programs. This includes addressing the cash flow challenge of the traditional reimbursement model and developing new, more flexible work arrangements that help employees integrate their learning journey into their personal lives.
SIX: Latinas are an untapped pool of future leadership talent.
Despite real and perceived cultural barriers, Latinas are prepared and ready to assume the leadership roles of tomorrow. As their college graduation rates outpace those of their male counterparts, Latinas are joining the workforce in increasing numbers. And they are taking on leadership roles in other segments of the workforce. A 2022 study found that 43% of all Latino elected state legislators in the US were women - compared to 31% overall. This near parity with their male counterparts is evidence that, contrary to stereotypes, Latinas hold positions of authority and leadership within the community.