“Is it hard to speak Mexican?” And other difficult conversations.

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The sky is blue; the sun rises in the east and Mexican is not a language- irrefutable facts. 

Years ago, I found myself in the employee lunchroom with a couple of colleagues, when a young coworker glanced at me and asked “is Mexico beautiful?”  I thought to myself: Well, it’s a big country with mountains and beaches, tacos and stuff… “Yes, I’m sure Mexico is beautiful.”  She nodded and then asked “So, is it hard to speak Mexican?”  I was flabbergasted. 

I spent the remainder of the lunch-break holding a culturally and geographically correct conversation.  

Fortunately this was an innocent blunder, as most awkward and difficult situations are perceived by one party.  But what about the other party?

Is it a cultural issue?  For instance, stinky, I mean, pungent and aromatic, food; most Dominicans have developed their own customized sofrito (oregano, garlic, onion & peppers) blend which is the base for most dishes… It permeates clothing, hair, furniture and entire neighborhoods.  Knowing this particular cultural fact would explain my occasional L’air de Sofrito scent.  Substitute any other spice, such as curry, cumin or ginger, and this knowledge, or cultural awareness can easily diffuse what could be an uncomfortable situation in the work kitchen. 

As an employee, be receptive to feedback, not offended- use this coaching opportunity to educate and inform if this is a cultural issue, but be prepared to listen. And listen actively to understand.  As team members, we should feel comfortable addressing situations with one another; ensuring we approach the conversation with empathy, awareness and courtesy.  Healthy engagement and open dialogue are key elements of a productive workplace. 

Along with food, came the clothing; some Latin cultures emphasize the female form and promote beauty overtly with tight and revealing attire. This is not an invitation from female employees, but a form of self-expression and a coaching opportunity to discuss professional attire appropriate to your organization.   

Similarly, younger individuals hailing from urban areas, typically black or Latino youths have never been exposed to a professional environment and appropriate attire.  Place yourself in their shoes and be empathetic.  After all, how did you learn to tie your tie or put on make-up? 

There’s a fine balance between individuality and organizational culture.  After all, for success to be achieved, a clear and common mission must exist, while permitting innovation. 

Hopefully you have fostered a comfortable environment as well as having a performance management or coaching process whereby you and your employees are meeting frequently to have an established and open relationship.  You could comfortably address sensitive topics, like aromatic food or inappropriate attire.   

Providing constructive feedback is a skill that must be developed, couched in empathy, active listening and awareness. 

Awkward and inappropriate remarks do come from leaders and managers as well, also known as micro-aggressions: which are brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their identifying characteristics and are issued without conscious mal-intent. 

“But you don’t sound black.”   

“You are so young…”   

“My goodness, where did you learn to speak English so well?” 

As a leader, spend some time self-reflecting on your internal biases, in particular around race, sexual orientation, gender and age.  Do you entertain with off-color jokes? Utter dismissive statements?  Track your own behavior, seek feedback, and build relationships with different folks.  Lead by example and do not permit sexual innuendos, derogatory jokes or remarks.  Microagressions exists – “That’s so gay!” “You think everything is sexist-It’s just a joke!” or “Racism doesn’t exist!”-  And can severely impact morale and performance.   

To facilitate a difficult conversation, first ensure you have fostered an open and safe environment to provide and receive feedback, followed with personal self-awareness to account for potential micro-inequities tied to unconscious biases.  The communication should be honest and direct with plenty of time allocated for active listening and candid interactions. 

Be receptive to employees’ complaints and concerns, avoid willful blindness. Address the behavior versus the person; provide appropriate solutions and clearly state consequences, including disciplinary actions.  Follow through to rectify matters.   Although the easy solution is to direct these challenges to Human Resources, complete resolution does not occur until you incorporate inclusion and awareness into everyday actions. 

A regional organization experienced 140% employee turnover over a 3 year time span; in a department with only 15 employees.  Senior management willfully ignored several complaints, low rankings and morale.  Sadly, 21 employees transferred or quit before the department manager was removed for demeaning, sexist and dismissive behavior.   Of course, there are regulatory repercussions as well, but these solutions tend to be overdue, expensive and highly unproductive; don’t ignore the workplace bullies, sexists or racists.   

As a leader, foster a culture of inclusivity where innovation and creativity are fostered and encouraged not squashed.  Be careful to temper extremes with candid conversations and training; encourage Employee Resource Groups to further support outlets for self-expression and employee engagement.   

Awareness and empathy are tremendously helpful in difficult situations, but this is also an opportunity to create a comfortable, diverse, profitable workplace… So go ahead, start practicing your Mexican. 

Till next time. 

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