Most of us would enjoy having free tacos sent to our office, but Mayor Joseph Maturo in East Haven, Conn., got on the wrong side of the food chain. He was sent thousands of tacos by angry Latinos for his comments to reporters asking about abuse of the Latino community by the East Haven Police Department.
According to a CNN report, the FBI had arrested four of the town’s police officers for “their alleged roles in abusing Latino residents and business owners, performing illegal searches, making false arrests and harassing immigrant rights advocates.” Wow, not something a leader of a community with a sizeable Latino populace should take lightly. When asked by reporters what he was going to do to regain trust with the Latino community, his answer was a flippant, “I might have tacos when I go home. I’m not quite sure yet.” Well, you can imagine that a lot of Latinos choked on that one, and then the taco barrage began.
Acclaimed and well-loved Food Network celebrity Paula Deen has had a very hard and fast fall from grace with her network and sponsors. Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Smithfield Foods, Caesars Entertainment, Food Network and many others have turned on her faster than Southern fried chicken moves through the system. Why? According to news reports, she used the “N” word many years ago and at times tolerated bigoted jokes in the workplace.
We live in a tough, yet very sensitive world. You must be sensitive to cultural nuances, needs and tolerances because if you cross the line on cultural and social issues, it’s you who could end up getting fried. Fair? Not the point. Life isn’t always fair, and certain elements of society are culturally very sensitive. Other elements of society — namely the press and civil rights attorneys — are looking to exploit the situation for stories and cases. This all means that you, as a leader, absolutely must learn to manage cultural differences and nuances or risk losing your influence, position, or — in a worst-case scenario — your organization.
We may not like it, but we live in a country where every word we say about a minority group, even in private, can bring us down fast and hard — and very publicly. In the roofing industry, we are employing large numbers of Hispanic and African-American minority workers. You may love and care about many or all of them you work with, but that doesn’t eradicate deeply held stereotypes or beliefs about a group of people. Your fall might be right around the corner if you don’t watch your step.
Please understand this — whatever we believe deep within our souls, will, at some point, in some place, in some way, come out, and that’s the danger point. So, what’s your fall protection? Being more careful with your words? That won’t always work because stress and pressure tend to bring out the truth within us eventually.
The real answer is to change the way we think. The way we truly think funnels to our emotions, which, of course, are fully engaged when we say stupid things. Let’s face it — this is deep stuff. Stereotypes and deeply embedded views of other cultures are not surface issues. To eradicate them requires intense learning and deep consideration. The flip side is we don’t take it seriously and wait for the eventual fallout.
A few years ago I stopped at a lake in Kissimmee, Fla., with my father Pablo, who wanted to check out the boat dock. Evidently I had parked in the wrong place, and a fisherman came up to me and said, “Move your blankety-blank car, it’s blocking my truck.” I looked at the guy and said moving the car wouldn’t be a problem, but noted that he really didn’t need to speak with me that way and that he could be more respectful.
He looked at me and then looked at my 70-year-old Puerto Rican father. He then said, “Get your blankety-blank Puerto Rican stink out of this country!” You can imagine how much I wanted to go after this guy. He wasn’t saying that to me, since I look Anglo and speak perfect English. He certainly didn’t say it based on my vehicle type, as I was driving a Lexus that day. I didn’t even have a Puerto Rican flag hanging from my rearview mirror. No, he said it directly about my father, who looks as Puerto Rican as one might think a Puerto Rican might look.
I highly doubt that earlier that morning, while he was enjoying his fishing and perhaps drinking a cold one, this guy figured something like this would come out. This stuff just happens in the moment. Again — and please register this — whatever you truly believe deep inside of your soul, at some point, in some place, for some reason, will come out, and you can take that to the bank.
The real answer to our deeply held stereotypes and, dare I say, sometimes cultural hostilities, is to open ourselves to gaining a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the other cultures with whom we work and live. This can, and should, be done through professional and honest cultural management and leadership training, with coaching that is specific to the culture you need to learn about.
Some may understandably say, “Hey, wait a minute. They are in our country, they should be learning about how to work with us.” Yes, they should learn our social and business cultural norms, but just because they don’t doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn theirs. After all, you’re the leader, right? Leaders don’t wait on their followers (employees) to act before they do the right things — they act first. It’s the leader’s responsibility and privilege to blaze a new path of cultural awareness and understanding for his or her organization. We simply cannot lead, reach, or effectively work with those we do not understand.
Here’s a parting reality. Apologies for “misspeaking” just don’t work anymore. America is no longer a forgiving country as it relates to cultural sensitivities. That ship has sailed. A new ship with a new captain is in, and we need to learn to navigate those waters or run the real risk of shipwrecking ourselves and losing our businesses.
If we don’t get serious about this, our fall in the roofing industry is only a matter of when, not if.
Join RICARDO GONZÁLEZ at Best of Success
Ricardo González will be a featured speaker at the 2013 Best of Success Conference, which will be held in Phoenix Sept. 30-Oct. For more details, visit www.BestofSuccessConference.com.