“A person first needs to be given the opportunity to perform.”

Cari Dominguez
Co-Author of Leading with Your Heart and Owner of Dominquez & Associates

If there’s anyone who understands the importance of diversity and inclusion, it’s the architect of the Glass Ceiling Initiative, Cari Dominguez. Upon emigrating from Havana, Cuba, she witnessed from a young age that some things just weren’t “quite right” when it came to the dynamics of the workplace. Those early observations coupled with being a product of the Women’s and Civil Rights Movements fueled her passion of making sure everybody gets a shot at the American Dream.

She has served in roles such as the Chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Assistant Secretary of Labor and Director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP). Dominguez co-authored “Leading with Your Heart” and currently owns Dominguez & Associates, a management consulting firm that provides selective services in the areas of workforce assessments and diversity evaluations.

Dominguez spoke at the DirectEmployers Annual Meeting & Conference about these experiences and the meaning of Ganas. I had a chance afterward to uncover more about her unique experiences, discuss the myths in today’s workplace, and learn how she became connected with DirectEmployers Association.

Cari Dominguez at the DirectEmployers Conference

Cari Dominguez teaches the meaning of Ganas.

Cari, can you tell me about yourself and the path you’ve taken to be where you are today?
My name is Cari Dominguez and I’ve led a bit of an eclectic professional career, but all paths have led to the same direction that I’m about to tell you. I started my career as a compliance officer at the United States Department of Labor (US DOL). Then I was recruited by Bank of America and rose through the ranks and became a senior director in the human resources department. I was in charge of the top 200 executives and oversaw executive compensation, succession planning and benefits. Then I was recruited to the DOL by Elizabeth Dole when she was Secretary of Labor. I became Director of the OFCCP and eventually the Assistant Secretary of Labor. When Elizabeth Dole left, Lynn Martin became the new Secretary of Labor and I moved up to become Assistant Secretary. From there, I was recruited to become a partner at two major executive search firms.

When I was Director of OFCCP, one of the things I kept hearing from a number of employers was they couldn’t find talented women or people of color that could fit their jobs. So I thought I could put my trusty Rolodex – back then it was a Rolodex – to work and said, “I can find a lot of these people for you.” That’s how I became a partner in two executive search firms.

I continued to do a little consulting after that. Then elections came around again and I believe, because of my experience at the OFCCP, I was asked by the President to come to EEOC and become the Chair of that commission. So, I actually have the unique perspective of having sat in the two most important civil rights employment agencies in the federal government, as Director and as Chair.

Currently I’m doing a little bit of everything. I am principal with Dominguez and Associates, serve on three corporate boards, consult, and do a lot of pro-bono work helping mentor the new generation of workers.

Fascinating. As a little girl, when thinking about what you wanted to do when you grew up, did you imagine this? How did you get into this business?
It was interesting. My family emigrated from Havana, Cuba when I was a little girl, but my father was separated from us for 6 years because he was not allowed to leave. My brother was of military age at the time so he had to wait and came over a year later. So, my goal in life was to be a Foreign Service officer. I figured I could go into the Foreign Service and fix the problems of the world through diplomacy.

Well, I met my husband in college and I didn’t think that was going to work because he was a political science major and I thought well, I’d be processing visas in Mexico City and he’s going to be away… (starts laughing) so cupid got in the way. And that was in the early 70’s when there was a big push to increase access and inclusion for minority group members. I was recruited into the federal government and did that briefly, then went to Bank of America.

I’ve done a variety of roles, but the tie that binds all of them has to do with my passion, which, was probably instilled by my mother, who was very much about justice and fairness. I have taken it with me, in whatever position I have held – be it in the private sector, public sector, or in my own independent business.

Why do you think specifically you have been so passionate about taking up this focus for diversity and inclusion in the workplace? What have you seen within the United States that made you say, “this is really important and this is not being done and I’m going to be the one to do it?”
It started with my family. My mother spoke English, however my dad didn’t very well, so he was not able to practice his trade. He tended tables, and did whatever he had to do to put food on the table. Through those experiences my mom kept training people, but she kept getting passed over [for promotions], even though she was the one doing the training. So on the home front, I was able to witness some issues that I thought, “You know, this isn’t quite right. There’s got to be a way to make sure that there’s a level playing field.”

The second part is that I’m a product of the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement. I had the great privilege of witnessing President George H. Bush sign the passage of the American’s with Disabilities Act at the White House on July 26, 1990. He was flanked by Justin Dart, who was the architect of the Americans with Disabilities Act and with Evan Camp, who was my predecessor at EEOC, and who is the Chair of the EEOC. I was able to see what they called the “emancipation of people with disabilities” and felt it was so interesting how we were progressing.

All of these pockets of talent have had a lot of challenges and barriers to access and inclusion. This continued to fuel my passion to make sure we become the nation that has the most efficient use of its human capital. We can’t afford to be inefficient and not use the talent we have because somebody looks differently or has a disability. Why not tap the talents that they bring? Every group has its own little myth about what they can and can’t do, so my passion has been to debunk those myths and make sure everybody gets a shot at the American Dream.

What are two or three of the biggest myths that you hear buzzing around and what is the reality of those myths that you have experienced?
When it comes to people with disabilities, I kept hearing things like it’s going to be very costly because of workers’ compensation or benefits, or they’re concerned about liability and “are they really going to be able to do the job?” Lots of myths around cost, particularly. It turns out people with disabilities are the most loyal, highly productive and have very little absenteeism, because it’s much harder for them to find employment. Reasonable accommodation is not very costly. There have been a number of studies revealing on average, it’s less than $300 when an accommodation is needed. A lot of state rehabilitation services can provide some of those accommodations.

You hear a lot about people that are over 45 not being as adaptable and flexible. Research shows that older workers understand their opportunities are far more limited than a 32 year old, or someone who can just jump around, so they’re more loyal, productive, and adaptable as well as continuing to provide their expertise.

Obviously with women, there are issues of employers questioning if they are going to be as committed once they have a family, or is there going to be a conflict? What about flexible working arrangements and many other questions around loyalty and productivity due to family responsibilities?

We’ve been dealing with all of these myths for years, but every one of them fortunately; have been proven wrong with no basis for not hiring people that have the talent.

As you’ve encountered these myths, what have you learned in the way of inclusion and how companies respond? Or, how people respond to companies because of their inclusion, sensitivity to diversity, ability to broaden their horizons and choose people that others have overlooked? What does that do for a company?
I think that has tremendous potential. The first thing a person has to do is be given an opportunity to perform. I talk about the three C’s all the time. Competence – you have to really do and be at your best. Then you have to have Character and know about your values. And you must have Confidence and feel you belong at the table. Sometimes that is the hardest thing for a number of groups to do.

I have found a lot of these myths can get debunked by simply watching some of these individuals perform their job. I’ll tell you a quick example. I remember being one of the first to fly with a woman pilot. This was back when it was a novelty for a woman to fly and I was taking an early morning trip to speak to the Tennessee Bankers Association. People were coming on board, reading the paper, sleeping or working on their laptop. The flight attendant came on the loud speaker and said, “Welcome aboard. Your captain is Captain Sanger. She is accompanied by…” Well, I never got to hear the rest because everybody was folding newspapers, closing laptops, waking up and what a buzz! Her performance was extremely poised and she landed the plane 15 minutes early. From then on these same people had a different perspective of what it was to fly with a woman pilot; she was talented and capable just like anybody else.

When you’re giving people an opportunity to perform and be their best, it really helps debunk a lot of these myths. That really creates a growing pool of talent that we can’t afford to waste. We have talent gaps and mis-matches that we have to be cognizant of and not allow biases or prejudices to take over our thinking.

That really touches the mission of DirectEmployers to connect talent with the right jobs. How did you get connected with DirectEmployers Association?
I’m a big, big fan of DirectEmployers. I got to know Bill Warren because he read an article I authored about my reflections as Chair of the EEOC. I covered a lot of things that had to do with the importance of sound management and good communications – things that may seem like common sense, but are very hard to apply in the workplace. He invited me to come speak about the article, human resources and the role that DirectEmployers can play, or had been playing with respect to that linkage.

I spoke a couple of years ago at your conference and it was a wonderful experience. I have to tell you as Chair of the EEOC, Assistant Secretary and all of these titles, I’ve spoken at just about every conference I could physically handle and accept, but very few – I count them with just some fingers – had the impact that DirectEmployers has.

You have such a vital, commendable mission. That’s what really resonated with me, my mind and my heart. What a great combination to do something that makes a positive difference in the lives of others and is a much needed business priority – to find the talent that many employers say they can’t find or may not have access to, and to provide them a pipeline of that talent.

What have you been very proud of that you’ve been a part of, that you’ve had your hands in and what are you looking forward to seeing change, or see develop in the area of diversity in the future?
One of the things that I’m proudest of was when I was Director of the OFCCP. I had just left Bank of America where 64% of the work force was made up of women, but we had only 3 women as SVP’s. It seemed like the minute we promoted one, we’d lose one. I went to the CEO and management committee and asked to do a study and to put some recommendations in place. Out of that came the Glass Ceiling Initiative, of which I was very proud to have been the architect, at the DOL.

Bank of America was such a progressive company when I worked there, yet had these issues. I believed if it was happening there then it had to be happening all over the United States. And if it’s happening for this group [women], imagine what it’s like for ethnic or racial minorities, or people with disabilities. I was very proud of this work that has continued to remain part of the DOL’s work through the Glass Ceiling Initiative and advancement for all individuals.

In terms of diversity and inclusion, the companies that are really enlightened are the ones that take advantage of experiences and lessons learned, and use that to build a culture that engages and involves others in their organization. It’s not about counting people, but about making people count and making sure that everybody is valued.

What keeps you passionate about this work?
I think it’s in my DNA. I recognize that we have made a lot of progress, but we’re not where we need to be. We have new ethnic groups coming into our country, new assimilation processes, a talent mis-match, a talent shortage…we have new challenges. I think the Civil Rights issue of our generation is going to be education. I believe we need to do a lot more to get everyone educated. Not necessarily a college degree, but maybe a vocational school. I think it’s vital to the story we have of the American Dream it’s critical for our future successes and for the United States to continue to be the example that others want to emulate.

And my final question, in one or two sentences, how would you explain to a company how to be sensitive and make the most of the talent? What wisdom would you share as far as bringing talent into their company?
Well, I would say give it a try, don’t let fear paralyze you. Let your convictions and sense of Ganas guide you, because we all have that as our core value. Let that be what mobilizes you into action to try it and you’ll be very happy that you did.

Thank you so much!
You’re welcome!

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