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A Kinder, Gentler EEOC

May 2, 2003
Related Topics: Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Diversity
Cari M. Dominguez is unlikely to inspire fear. First there’s the winningsmile. She looks every bit the cheerful soccer mom that she is, and not at allthe fire-breathing federal regulator one would expect of the head of the EqualEmployment Opportunity Commission.

But appearances and perceptions are important. And her image is very much onher mind as she heads off to meet with 250 human resources executives andbusiness leaders at a conference in Palm Springs. Her task is to reach out tothe business community, and to dispel the stereotype of herself as EEOC’s topcop. "Somebody said to me they were expecting the chair of the commission tobe an angry person. That she’d be angry and mad at the world," theCuban-born executive says. She laughs at the thought. "That’s just not me."

As she moves through the day, the conference provides constant reminders ofthe edgy world that the EEOC occupies enforcing civil-rights andjob-discrimination laws. Here in the conference hall of a resort hotel, job talktakes on the language of war. "Vital weapons for your employment-law arsenal,"one seminar advertises. Another warns of the "Perfect Storm," a movie-titlemetaphor conjuring up legal threats with images of towering waves andhurricane-force winds powerful enough to swamp any corporate ship. There areeven warnings that human resources executives could face prison time, the resultof the recent Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, designed to cut down on white-collarcrime and improper accounting practices. At one of the briefings, Towers Perrinconsultant Paula Todd tells a room packed to overflowing, "Yes, you as HRdirector could go to jail." The executives collectively snap to attention.

Jail for human resources people? Not if Cari Dominguez can help it. She’sthe first EEOC chief with a workforce-management background, and she’s on theroad to sell a kinder, gentler, more proactive image of the EEOC. What’s more,she’s attacking the job with the tenacity of someone who has been trying tosmash glass ceilings holding down women and minorities for most of her life.

As she approaches the end of her second year as the EEOC’s top cop, anassessment of her record reveals that she has made notable progress in speedingup the settlement of cases. But it is her outreach program that likely willestablish her legacy. Her message: Corporations should wise up and do the rightthing. And she wants to deliver the idea as a partner, not an adversary.Critics, however, wonder if she’s moving too close to employers, compromisingher role as prosecutor. And employers appear wary of the message she is bringingthem.

Referring to the way that many businesses view the EEOC, Southern Californiaattorney Eric Sohlgren of the law firm of Payne & Fears--a name thatunderstandably has become fodder for Jay Leno jokes--offers this summation. "Ourclients generally are going to be reluctant to call the EEOC for advice."

The agency’s chief is undaunted. "I know what you’re thinking,"Dominguez tells the executives at the outset of her keynote address, going for alaugh. "Gee, whiz, it’s the job police." Her green eyes sparkle as theypeer out at the audience, her sensible short brown hair and soft St. Johnbusiness suit a marked contrast to the harsh, often adversarial world of theEEOC.

Much progress made
    If the goal of the EEOC is to eliminate workforce discrimination, thenDominguez, a Republican appointed by President George W. Bush, knows she needshelp. Decades after the agency was created to enforce the Civil Rights Act of1964, a record number of charges are being filed against employers.African-Americans still file the largest number of discrimination charges. Butworkers filing sexual-harassment charges, Muslims targeted by bigots after the9/11 attacks, and white males complaining of reverse discrimination are alsostanding up and demanding employer accountability.

During the 2002 budget year, the EEOC under Dominguez took in 84,442 newallegations of discrimination--a 4.5 percent increase over the previous year.Attacking a traditional problem area--disposing of its case backlog--the EEOCresolved 95,222 cases in the same year, a 12-month increase of 6 percent.Businesses paid out $310.5 million in settlements and awards to injured workerslast year.

All of this has been accomplished despite a series of internal stresses tothe EEOC. Until Congress stepped in, the agency had faced a budget crisis thatthreatened a temporary layoff of all of its nearly 2,800 employees without payfor up to 18 days. A budget-augmentation bill ended the crisis last month. Evenso, there is a hiring freeze. Until recently, the agency has been operating withvacancies in two of its five commission seats. There have been only twocommission meetings since Dominguez took over in the summer of 2001. Thepermanent job of general counsel, a presidential appointment, still remainsunfilled.

David Grinberg, a spokesman, says the commission vacancies have had noimpact on its performance. "We are operating at the most efficient level inhistory," he says. Vacancies, he adds, are not uncommon on the EEOC. "Itcertainly doesn’t hinder the work of the commission."

Despite the success in dealing with the EEOC’s backlog, the internalproblems have given the impression to some that the EEOC is not one of the Bushadministration’s priorities. Attorney Gabrielle Martin, president of the National Council ofEEOC Locals No. 216, which represents 950 EEOC employees, contends, "CariDominguez is very, very concerned about being responsive to the president’smanagement agenda." That, to Martin, means slowing down EEOC business,outsourcing work, and restructuring the agency in a way that she fears will notbe favorable to workers.

The source of some of Martin’s concern is a study by the National Academyof Public Administration commissioned by Dominguez. One of its recommendationsis to establish a national call center so people can make charges over thephone, rather than go into an office. Another proposal urges the agency to makebetter use of the Internet and to close some of its 51 field offices, whererents are rising rapidly. The study also says that the EEOC is operating withoutdated 20th-century technology.

Though change is in the air, Martin complains that Dominguez is telegraphingfew of her moves. "It’s like being in a dark cave," she says. "You haveno idea what it will be like coming out, but you have this feeling in the pit ofyour stomach that it won’t be good."

Dominguez, meanwhile, presses forward with her initiative to reach out tobusiness leaders as well as critics.

Referring to her boss’s style, Joan Ehrlich, a congressional liaison andthe EEOC’s acting communications director, says it’s a top-down approach."It is directed primarily at top management personnel, urging them to beproactive in maintaining a workforce free of discrimination. We will litigate ifwe have to, but we can’t be everywhere all the time. We need to get CEOs onboard."

A pilot program is under way in Pennsylvania in which discrimination chargesfiled with the EEOC are referred back to an employer’s in-housedispute-resolution program. The program, involving Fortune 500 companies, isstrictly voluntary. If a dispute is not resolved satisfactorily, then the EEOCwill process the charge in the traditional manner. The program addresses one ofcorporate America’s criticisms of the EEOC--its glacial speed. The businessworld wants to see discrimination cases, which can seem to drag on forever,resolved quickly.

The push to rapidly resolve cases "is a subject of concern," says HilaryShelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau. "The responsibility andcharge of the EEOC is to be fair to business, but to be an advocate foremployees." He fears that legitimate complaints may get overlooked in therush.

The 54-year-old Dominguez, a woman with highly developed political skills,takes the observations in stride. "Anything we do, we get good and badreactions," she says. "Some groups say you are overreaching, some groups sayyou are not reaching far enough. You hope you are somewhere in the middle."

Using a carrot-and-stick approach
    When she was appointed EEOC chief midway through 2001, Dominguez brought withher a solid background of government work. She had served as assistant secretaryof labor under President George H.W. Bush--with added experience in the privatesector as a human resources executive and consultant. She is the firstnon-attorney and human resources executive to serve as chair of the EEOC, andthat gives her instant credibility with the business sector.

She says the reaction she got at one company is typical. "I asked them, ‘Whenyou received a call that the chair of the EEOC wanted to meet with you, what wasyour response?’ They said they were panic-stricken. Terrified. They wondered,‘Do we return the call? Do we give it to our lawyer?’ So I realized that theneedle was way over here," she says with a sweep of her arm, indicating thatthe reaction was off the chart. She says the EEOC won’t back off its role asenforcer of civil-rights law, but adds, "Day in, day out, you need to havemore interaction with the people who actually do the hiring and the firing andgive the promotions and cash awards. I don’t want them to see us as a cop. Iwant them to see us as a workplace partner."

Dominguez is convinced she can wield both a carrot and a stick inher relationships with business.

For now, Dominguez is convinced she can wield both a carrot and a stick inher relationships with business. To see her in action is to see the qualitiesthat propelled her to the top and made her one of the most influential Latinasin the country. She has the easy style of someone who has spent much of her worklife in the fishbowl of government service.

As an immigrant confronted by language barriers, cultural differences, andfinancial struggles when her family moved her from Havana to the United Statesas a 12-year-old, Dominguez knows what it’s like to fight for a seat at thebig boys’ table. When she talks about maintaining a level playing field forall workers, she speaks as a daughter who watched both parents fight their ownworkplace battles. Her father, an accountant in Cuba, was forced to work as abusboy and at other manual-labor jobs when he was a new immigrant. Early in hercareer, Dominguez recalls, she interceded after her mother complained of beingpassed over for promotion at her hospital job.

"My mother had a very thick accent," Dominguez says. "And so she wouldtrain people who would be promoted. She kept training people and she would bepassed over. I had to write a letter and say, ‘You know, there is somethingwrong with this picture. For what she does, do you have to have perfectinflection?’" Her mother got a raise.

Both of her parents are now dead, but family life and religion still playprominent roles in her life. She dotes on her husband, Alberto, a top humanrelations executive with American Express, and two school-age sons, Adam andJason. She finds making time for her boys a challenge, but one she happilyassumes. "I don’t miss any of their ballgames, be it soccer, basketball,whatever," she says. She still gets up early and makes lunch for her youngerson, then drives from her suburban Gaithersburg, Maryland, home to her office inWashington. Once she’s in the city, a driver takes her to appointments, butshe has few of the trappings of the rich and powerful.

"She is not the kind of person who operates behind a closed door. You don’thave to go through layers of people to see her," says Ehrlich, aself-described liberal Democrat who nonetheless has been given a high-profilejob by Dominguez.

At 14, Dominguez got a job cleaning dorms and restrooms and performing otherhousekeeping work at Columbia Union College, affiliated with the Seventh-dayAdventist Church, of which she is an active member. She is a founding member ofan Adventist school.

Growing up in an immigrant household influenced her work in several ways, shesays. "I learned that two of the most important things we have are freedom andopportunity. Freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom to compete inthe workplace, on a level playing field." As an insulin-dependent diabetic,Dominguez is also sensitive to problems of the disabled. (Coincidentally, theEEOC recently filed charges against an employer for firing a diabetic employeewho gave himself an insulin shot while at work.)

Her road to a public-service career began at American University, aWashington, D.C., college with tough academic standards. Aiming for a career inthe foreign service, she earned a master’s degree in international relations.Instead, she took a job with the Labor Department, then landed with the Bank ofAmerica in San Francisco, where she held various human resources positions,responsible for succession planning, executive staffing, and diversityinitiatives. She considered the bank’s hiring and promotion policiesprogressive, but realized that women in some categories could go only so farbefore they hit a glass ceiling.

"If it was so bad at a progressive company, I wondered what it was likeelsewhere," she says. So she set about to change that, and did it with sucheffectiveness that then Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole recruited her during theearlier Bush administration. She was the architect of the Labor Department’sGlass Ceiling Initiative in the early 1990s, a campaign designed to removeinvisible barriers from the workplace and known for slogans like "the ‘fair-hairedboy’ in your organization might be a woman."

During the Clinton administration, Dominguez went back to the private sector,ran her own management consulting firm, Dominguez & Associates, in Maryland,and held top management positions at two executive search firms, Spencer Stuartand Heidrick & Struggles. Given her background, she knew that when Bushappointed her to a five-year term to run the EEOC, she faced a full plate ofchallenges--dealing with thousands of new charges every year; contentiousplaintiff’s attorneys on one side, lawyers for employers on the other; andCivil Service culture within the agency. For now, she seems to be breaking downwalls.

"When she says she’s interested in the views of interested parties andstakeholders, she really means that," says Deborah Greenfield, a top AFL-CIOlawyer. "When we feel we have something important to discuss with her, shelistens to us and thinks carefully about what we’ve said. It’s not justwindow dressing with her. It’s listening and incorporating divergentviewpoints."

Dennis J. Garritan, head of human resources for The Witan Group, says he hadcome hating to do business with the EEOC because it was run by lawyers. "Yougo to the barber, you get a haircut; you have an attorney running the EEOC, youget litigation. That’s what they do. That’s the way they deal with theworld," Garritan says. "Cari is a businessperson. She is an HR person. She’sone of us."

Workforce, May 2003, pp. 26-32 -- Subscribe Now!

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