Ensuring America's workers the Freedom to Compete on a level playing field is the essence of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) mission. That's why three years ago, I determined to personally lead a campaign that would bolster the Commission's ongoing efforts to train, educate, and inform the public. I believed then as I do now that to effect significant, lasting, positive change in any organization, one must actively engage its leadership. Hence, the Freedom to Compete initiative was born.
The Freedom to Compete initiative, a national outreach campaign, is designed to build partnerships, coalitions, and alliances at the highest organizational levels of all economic sectors. The aim is to elicit leadership support for and visible engagement in promoting equal opportunity at all levels and in all areas of employment. By creating a forum that allows top corporate and organizational leaders to come together to discuss issues, share strategies, and exchange sound employment practices in a spirit of partnership, we are not only promoting greater understanding of shared responsibilities, but also deterring potential discrimination.
—Cari M. Dominguez
A recent Fortune article estimates that corporations have spent $80 billion over the past 10 years on diversity programs. Yet, in spite of such a massive investment, there is still a dearth of women and people of color in senior executive positions throughout corporate America. Many CEOs have expressed frustration that the return on their investment has been so dismal. Indeed, had such lackluster performance occurred in other business areas, it most likely would have caused a shareholders' revolt! Again, this is another example for the need to have government, corporate, and organizational leaders at the table, together, actively seeking solutions and driving change.
One of the values that unites us as a nation is our commitment to fairness. Equal opportunity laws sprang out of this valued national characteristic and so did the Freedom to Compete concept. The central theme of this outreach campaign is that every individual deserves the opportunity to compete and advance as far as his or her talents and ambition allow—without regard to discriminatory barriers based on race, color, gender, religion, national origin, age, or disability.
So, how did we go about launching the campaign? Well, we did it the good ol' fashioned way: one city at a time, one focus group at a time. We reached out to CEOs and other organizational leaders and asked them not only to come to a roundtable discussion but also to invite their peers. I must admit that while this approach seems simple in theory, it proved to be quite difficult to implement in its early stages. Some of our first calls to corporate offices took a few days to be returned. Later on, I learned of the dilemma that the calls caused: "Should we have our CEO return the call or should we give it to our lawyers?" The predicament they found themselves in spoke volumes about the importance of building trust and moving the needle beyond compliance toward collaboration. When we finally got together with corporate and other organizational leaders in major cities throughout the country, we had inspiring discussions that helped produce solid recommendations.
What, exactly, did we hear from those leaders, and what did they recommend? Many affirmed the Commission's important role of serving as the nation's premier law enforcement agency in the area of civil rights employment. Yet, they also believed that developing equally aggressive awareness building, education, and recognition programs could significantly strengthen our effectiveness. All the participants agreed that the Commission was uniquely suited to serve as the nation's repository of best practices and to establish national EEO performance standards—a "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" concept. They also suggested a recognition program that would identify and publicize the good, innovative work being done throughout the country. What better engine to take those good ideas and shared solutions to the public than the Commission, they asked. Because of what we heard consistently and uniformly, we began developing our first-ever recognition program, the Freedom to Compete Awards.
EEOC Freedom to Compete Award Winners (L to R): Daniel Shapira, Giant Eagle, Inc.; Diane McComb, Maryland Department of Disabilities; Naomi C. Earp, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; William Kent, PK U.S.A., Inc.; Eiji Umabayashi, PK U.S.A., Inc.; J. Randall MacDonald, IBM; Veta T. Richardson, Minority Corporate Counsel Association; Norma J. Pendleton, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey; Cari M. Dominguez, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
On June 14, 2005, joined by Commission Vice Chair Naomi Earp, I had the privilege of presenting the first public recognition awards ever bestowed by the EEOC. There are two elements to the awards. First, the focus is on a particular practice that can be directly linked to specific results. Secondly, the award seeks to find good practices wherever they exist—large, mid-size, or small companies, trade associations, nonprofits, community organizations, and local, state, or federal agencies.
I'm proud to once again recognize the pioneer recipients of the Commission's First Annual Freedom to Compete Awards. They are:
The Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA®) for its KAN-Do program. This program offers Knowledge, Access, and Networks to persons of diverse backgrounds and women in the legal profession, with a focus on corporate department lawyers and law firm lawyers who support these corporations. The KAN-Do program is designed to enhance lawyers' knowledge about professional development opportunities and issues such as diversity in the areas of recruitment/hiring, retention, and promotion/advancement.
PK U.S.A, Inc., a large independent auto parts manufacturer based in Shelbyville, Ind., for launching a major Diversity Integration Initiative to recruit, hire, and retain qualified Latino applicants to fill open production positions. In the late 1990s, PK U.S.A. faced new customer projects without being able to recruit the needed staff to support these initiatives. The company decided to expand the recruitment process to other counties and to explore alternative recruitment strategies. With success in recruiting and hiring Latinos into production and professional jobs, the company also promoted Latino employees to higher-level positions, such as general manager of engineering. PK U.S.A. indicated that Latinos in the late 1990s represented one percent of its total workforce—mirroring the local county population—and that none was included in management. As a result of the initiative, more than a quarter of the company's full-time workforce is now comprised of Latinos.
PK U.S.A. began its operations in Shelbyville in 1989. Its plant now employs 500 workers and is the primary supplier of metal body parts, chassis parts, and plastic injection parts for automotive companies in the United States, as well as other countries around the world.
Giant Eagle, Inc., one of the nation's largest food retailers and distributors, for Project Opportunity, a three-phased initiative that trains and employs students with disabilities. In Phase I, Giant Eagle works closely with public school teachers to train students about the world of work, including how to interview effectively, dress for success, and behave professionally on the job. In Phase II, the company places students in a central store for a short period to evaluate their abilities. In Phase III, qualified students are offered full-time employment in local stores and are assigned job coaches to ensure further success.
"In summary, I believe that no one particular group or sector has all the answers. We must learn from one another."
—Cari M. Dominguez
Founded in 1931, Giant Eagle has grown to be a number-one regional supermarket retailer, with 139 corporate and 81 independently owned and operated stores throughout Western Pennsylvania, Central and Northern Ohio, Northern West Virginia, and Western Maryland. The company employs more than 35,000 workers.
The International Business Machines Corporation (IBM), a global information technology company, for Project View, a national diversity initiative that focuses on the recruitment of college and university candidates, including interns and co-op placements. Project View, designed to increase the participation of persons of diverse backgrounds, women, and people with disabilities, is a highly customized effort that brings together hiring managers and highly skilled students through invitation-only events. These events, held throughout the United States, provide IBM managers opportunities to interview pre-screened candidates, fill openings, and make on-the-spot job offers to meet the needs of the business. A similar initiative was created for the recruitment and hiring of experienced professionals. Project View, launched in 1988, is responsible for placing about half of IBM's university hires from diverse groups.
IBM strives to lead in the creation, development, and manufacture of the industry's most advanced information technologies, including computer systems, software, networking systems, storage devices, and microelectronics. IBM employs more than 320,000 workers and operates in more than 160 countries worldwide.
Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey (Horizon BCBSNJ), the Garden State's largest health insurer, for its Supervisor Candidate Development Program, initiated to help facilitate the inclusion of high-performing persons of diverse backgrounds and women in the supervisor job group. Key elements of the effort include the partnering of the participant and direct supervisor, and involvement and feedback from an assigned coach. Over the past six years, more than 70 percent of the promotions from the initiative were obtained by diverse employees.
Horizon BCBSNJ, a not-for-profit organization headquartered in Newark, is the only licensed Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan in New Jersey and is the state's largest health insurer. The plan provides health insurance coverage to nearly three million people throughout all of North, Central, and Southern New Jersey. Horizon employs approximately 4,500 workers.
The State of Maryland for its vision and initiative, as the first state in the nation to create a cabinet-level Department of Disabilities, unifying and comprehensively reforming state policy, programs, and initiatives for people with disabilities.
The new department has been given authority to review and refocus regulatory and budgetary priorities relating to services for people with disabilities and to measure state performance by gauging consumer satisfaction. The department will focus on achieving tangible improvements in the level and quality of support provided in areas such as employment, behavioral health, accessible technology, and training, under a new Statewide Disability Implementation Plan.
The new Maryland Department of Disabilities advances employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities by not only enhancing the quality of employment-related services, but also by critically reviewing delivery of education, health care, housing, and transportation.
Governor Robert Ehrlich's leadership in making people with disabilities a high priority in Maryland is helping to raise awareness that integration of people with disabilities into the workforce is of vital importance.
I congratulate all the award recipients and thank them for their contributions toward leveling the playing field we call the workplace.
In summary, I believe that no one particular group or sector has all the answers. We must learn from one another. While the Commission is playing a key catalyst role by showcasing these practices for the benefit of all—particularly for employers who may not have the resources or the ready access to training—the ideas, ultimately, come from the winners themselves.
I also believe that the awards respond to the concerns expressed at those roundtable discussions because they acknowledge the role of leaders and partnerships in removing discriminatory barriers from the workplace. No one can do it alone. As a condition of participating in the award nominations process, organizational leaders agree to publicly discuss and share best practices for ensuring access and inclusion. Top-level commitment is crucial to the success of this effort, as is joint public/private sector participation.
And finally, I believe that we wouldn't be American if we did not capitalize on our competitive spirit. We want to spur others into the competition, into the race to end discrimination. We hope that the awards will provide an incentive for others to "sign up" by developing sound practices that will earn them national recognition.
The Commission is about to close its nominations—officially Jan. 18—for our Second Annual Freedom to Compete Award. I look forward to having an even more difficult task (if that is possible!) than I had the first time.
"We want to spur others into the competition, into the race to end discrimination. We hope that the awards will provide an incentive for others to "sign up" by developing sound practices that will earn them national recognition."
—Cari M. Dominguez
Let us never forget the words of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall: "The laws can push open doors and tear down walls, but it cannot build bridges. That job belongs to you and me."
Cari M. Dominguez is chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC enforces Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin; the Age Discrimination in Employment Act; the Equal Pay Act; the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination affecting individuals with disabilities in the federal government; Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits employment discrimination against people with disabilities in the private sector and state and local governments; and sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1991. To contact the EEOC or to get further information about the Commission, please visit the EEOC's web site: www.eeoc.gov.
From the January/February 2006 issue of Diversity & The Bar®