When Lee Garcia took his first job at AT&T, then known as Southwestern Bell, in 1974, he and his brother were some of the first Latinos working out of the Houston office. Garcia remembers waiting for his first conversation with the union, with which he expected to meet immediately after being hired. But the meeting for him and his brother didn’t come until six months later. When he asked the union steward why it took so long, he was clipped with a brazen response: “I didn’t think you Mexicans would last that long.”
But that wasn’t the only time he was treated differently in the workplace. He was told that he could not speak Spanish at the company—none of the Latinos could. And words in passing were sometimes less than kind. “It was a different world, in that racial slurs or sexual innuendos were allowed back then,” Garcia says. “It would not surprise you on a certain day for a certain word to be said. It was normal.”
Since then, things have changed. Not only are tougher restrictions on workplace interactions in place, diversity organizations across corporate America have spun off internally, providing a community for minority groups. HACEMOS does just that for Latinos at AT&T. Founded in 1988, HACEMOS—which means “we do”—is an employee resource group that aims to help Latino professionals at AT&T advance their careers. It’s also intended to help the local community and provide a channel for AT&T to connect directly with its Latino employee base.
The group, which started in San Antonio, has since spread across the nation with more than 10,000 members in 41 chapters. The Dallas chapter, led by Garcia, is the largest with about 1,500 members. “Having been a part of the company when there was no HACEMOS and having been a part of it since 1988, HACEMOS has given the Latinos of the company a voice and an opportunity, possibilities, vision, goals,” Garcia says. “With HACEMOS at AT&T, our Latino and Latina employees now have a voice and the opportunity to advance within this Fortune 500 company.”
The genesis of the organization can be traced to two former Latino employees of AT&T, Sam Ortiz and Jesse Sanchez. Ortiz joined the company in 1974, one year after AT&T signed a consent decree with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Labor to eliminate discrimination against minorities and women in recruiting, hiring, and promotions. “Prior to that there was very poor representation” of minorities and women at the company, especially at management levels, Ortiz says. “They went through a massive hiring program where they hired tons of minorities and tons of women to meet the objective.”
Ortiz met Sanchez in the late ’70s, when they became good friends. “We were specifically speaking of the low number of Hispanics that benefited from the [decree],” Ortiz remembers. “The company did hire a lot of Hispanics. Non-management and first-level management—there was good representation there. But after that, it dwindled significantly.” The two began talking to other companies that launched diversity groups. But, it seemed these groups had made very little progress in career advancement.
So, Ortiz and Sanchez decided their organization would have to work to strengthen the company and the local community, in addition to promoting Latino employees. They just had to be sensitive about how they handled its creation. “At the time, a lot of these organizations were misrepresented and viewed similar to La Raza Unida or other radical organizations,” Ortiz says. “Many companies were afraid of anything like that starting up in their company. We didn’t want to be seen that way.”
They began talking to local politicians and educators to help refine their plans before approaching Latino managers for support. All but one Latino manager at the company turned them away—Ruben Garcia, a manager within the human resources department. With Ruben Garcia’s help, Ortiz and Sanchez were able to collect statistics proving what the two had already observed. “He was taking a big risk,” Ortiz says about the data showing the lack of Hispanic leadership. They then met with a top local executive, Wayne Alexander, and unveiled their findings, as well as research on why the Latino population and market were of particular importance. They dropped the names of the politicians they had talked with, tying in the lawmakers’ objectives to theirs. They told Alexander, “Whenever you start talking to federal regulators, don’t be surprised if they start asking how Hispanics are being represented in the company,” Ortiz remembers. “That got his attention.”
That led to a meeting with James Adams, president and CEO of Southwestern Bell. “He grew up on the south side of San Antonio,” Ortiz says. “So he knew about the Hispanic issues, even though he wasn’t Hispanic. He was not a hard sell at all.” The founders then formed a local and a national chapter of HACEMOS, which grew quickly.
“We need to continue to ask what are Latinos needing to do to break the corporate glass ceiling.”Lee Garcia, HACEMOS Dallas president
Since then, HACEMOS has hosted numerous mentoring and training sessions, created community initiatives to improve students’ skills and opportunities—the Dallas chapter has presented $321,400 in scholarships to local high school and college students since 2000, for example—and supported organizations like the North Texas Food Bank. “All in all, the goal is to make sure [members] understand where the business is today and where it’s heading,” says Raul Mercado, AT&T director of finance, former chapter and Southwest regional president, and mentee and mentor. It’s also about “understanding introspectively what is it you want, and [us making] sure you get there. We get people involved to get you there.”
HACEMOS has gained the support of various executives and employees across AT&T, including the big man himself, CEO Randall Stephenson. “Every year when we have our [employee resource group] conference, we have a meeting where Randall meets with the national president of each ERG to understand the goals and accomplishments and to understand how to get them there,” says Belinda Grant-Anderson, AT&T vice president of diversity and inclusion. “Randall sets the bar and he sets the example, so he absolutely is involved.” In fact, Stephenson even eliminated membership dues for AT&T employee resource groups in 2012, with the company absorbing the groups’ operation costs.
While HACEMOS is making strides, there’s still much to be done, says Lee Garcia—especially when it comes to Hispanic representation at the top levels of management. “The conversation still needs to continue,” he says. “We need to continue to ask what are the Latinos needing to do to break the corporate glass ceiling, given that [Latinos] represent such a huge customer base.” AT&T has seven levels of management, with level seven representing Stephenson. Ortiz says when he cofounded HACEMOS in 1988, there were only about five Latino managers at level three in San Antonio. It is unclear how many were at the upper levels of the larger organization. According to AT&T’s 2016 diversity and inclusion report, 11 percent of management was Latino, representing 10,462 people. Its largest management demographic was its white population, at 64 percent, which represents 60,528 people, followed by black management at 14 percent, or 13,104 people. It is unclear what management level each minority group served.
Those are some of the numbers HACEMOS hopes to improve not just by lobbying for its people, but by preparing them to be strong candidates for management positions. HACEMOS recruits AT&T managers as mentors and bases its training around company initiatives to provide the skill sets required for the next level of management. “I don’t want to get promoted because I’m Latino,” Lee Garcia says. “I want to get promoted because I’m a qualified Latino.”
The fact that Garcia now has access to resources to help improve the quality of Latino candidates at the top is not lost on him. It doesn’t appear to be lost on AT&T, either, given that the company supports 12 employee resource groups covering everyone from women to African Americans to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities. “We want that voice,” Garcia says. “We want to be able to contribute to our company … to contribute to our employees, and we want to make a difference in the advancement of Latinos.”
Summing up, Garcia says: “Aquel no habla, no se le oye,” meaning, “He who does not speak will not be heard.” While the phrase says plenty on its own, it also speaks volumes about Garcia’s state of mind. He’s clearly not afraid to speak Spanish anymore.