Last week at Dell Technologies World — the amalgamated conference that combines events related to Dell’s PC hardware units, the former EMC’s infrastructure business, and VMware’s virtualization activity — the umbrella company demonstrated, among many other things, a certain maturity with respect to its corporate human resources.
Small companies can just barely get new people in the door, trained, and up and running. The CEO of one smallish midsize firm I spoke with at the show responded half-ruefully when I asked him how business was going, “Well, I have a human resources department now.” We both understood this as a sign of growing up. Human resources means he now has to deal with standards, policies, and procedures that cover the basics like onboarding, benefits, and termination, but also the delicate points of sexual harassment, discrimination, and workplace conflict.
Dell is at the opposite end of the scale. Ranked at number 41 on Fortune’s list of computer software and information companies in 2017, the company is 34 years old, ancient by information technology industry standards. In his keynote, founder Michael Dell noted that since its inception, the company has pulled in $1 trillion in cumulative revenue. Current employee count is 147,000.
You would expect such a large organization to have built out its human resources group. And you’d be right. Human resources is a well developed, extensive enterprise with lots of specialties. During the conference, I had a one-on-one meeting with Brian Reaves, an executive named Dell’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer in September 2017.
Reaves comes to diversity from long experience. Before arriving at Dell, he developed the diversity and inclusion program at SAP. Before SAP, Reaves held management and engineering positions at companies ranging from his own consultancy up to giant firms like Xerox. His bachelor’s degree from UCLA is in science, math, and computer science. Even though he specializes in the “soft” sciences now, his background includes plenty of exposure to the harder end of the spectrum.
We talked about something he called the intersectionality of diversity, where an attribute like race meets with others like gender, socioeconomic status, education level, and disability. Each of these attributes can be thought of as a label along the edge of a matrix, and while a company may have plenty of educated, female Faroe Islanders with anxiety disorder, it may lack entirely male Maldivians with attention deficit disorder and little education. It turns out that even if your firm is diverse by some overall measures, you may still lack specific diversity. A diversity program for a large company has to look at every cell in the matrix.
Angels on the head of a pin, you say? Not at all. On a message board recently, I had a conversation, if you could call it that, with a black woman who formerly worked at IBM. She was complaining that IBM was not diverse. I pointed out that the company had not only a female CEO, Ginni Rometty, but also an esteemed Indian engineering leader, Dharmendra Modha, and a high ranking Korean female executive, Inhi Cho Suh. My interlocutor scoffed. None of that is diversity, she said. The company has hardly any black women, she asserted. Thus, diversity is not a simple check-box item. It is an amorphous pool that needs to be constantly monitored and adjusted.
After seven months at Dell, Reaves gives the company a B in diversity, observing that there’s always room for improvement. He noted that top management, including Michael Dell, is on board and has brought in people like himself, that diversity and engagement drive employee retention and other business metrics, that the company has had “the humility to recognize” the importance of diversity and invest in it, and that it holds its business unit leaders accountable. “Dell is much further along than other companies,” he said. Although the company still struggles with unconscious bias, he observed, Dell recognizes a range of gender choices and allows workers to decide their own self-referential pronouns.
“Your people should look like the people who consume your products,” he concluded, which in Dell’s case is pretty much everybody.