Diversity at EMC: Employee Circles

(This is part of a multi-post series on Diversity at EMC.  See all posts in the Diversity category here.)

In a previous post, I mentioned how new hires into an organization might cluster around a “least risk” demographic.  While it’s not always true, anyone outside that group might be at a disadvantage in competing for recognition and advancement.

As an example, a software developer who speaks English with an accent might write excellent code but struggle with the interpersonal aspects of the job, which become more important as her responsibility in the organization grows.  She is not being explicitly penalized for her background, but is facing a disadvantage other team members are not.  When deciding who to promote, she may be passed over (and in fact that is a defensible decision).

So how do you help people in these underrepresented groups succeed?

One way EMC addresses this is with Employee Circles.  Going by a variety of names (Affinity Groups, Interest Teams, etc.) these are employee-driven (but corporate-funded and executive-sponsored) organizations focused on helping fellow employees.  Their activities have a dual purpose – while they provide assistance for their members, they also increase visibility throughout the entire company.  So when the Women’s Leadership Forum sponsors a speaker to come talk at the company, it both helps those who attend and increases visibility of women within the company to anyone who sees the announcement.

Circles do great things like host classes aimed at helping their members succeed (both traditional offerings like time management and negotiation as well as efforts like English as a Second Language), publicize issues facing their membership, sponsor guest speakers, and hold social events to help their membership network within the company.  The Circles appear to be very successful.  They regularly organize events which attract wide audiences and help keep EMC a lively place to work.

That’s the company line, and I promised to look deeper than just that.

Several years back, a colleague of mine was asked to take a leadership role in an Employee Circle.  He’s an outspoken, successful, talented member of a minority group without much representation within the industry, never mind the company.  He thought seriously about it, and eventually said no.  It’s not because he didn’t believe in the effort.  It was that he was already overworked, and he was told by his manager that any time he devoted to the Circle would come out of his own personal time.  Could he afford to take time away from his family to advance the cause of minorities within the company?  He decided that no, he could not.

Now, I don’t know what the “official company line” is.  Maybe a few years later, things are different.  But as I ask around, it becomes clear to me that the issue isn’t cut and dry.  As I said before, EMC is a very large company, with lots of subcultures.  Maybe in other organizations my colleague would be allowed to dedicate a few hours a week to this task on company time.  But for some groups, there’s a clear line between “work we ask you to do” and “work you take on.”  The lack of a clear policy on this creates an area where the same penalty we’re trying to avoid just comes about in a different way.  There’s a certan irony in a Working Mothers group whose members have to take time away from their parenting duties to run the group.

This aspect of the issue isn’t unique to EMC.  Ask around — plenty of companies have similar groups, going under a variety of names.  Do a Google search on “corporate affinity groups” and see what pops up.  Most of them have identical language about being employee-driven, which tells me they are not fundamentally different from EMC’s approach.  And, obviously, some companies don’t have these at all.  Some corporate sites, though, make a point of describing how their affinity groups serve as diversity advisers on product direction and corporate policy.  Imagine the powerful message sent by a company that not only has a Persons with Disabilities Affinity Group, but runs all product designs past it?

These programs work, but they can be improved. Think, for example, about the subtle difference between a “Working Mothers” group and a “Working Parents” group.  Fundamentally, though, they have a limit … they help address an individual group’s issues, but don’t necessarily impact the overall corporate culture.  How do you teach people to value a diverse environment?  How do you inject inclusiveness into corporate DNA?