Two LGBTQ former Dell employees who claimed workplace discrimination against their employer spoke out in an NPR article on July 15. Dell has been on DiversityInc’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity lists in the past, but in a company with over 100,000 employees and offices throughout world, policy can be different from practice.
Helen Harris, a gender-nonconforming woman and Cicilia Gilbert, a transgender woman, were both systems engineers at the company and said they believe they were mistreated because of their identities. Harris left Dell this year after she had filed a complaint with New York City’s Commission on Human Rights which Dell vaguely said was resolved amicably and declined to further comment on. Harris told NPR she had endured harassment and comments about her gender expression and believed her career was derailed because of her appearance. Gilbert was let go in 2018 and told it was because her gender reassignment surgery impeded her ability to travel.
Other anecdotes the article outlines include co-workers heckling Harris when she gave presentations, and one co-worker telling Gilbert to stay in the closet about being transgender because coming out would be a “career-ender.” In Harris’ complaint, she mentioned being harassed in the office for the bathroom she chose to use.
However, unlike many tech companies — like Facebook, where more than three-quarters of its employees are men — Dell has extensive policies in place intended to foster diversity and specifically support LGBTQ people. Their Pride Employee Resource Group (ERG) offers support to LGBTQ employees. The company offers medical and mental health benefits for people undergoing gender reassignment surgery.
Erik Day serves as the co-executive sponsor of Dell’s Pride ERG in addition to the vice president and general manager of the company’s North America small business division. He said he is proud of the company’s resources and has never been discriminated against as an LGBTQ person himself, but that in these cases, the resources should have been more openly accessible.
“We have to do a better job ensuring that the Pride resources are there for those people to reach out,” he told DiversityInc. “In neither of the cases of Cecila or Helen was anybody from the Pride team on record, knowing to talk to them. We have a ton of resources for things like this.”
Day touted the company’s unconscious bias training as well.
However, the NPR piece cited several employees who claimed the New York office felt like a “boys club.” It also said they declined to give their names for fear of company retaliation, despite the company having an anti-retaliation policy that prevents consequences for those who publicly discuss company wrongdoing in good faith.
Regardless of the inclusive and protective policies Dell advertises, Harris and Gilbert’s stories — results of exclusive workplace culture — still exist and are corroborated. In addition to Gilbert’s case, the Massachusetts Attorney General investigated a transgender discrimination suit in 2017 that Dell settled with $110,000. Day declined to comment on Gilbert’s case because the investigation is ongoing and on Harris’s case because he does not work on the legal team.
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When asked about the comment a coworker allegedly made toward Gilbert about her transition being a “career-ender,” Day said it is a testament to how bias training must continue.
Day said though he is not part of the legal team dealing with this case, he knows Gilbert’s termination was a part of a large reduction of force where 200 employees were laid off. He said she took advantage of many of the company’s benefits for LGBTQ employees and transgender people and does not see how the company could have fired her for her transition after all it provided her.
But Day also said policy can differ from practice and culture in an individual office.
“When you grow your company to 140,000 employees, these are things that you’re going to come up against,” Day said.
Dell is also known in the tech media industry for keeping a hawk-eyed watch on its public relations and reputation. Christopher Calnan, a former journalist with the Austin City Business Journal, has written extensively about allegedly being fired for reporting breaking news on the powerful company that Dell evidently found unflattering. One of his articles was even surreptitiously deleted, according to his account of what happened. The article was simply about Michael Dell receiving a “Vision for America” award from an environmental group he also happened to give thousands of dollars to.
However, Dell seems to be handling this issue with less corporate censorship and more internal communication. Dell is an NPR sponsor, and Day said as far as he knows, it will continue to be. After the article came out, Allison Dew, CMO and co-executive sponsor of the Pride ERG, Brian Reaves, chief diversity and inclusion officer and Day sent out an email to Pride members acknowledging NPR’s coverage and reiterating the resources available.
The email also said NPR allegedly also chose not to include two interviews of Pride ERG members who had positive experiences transitioning as well as other proof of inclusivity policies the company provided. NPR did not respond to DiversityInc’s request for an interview regarding the reporting process and experiences of Gilbert and Harris.
“We did provide [NPR] with a very balanced side of the story, which I wish would’ve been captured a little bit more than it was,” Day said. “But I believe that because of our partnership we can have an open dialogue with them about what has happened.”
It is not unusual for large corporations like Dell to have instances of workplace discrimination. NPR’s editorial choice to give more of a voice to two disenfranchised former LGBTQ employees over praising a multi-billion-dollar company was not unfounded. But Day said NPR’s reporting has made him aware of the work Dell must continue to do.
“While we can’t be perfect, the article has made me want to be better than I think we already are,” Day said.