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The senior VP of HR engages a workforce that serves some of the world’s largest destination properties.
With apologies to Thomas Wolfe, Michelle DiTondo is proof that you can go home again.
She is making a difference every day in her hometown of Las Vegas. Since 2011, she has served as senior vice president of HR at entertainment and hospitality giant
MGM Resorts International. DiTondo says her experience growing up as an Asian American in a working-class family in Vegas gives her a special insight into the challenges faced by many of the company’s employees. And that gives her an edge as the company’s top HR executive.
MGM Resorts International operates 14 resorts and casinos, including the Bellagio, The Mirage, MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay. The company’s workforce of nearly 62,000 employees is equally impressive.
Notes and Quotes
Hometown: Las Vegas.
Passionate pursuits: Cooking and creating vacation experiences for her two children and extended family. Last year, it was a trip with her mother, who returned to her native Japan for the first time in 35 years.
Rock-star moment: Speaking at a chairman’s town hall meeting last year and acknowledging the challenges and growing pains the company was going through in implementing a new HR system. She says she got a lot of respect from colleagues for being honest. “Last year was miserable,” DiTondo says frankly. “But we got through it and now everything has stabilized.”
DiTondo was on a team to implement the company’s main corporate initiative, Inspiring Our World, the strategic vision of CEO Jim Murren. The three goals of the initiative are to instill an appreciation of diversity and inclusion in the workforce, to encourage participation in volunteerism and philanthropy, and to teach environmental responsibility and sustainability. DiTondo tackles her role with a passion and finesse that has earned her accolades inside and outside the company. In 2013, she received the National Asian Pacific American Corporate Achievement Award, which is given to the 10 most influential leaders in the Asian American community.
To make sure every employee understands the company’s vision and mission, MGM developed a one-month training program on the principles of Inspiring Our World. “It was expensive to do and logistically difficult,” DiTondo says. But it was necessary for the company, which has grown largely by acquiring other companies.
And it was important for employees, many of whom deal face to face with guests in the company’s hotels, restaurants and casinos. More than 64 percent of the employees of MGM Resorts International are minorities, and 90 percent are hourly employees. Many are front-line workers for whom English is a second language. “We want them to be proud of the company and do everything possible to make sure our guests have a good experience,” DiTondo says.
Building Employee Bonds
To help workers feel valued and invested in MGM Resorts International, DiTondo and her team are laser-focused on employee engagement. But communicating with and engaging a workforce that is rarely in one place at the same time is a huge challenge. “Unlike knowledge workers who are connected through technology, or call center workers who might all be in one building, our employees are spread out all over the properties,” she says.
That structure prompted a hands-on approach. “Each property develops an action plan and works on how to engage their employees effectively,” DiTondo says.
The solution included scrapping an outdated HR system last year and moving to a cloud-based system that is centered around Workday, an on-demand human capital software product. Now employees can use their smartphones to do a variety of tasks, such as checking pay stubs, requesting time off and updating their contact information.
But engagement is about in-person connection, too. That’s why senior leadership at MGM Resorts organizes regular roundtables with groups of 20 to 40 employees. The discussions provide a forum where managers can hear and address their employees’ concerns. Four years ago, the company implemented an annual employee survey to gauge satisfaction and engagement.
DiTondo also believes innovation is critical to both worker engagement and company success. Last year, she initiated an employee innovation contest. The goal is to create a culture that continuously encourages employees to generate new ideas. The first effort resulted in more than 2,000 proposals. Four winners earned $10,000 each.
One of the most popular HR initiatives, however, was the result of DiTondo’s decision to bring MGM Resorts International’s customer loyalty program—called M Life—to employees. The company’s guest-facing program allows customers to earn rewards points when they use any of the resorts’ restaurants, hotels or gaming facilities.
DiTondo and a leadership team introduced an employee-focused incarnation of the program, called M Life Insider, shortly after she took on her current role. The employee version uses a portal to allow staff not only to access their HR information, but also to book discounted rooms at one of the company’s resorts or share links that allow friends and family to get reduced rates as well. “Employees have loved that, because if you live in Las Vegas, everybody calls you and asks you if you can get them a discount,” DiTondo says. “We wanted all of our employees to be able to do that and feel special—to feel like they are somebody important in Las Vegas.” The company has benefited, too, from the steady stream of employees’ friends and family checking in to their hotels.
‘A Good Fit’
Though she grew up close to the famous Las Vegas Strip, DiTondo never planned on a career in the entertainment or hospitality industry. But, she says, “I actually think I’m a particularly good fit for this company because of my personal background.”
Both of her parents were hourly employees. Her mother, who is from Japan, was a seamstress for J.C. Penney Co.; her father was enlisted Air Force. “We lived in what is not a great part of town, and all of my friends’ parents were also hourly employees. They were maids and change attendants and cocktail servers.”
DiTondo saw education as her way up and out. She was the first person in her family to go to college. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University and planned to become a teacher. But a recession meant teaching jobs were scarce after she graduated. She ended up working for the government in a college training program for the Army & Air Force Exchange Service and was placed in human resources.
She eventually went on to get her MBA from Brigham Young University, and she has worked at a number of other companies in HR over the past two decades, including the Leadership Research Institute, First Security Corp., American Express Co. and Harrah’s/Caesars Entertainment. She decided to move back to Las Vegas a few years ago to be closer to her family.
DiTondo credits her ability to develop HR policy that is sensitive to the needs of a large workforce to having grown up in a culturally and ethnically diverse city.
“Our industry offers economic stability to people of all different skill and education levels,” she says. “You can live in a neighborhood that is a gated community in Las Vegas, and you can have [as neighbors] a doctor and lawyer, two dealers, and a bartender and cocktail server because our industry allows front-line employees in tip positions to make a lot of money.”
Whenever the HR team is developing a complex policy or process, DiTondo prioritizes clear communication. “We realize that English is a second language for many and that we have to make our policies understandable to people with different skill levels. When we create a website, we have to consider whether we use a lot of text or use descriptive pictures,” DiTondo explains.
Broadening Her Reach
DiTondo has followed a couple of her bosses from one company to the next. But she says Althea DeBrule, for whom she worked at two different companies, has influenced her the most. When DiTondo was an HR business partner at American Express in Salt Lake City, DeBrule would often send the young and inexperienced DiTondo in her place to attend high-level HR meetings.
“I was just 26, but she always told me, ‘You’re younger than everyone that is in the room, but no one there is smarter than you. You’ll be fine,’ ” DiTondo says.
DeBrule also showed DiTondo that balance in life is important. One year, DeBrule had 25 different people directly reporting to her and she knitted every one of them a sweater, recalls DiTondo, who still talks to the now-retired DeBrule about once a year.
In one of those chats, DeBrule asked DiTondo what she wants her legacy to be. DiTondo gave it a lot of thought and said, “I want to make our employees’ lives better through things like employee benefits, M Life Insider, our policies and procedures.”
DiTondo says the key to creating successful policies is to put yourself in your employees’ shoes. “If you keep your front-line employees in mind—their lifestyles, their families, the kinds of things they’re going to talk about and struggle with at the dinner table—and use that for decision-making, you’ll come out with the right decisions.”
DiTondo is also making her presence felt outside of the company. She is a graduate of the Las Vegas Chamber of DiTondo is also making her presence felt outside of the company. She is a graduate of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Las Vegas, a yearlong leadership development program. She has served on a number of community boards, including the Asian Chamber.
But when she stops to think about what she wants her next job to be, it is in a classroom, not a corporate boardroom. “I think I’m going to end up back where I started—in teaching,” she says. She’d like to teach college or high school courses in business, career development or human resources. And if she does, she’ll be drawing from that same flexible skill set that has powered her to ascend to the upper echelons of HR management.
Geri Tucker is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.
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