“Teaching people to be unbiased is hard work”

The Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) world is in hyper-growth. A cottage industry rife with consultants, thought leaders, LinkedIn gurus, coaching sessions, books, and new acronyms by the day, it’s hard for the common man to understand what all this means.

Dr. Rohini Anand’s book “A guide for systemic change in multinational organizations: Leading global diversity, equity and inclusion” stands out amid this clutter. She narrates her personal journey and admits the privilege she enjoyed growing up in India before coming to the United States for higher studies. This book is filled with practical advice, anecdotes and her own confessions of making mistakes globally while looking at DEI with a purely US-centric lens.

Dr. Rohini Anand

Dr. Anand emphasizes the importance of culture, diversity and context and its importance in DEI work. She takes us on a global diversity journey similar to how Anthony Bourdain took us around the world teaching us about global cuisines. With humility, Dr. Anand encourages us to take a historical perspective, and learn and understand culture before launching an employee engagement survey or starting off with irrelevant metrics.

Numerous examples highlight the flaws of a US-centric approach to DEI that has been dominated by mostly insular male CEOs with a US marketing perspective. We learn that DEI, like exporting the US-version of democracy cannot be franchised like McDonald’s. Instead, it requires humility, understanding of context and leveraging the power of relationships.

Dr. Anand generously shares what she learned during her her decades-long experience leading global diversity at Sodexo, and explains 5 key principles starting with why global diversity should be inherently local. Identity, context, culture and values vary from place to place. She urges us to focus on a transversal approach to global diversity management, a mix of top-down DEI initiatives mixed with a highly localized strategy. Before starting a DEI program in a particular country, listen to change agents in localized contexts, she warns. The complexities of of race and its shifting social construct are well-explained in this book.

Her second principle about transformative leadership teaches us why leaders must change to lead change in DEI. Change cannot be made in DEI without personal passion and a shift in worldview. The third principle tells us that DEI is good business but warns us that studies based on US empirical data might seem totally irrelevant in other parts of the world. Understanding global and regional trends is key, she adds. The fourth principle “go deep, wide and inside out” explains why change efforts must be deep and wide within a company. They require ” a well-conceived and well-implemented governance framework to include a transversal strategy and to scale the inclusion effort to a global reach (wide)” The fifth principle highlights the importance of metrics and is laced with examples including the Sodexo Diversity & Inclusion Index (SDII).

I’ve had the privilege of learning a lot from Dr. Anand when she gave me an opportunity to understand the fundamentals of DEI. Dr. Anand is solid- thorough, well-versed, disciplined, and purposeful. This book reflects her tireless work in this field and is a must-read for any leader wanting to make progress in our post-pandemic work culture. After all, the business of “teaching people to be unbiased is hard work.”

Aren’t we fed up with the optics of diversity?

Over two decades ago, I was cast into the optics of diversity by accident. While working as an intern in a community college, my boss summoned me to participate in a group photo. I was new to the United States and in typical Indian fashion, I nodded my head. In a few minutes, I was part of a group picture and soon I was on the cover of a marketing catalog titled “Diversity Enriches Us All.”

I looked both Hispanic and Asian, a double whammy for the HR department. Yes, I was gullible and I didn’t even know what the purpose of the photograph was at that time!

Fast forward today, I see babies of all hues in advertisements, rich Indian ladies traveling in autorickshaws for American corporate ads and of course the “we should include this race in this advertisement” and the infamous “are we missing a color here?” advertisement.

Shortly after George Floyd’s death, corporate CEOs were scrambling for at least two weeks not knowing what to do as their eyes were always focused on the tickers earlier. The early adopters started issuing standard press releases to be first in line, the daring ones spoke out against the murder, aligned with anti-racist organizations, and the thoughtful ones kept on thinking without doing much.

In weeks we saw bright new advertisements including everyone.

A barrage of high profile diversity officer positions opened up and companies started publicly announcing their new chief diversity officers. In sacrosanct PR spaces reserved for new CEOs, chief diversity officers suddenly came to prominence.

The optics of diversity doesn’t serve any good for us. It’s lame and irrespective of what side you are on, it’s a waste of time, money and effort. Just like how diversity consultant Lily Zheng calls the business case of diversity a sinking ship, the optics of diversity is a temporary eyewash.

Sadly, everyone is following the bandwagon and reminds me of Everett Rogers theory: “Diffusion of innovations.” An old idea, the optics of diversity is being spread, influenced by the idea itself as it has seen a renewed sense of purpose and is being disseminated through communication channels over time in the social system we live in. The early adopters have started moving on fast, trying to make the optics of diversity an innovative idea that needs social recognition.

“Women and underrepresented minority employees drawn to a company by its diversity optics are blindsided by how different the reality inside the company is from the polished exterior they’ve been marketed,” writes Zheng.

In a report titled “Outcomes over optics: Building inclusive organizations,” consulting firm Deloitte reminds us of a simple fact: “Businesses that focus on maximizing the potential of each of their employees win in the market. From superior financial performance to improved talent retention and a greater capacity for innovation, when a firm brings together people with different backgrounds, skillsets, and mindsets, they achieve more.”

So, how can we focus on outcomes and not optics?

  1. Don’t waste resources on the optics of diversity. However small or big you are, focus on building culture.
  2. Leadership needs a Diversity 101 to build learning-centered organizations of lasting value, not organizations that worry about shareholder value.
  3. Every organization will have to pay a price to change its culture and this requires active participation from leadership.
  4. Inclusion takes time, but if every employee feels included and engaged, your business will prosper.
  5. Instead of fragmenting your workforce to meet the current societal climate, think long-term and try to unite people instead of looking at just their differences.

At the end of the day, remember, we are dealing with what acclaimed writer, Isabel Wilkerson says in her book “Caste: The origins of our discontents” “Color is a fact. Race is a social construct.” And, this social construct is over five centuries old.

The optics will not make a difference however hard we try. Instead, we as individuals should take responsibility for living inclusively.


Diffusion of Innovations: https://www.amazon.com/Diffusion-Innovations-5th-Everett-Rogers/dp/0743222091

Lily Zheng: https://lilyzheng.co/the-business-case-for-diversity-is-a-sinking-ship/

Deloitte report: https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/ca/Documents/audit/ca-audit-abm-scotia-inclusion-outcomes-over-optics.pdf

Isabel Wilkerson: https://www.amazon.com/Caste-Origins-Discontents-Isabel-Wilkerson/dp/0593230256/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=caste&qid=1625681534&s=books&sr=1-1


The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not represent the opinions of any entity with which I have been, am now, or will be affiliated. Further, I make no warranty regarding the accuracy or effectiveness of my recommendations, and readers are advised to consult other advisors as well as their own judgments in making decisions.