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Lessons from Deloitte's bullying diversity champion claims

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In the wake of Dimple Agarwal’s resignation from Deloitte, Blaire Palmer offers advice to firms for a better approach to diversity and inclusion.

22nd Mar 2021
CEO That People Thing Ltd
Columnist
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It’s easy to reject the new trends around mental health and wellbeing, creating an agile culture, parental leave and flexible working, and diversity and inclusion (D&I) as ‘wokeness gone mad’. 

Most business leaders accept that it makes commercial sense to treat people as human beings and many will say they’ve been doing so for decades without having to label it as diversity and inclusion or employee wellness. 

But these days it seems it’s not enough to go quietly about your business treating people with respect. You have to make an overt commitment, initiate a programme and stick it on your website and, in so doing, risk being held to the standards that you’ve claimed are important to you. 

Deloitte has been the subject of headlines over the alleged behaviour of its deputy chief executive and diversity and inclusion champion Dimple Agarwal. It has been claimed by The Telegraph that an internal investigation into allegations of bullying and inappropriate working practices is being carried out and Agarwal has since resigned.

There are a few aspects of this story that make me uncomfortable and that should give us all pause for thought lest we fall into the same trap as Deloitte and Agarwal. 

Do it before you say it

Diversity is good for business. Deloitte’s own research found that D&I enhances innovation by about 20%. According to the Harvard Business Review, teams which include a member that shares a client’s ethnicity are 152% more likely to understand that client than another team. A survey by Glassdoor found 67% of people consider diversity an important factor when deciding where to work. 

What we see in a case like Deloitte’s is that what you do matters a lot more than what you say. Before you make a bold commitment on your website or send out a press release or hire yourself a D&I champion have a long hard look in the mirror. Do you believe in this? Are you willing to hold yourself to a commitment to not only address the issue in your firm but be open to scrutiny, to making mistakes in public and being held to account? 

D&I is a minefield and those who do it well recognise that they are constantly learning what it means to truly embrace inclusion and stimulate diversity. By all means, go public. When we talk about D&I we normalize the concept that diversity matters and that we want employees to feel included. Just be prepared to have many uncomfortable moments while you figure out what you’ve signed up for. 

Don’t have a D&I champion

D&I Champion wasn’t Agarwal’s official title but she was very much associated with leading on these topics. 

The risk when you have one voice representing a massive topic like D&I is that you have the perfect scapegoat. They are held up as the walking, talking embodiment of everything you’ve said is important to you while no one else is held to the same standard. This is very convenient for a firm that wants to be seen to care while going about its business as usual. 

Yes, there were claims that Agarwal was aggressive (a word often associated with strident women but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t true) and that she contradicted herself by saying work-life balance was important to her but then calling meetings at dawn. Complaints about her behaviour came from dozens of employees and I’m sure the details will emerge in time. 

But was she the only one who expected people to answer emails at weekends and spoke to colleagues in that way? Or have the others managed to duck our attention because they left Agarwal with her head above the parapet alone?

By all means, have someone leading the D&I agenda and expect them to walk the talk. But don’t hang them out to dry. If your D&I initiatives backfire the whole leadership team should be held to account and be willing to learn from the experience. 

Don’t ignore these issues

In the early days of corporate social responsibility (CSR), the concept quickly became associated with PR rather than a genuine desire by companies to account for their impact in the world. But while there were (and still are) companies who make a big song and dance about how they give back to society without doing much, there are growing numbers of businesses who have a deep sense of purpose and a social responsibility at their heart. Without the early missteps of the CSR movement we might not have so many business who really mean it today. 

And the same applies to D&I. Perhaps the movement has been lip service for some firms but the expectation by staff, especially the i-Generation joining business today, is that their employer will take these issues seriously. Not only that but they are willing to call out injustice and disparity between words and deeds and hold senior leaders to account. 

You may think that as a small rural firm, or a firm based in a homogenous part of the country or just because you’ve been around a while and you’ve always done things a certain way, that you don’t need to take much notice of these seemingly ‘woke’ employee expectations. 

I would advise you to ignore these topics at your peril. The world is changing we have to be willing to change too. If we don’t we could find ourselves ‘signing ourselves off from work with illness’ just like Dimple Agarwal.

Replies (9)

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accountant in london
By Accountant in London
23rd Mar 2021 10:19

Thank you for the article, it all makes sense.

If I may please share my thoughts on what seems to have happened with Ms. Agarwal.

I reckon she has not mastered the 'British' attitude in the work environment. If you look at her LinkedIn CV, she is from India and studied in the USA, seems to have moved to the UK in 2009.
So she would come across as 'harsh' if she does not say please, sorry, and thank you as much.
Her emails are probably 'abrupt' by UK standards.
In addition to all this, she probably has a 'get it done' attitude, which is an Indian thing. This would make her come across as a bully.

I was told many years ago when I first immigrated to the UK and started working in an inhouse accounting department: Always say please sorry and thank you, and do your work at a certain pace, not too quickly, people take their time here. She probably did not get that lesson!

On top of all this, 2020 has not been an easy year for anyone, the staff are feeling stressed, vulnerable and her 'work ethic' probably rubbed them the wrong way. It's also likely that her own mental health was delicate too and controlling things at work probably made sense to her.

If she was a real bully I am sure this would have surfaced many years ago - at least internally within Delloite.

And as you say, she was probably made a scapegoat to save 'others' who have probably done the same or even more. She can't have been the only one doing this for the last 12-13 years and only gets noticed now.

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Replying to Accountant in London:
FirstTab
By FirstTab
23rd Mar 2021 10:34

You said what I wanted to say in a better way

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By Mr J Andrews
23rd Mar 2021 14:03

Third paragraph ''.......it seems it's not enough to go quietly about your business treating people with respect.....''
This seemed to work well prior to hiring Diversion & Inclusion Champions.

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By Bruce425
12th Apr 2021 06:41

Strange, but you never hear of men being accused of being a bully. If they are forthright, demanding and decisive they are leaders. A woman exhibiting the same traits is a pushy cow or a bully. I'm a bloke, I see this all the time. Seems like a many men cannot cope with being managed by a woman. Sad.

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By Pooran585
02nd Jun 2021 05:29

Diversity champion, 49, at accounting giant Deloitte 'is facing internal investigation over claims of bullying and inappropriate working practices'.

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Replying to Pooran585:
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By Pooran585
03rd Jun 2021 08:09

Pooran585 wrote:

Diversity champion, 49, at accounting giant Deloitte 'is facing internal investigation over claims of bullying and inappropriate working practices'.


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