Best practices for promotion of diversity in the accounting profession


At various summits over the past couple of years, leaders dedicated to the advancement of African Americans in accounting have proposed various strategies to promote diversity within the accounting profession. The most recent and extensive summit took place in December 2010, when four dozen accounting profession leaders and stakeholders met to examine the status of African Americans within public accounting. During the meeting, hosted by the Howard University School of Business Center for Accounting Education, leaders proposed strategies for promoting diversity within the profession. Many of these best practices could apply to diversity in the profession as a whole and could be applied to other minority groups as well.


Firms can describe their culture and expectations as soon as commitment letters are signed, rather than waiting until new hires report to work. Early support also should apply to the CPA exam. Employment letters could explain that new hires are expected to become CPAs because they are expected to become partners. Firms can treat the CPA exam the way that law firms treat the bar exam—as an investment in the future. The firms should provide new hires with the time and financial resources necessary to become licensed. Financial resources include the fees associated with registering for and taking the exam, as well as reimbursement for the review course after passing the exam. Sitting for the CPA exam should become new hires’ most immediate and important short-term assignment. They should be encouraged to pass the exam during the summer months before they begin full-time employment.


Young African Americans can proactively seek important assignments, insist on honest feedback, and identify a mentor and a person in a position of influence to advocate for them. Young African Americans must make sure that they fulfill the necessary requirements to sit for the CPA exam and commit to passing it early in their career. With the exception of Native Americans, African Americans, on a percentage basis, are the least likely of all racial groups to hold a CPA license.


Mentoring efforts can fall short because some mentors may lack commitment, interpret the job too narrowly, or may not be good at mentoring. Options for improving mentoring include increased selectivity in assigning mentors; specialized training to develop mentoring skills; rotating new hires among mentors until a relationship clicks; and assigning the firm’s best performers as mentors.

Firms can complement mentoring through other strategies. To ensure that underrepresented minorities have a fair shot at good assignments, some firms use a blind assignment system that isn’t aware of race so that every first-year professional who comes into the company must have the same number of hours on a CEO-type client. Placing African Americans on top client accounts also can help them build confidence and increase their exposure to the best direct supervisors, managers, and partners. This will increase their understanding of the profession and increase the commitment to advance.


Diversity can be treated like other business objectives by creating diversity and inclusion metrics, incorporating them into performance reviews, and linking them to compensation. Firms can make it clear that career advancement and bonus awards could suffer from unsatisfactory results surrounding diversity matters. Firms can achieve this objective by embedding a diversity scorecard into the firm’s strategic scorecard and tying it to individual accountability. This should be an integral component at all levels, beginning with top management.


While every large firm and many smaller firms provide diversity training, the profession must be more creative in enabling employees to identify their own unconscious biases. Smarter diversity training must help employees at all levels consider how the world may look to a minority professional; teach employees to overcome fear of conflict so they can speak honestly with minority colleagues; and embrace new types of leadership training so that every manager and every partner learns how to lead inclusively.

Educating minority and majority employees can open the culture to diversity by sensitizing them to different perspectives. Such efforts must be a two-way street. Often, diversity advocates focus primarily on helping majority workers better appreciate the issues that confront minorities when entering a white-dominated culture. It is also important for the minority workers to understand how the world looks to the dominant culture and why diversity might be unsettling to see. The size of the firm or organization does not matter.


The profession needs to raise its profile to appear to be a compelling career choice for young African Americans. Social media and other web tools can reach young people on their turf. Marketing campaigns involving young, prominent African Americans can present accountants as trusted advisers and counselors, and boot camps can expose students to the profession.

Also read:

Jean T. Wells
( ) is an assistant professor of accounting at the Howard University School of Business. Frank K. Ross ( ) is director of the Howard University School of Business Center for Accounting Education and a visiting professor of accounting, teaching auditing and ethics.

Illustration by Otto Steininger/Three in a Box


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