Together, we can make a difference: A 12-step plan to address racism and unconscious bias

A time of unrest has provided an opportunity for CPAs to make an impact in their workplaces and the community.
By Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, CPA, CGMA

Together, we can make a difference: A 12-step plan to address racism and unconscious bias
Image by Otto Steininger/Ikon Images

The outpouring of support for racial justice, diversity, and inclusion this year has highlighted the need for resources and focus to address the consequences of systemic racism and unconscious bias.

Now that we are talking about gaps in opportunity, access, and equity in the Black and African American community, the rest of the world is hearing what we have long known — there are systemic challenges in education, employment, health care, nutrition, business capital, prison sentences, etc.

We must work together to overcome these systemic challenges (see the sidebar "Becoming an Ally in the Movement for Racial Justice"). Over the years, leaders and professionals across the accounting profession have come together to address economic, regulatory, pipeline, and advocacy challenges and initiatives. This gives me great confidence that we can make a difference in our own firms and businesses. Progress won't be made overnight, but our resolve must be unwavering, whether it takes three weeks, three months, or three years.

Wondering where to start? Recognizing that firms and businesses are in different places, please consider these 12 steps for revamping or even starting inclusion initiatives:

1. Acknowledge the challenges faced by the Black and African American community

An authentic voice is required, and that only happens if there is at least a basic understanding of the underlying hurt. Unless we are willing to suffer the discomfort of confronting our own belief systems, the changes will only last as long as an amazing, visionary leader is in place. Please note that just because you don't use the "N" word, it doesn't mean that you have not unconsciously discriminated with your actions or lack thereof.

2. Conduct a 'listen and understand' town hall with ideas crowdsourced from team members across the organization

These are opportunities to hear from the Black and African American community and learn things that may have never been considered. Many of our colleagues are afraid of saying the wrong thing, but you should just speak from the heart. Put yourself in our shoes. How would you feel if it were you or your family?

3. Review the data

Assess the initiatives around recruitment, promotions, and overall retention of Black and African American team members. Ask tough questions, evaluate any legal department concerns, and determine actionable insights. It is true that there are many aspects of diversity, but right now we are talking about the Black and African American community. Where are you recruiting? What résumés are reviewed? What candidates are interviewed, and who interviews them? Please don't get distracted by the diverse segments in which it is easier to show results. Gender is an area where we see focus and increasing improvement. However, those results are not evenly reflected for Black and African American women. One step further, are there Black and African American executive leaders?

4. Ask periodically for honest feedback on the culture of the organization, and communicate transparently about the results and action plan

More than words are needed. Team members and, in particular, Black and African Americans are asking for progress across the talent management life cycle. Inclusion and "the best and brightest" are not contradictory statements. Many organizations have at least one Black or African American team member, but this is not perceived as diversity. Firms must determine that they will recruit, develop, advance, and retain diverse individuals. One way to do this is by pushing back on candidate pools and interview panels that do not reflect the inclusion initiative. Another way is to crowdsource new ideas from across the firm, as well as to seek referrals for high-performing talent — in this case for Black and African Americans.

5. Establish appropriate funding that is aligned with outcomes expected

In the COVID-19 environment, funding of new initiatives is challenging, but please don't let that stop you from doing what you can.

6. Communicate the vision

It is important to bring everyone together on the initiative so it becomes a lived part of the mission, purpose, and values of the organization with accountability at both the individual and management levels. Start with the end in mind. Review the business case for diversity and inclusion. An example is from my Experience Inspiration session on "When Everyone Has a Seat at the Table." See the sidebar "Perspectives on Diversity" for comments from Black and African American leaders in the accounting profession on how to communicate a diversity and inclusion message across an organization.

7. Encourage allies to join the affinity groups, and create new groups based on hobbies and interests

Both are needed to promote teamwork and a sense of belonging and improve retention.

8. Determine ways to promote individual and collective accountability for the inclusion culture and the organization's core values

Making everyone responsible in performance evaluations is a great way to align the messaging with the day-to-day life. The chief diversity officers or human resources can't be the only ones with the inclusion core values in their performance plans.

9. Journey-map the employee experience of various employees

Map their experience across the life cycle of hiring, pay, day-to-day work assignments, performance reviews, promotions, and leadership development. Where are there inconsistencies? Why? The results will highlight opportunities for training — for the individual team members as well as middle and executive management.

10. Conduct diversity and inclusion training

The training should go one level deeper than the "Sense of Belonging" or "Respect Everyone" training that may be in place. The training must include enhanced real-life exit interview information and work scenarios. It is not surprising if many team members exit the current training thinking, "Who are those people that do those terrible things?" and do not realize the consequences of their own actions. Further, the training must be for everyone, similar to training on sexual harassment, insider trading, ethics, etc. Why? Because inconsistent training has already led to inconsistent results.

11. Review what additional support and training can be provided to middle managers based on various scenarios and exit interviews

Ask and evaluate if middle managers support and promote the inclusion initiative. Many Black and African Americans have reported a disconnect between what the CEO says and how middle management executes the message.

12. Move inclusive leadership to the main stage

If this area is a key strategic priority, it must be discussed, promoted, and reported in general sessions of organizational events with top leadership involvement. Further, inclusive leadership must be demonstrated authentically across conference speakers, panelists, and the program.


The 12 steps list underlying detail that must be customized to each firm or company. There are many other considerations that may make some of the things I listed challenging, including pipeline, size of firm, revenue, geography, specialization, etc. But we can all acknowledge, understand, and work with others for progress. Inclusive leadership is a business imperative that has implications for our customers, clients, and business partners as well. Even if you are in an area where you don't know a single Black or African American person, you can still implement strategies. It is also true that you could take all of the steps above and still have challenges recruiting and retaining Black and African American employees, but there still is tremendous benefit to be gained.

In a COVID-19 environment with significant economic impacts, we must implement a sensible and realistic plan that promotes progress — every step forward helps. We must remain committed. With individual and collective understanding, inspiration, encouragement, lessons learned, and tone at both the top and the middle, our efforts will help those interactions at the workplace, the grocery store, the apartment building, the gym, and the park happen differently.

We have come together on other initiatives and have made a great difference in promoting the public interest. It is time to use the lessons and best practices we learned to reduce and hopefully one day eliminate racism and unconscious bias. Together, I am sure that we can do it.

Perspectives on diversity

'Within your firm, within your profession, go to someone else. Ask: "How can I make you successful in your career? How can I support you in your community?" We get so many questions like, "I don't know what to do. I don't know what to say." And I'll push back: "You have that opportunity. You extend that hand out to someone else. You have that opportunity to change. You go mentor someone. You go volunteer in the community. You have that answer."'

Herschel Frierson, managing director, consulting services group, Crowe LLP, and chairman of the board, National Association of Black Accountants

Herschel Frierson, managing director, consulting services group, Crowe LLP, and chairman of the board, National Association of Black Accountants
Herschel Frierson

'Until we deal with the race issues that are bigger than us as a country, I don't think we can get better. For any CPA, I'd recommend you go to your supervisor, your leader, manager, HR, or diversity person. Wherever you are in that chain of command and with whom you feel comfortable, I encourage you to reach out to people that can help you get this topic on the agenda. It's important to talk about in our workspaces, especially now when work and life are even more entangled than ever before.'

Elena Richards, leader, Minority Initiatives & Talent Management, Office of Diversity, PwC, and member, AICPA National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion

Elena Richards, leader, Minority Initiatives & Talent Management, Office of Diversity, PwC, and member, AICPA National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion
Elena Richards

'We need to do a real assessment across every organization and every company, and look at leadership, and really say, "What does the leadership of this organization look like?" Because if we're all sitting around and the board of directors all look alike, we're not moving the needle there.'

Steven Harris, CPA, CGMA, partner in charge, Entrepreneurial Services Group, RubinBrown LLP and 2019 chairman of the board, National Association of Black Accountants

Steven Harris, CPA, CGMA, partner in charge, Entrepreneurial Services Group, RubinBrown LLP and 2019 chairman of the board, National Association of Black Accountants
Steven Harris

(From top: Photo courtesy of Crowe LLP; photo courtesy of PwC; photo courtesy of RubinBrown LLP)

Becoming an ally in the movement for racial justice

Editor's note: Laura Morgan Roberts, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, provided advice for leaders on recognizing and rooting out racism in a JofA podcast. Here is an excerpt from the podcast:

People have questions these days around "allyship," and what does that look like, what does that feel like? Allyship in this moment in time is someone who's willing to take the heat. When I say, "take the heat," I mean anticipate that when you call out racism, the person on the other end or the people on the other end are often going to feel threatened and convicted. So they are going to come back with some kind of reaction, where — you know the saying, "Don't shoot the messenger"? — you know it might come back in that way or there may be retaliation down the road.

That's what we've heard over the years up until this moment in time, that people of color who have tried to point out racism in their own organizations are met with silence in the moment, but then curiously down the road their performance evaluations are compromised. They are managed out of the company, or people start to question whether or not they're truly leadership potential, so their careers plateau or they leave voluntarily.

There is a point and counterpoint dynamic to addressing and confronting race and racism. When you want to stand as an ally and try to promote positive change, part of that work is in anticipating and trying to buffer against what the contrary response might be.

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