Assessment is key to a successful D&I effort

To track your organization’s diversity and inclusion progress, you first need to have a baseline.
By Anita Dennis

Assessment is key to a successful D&I effort
Image by alexsl/iStock

We're in the midst of a passionate national conversation around the importance of diversity and inclusion (D&I). Many CPA firms and other organizations are making the choice to enhance programs to foster greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in their workforce. However, for those efforts to be successful, employers need to know where to start.

Organizations often turn to Crystal Cooke, director—Diversity & Inclusion at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, with questions on topics such as training or the best places to recruit diverse professionals. These questions, she said, are sometimes premature.

"I tell [organizations] to take a step back before rolling out any new programs," she said. Instead, she recommends that organizations start their D&I journey by first looking at it strategically. They can do that by taking stock of where they are right now. "You can't improve or advance without assessing where you're starting from," she observed.

D&I efforts require strategy, and part of that strategy should include assessment, advised Kristin Seeger, CPA, director of talent acquisition at 200-employee firm Kreischer Miller. Before her firm had a formal strategy, "we were aware that we needed to increase our efforts to affect our team member diversity and we made some adjustments, but now we have explicit goals," she said.

To help stimulate change, leaders at Kreischer Miller completed the AICPA Accounting Inclusion Maturity Model (AIMM) assessment (see the sidebar, "Using the Accounting Inclusion Maturity Model"), a questionnaire that helps organizations evaluate their progress on D&I. The AIMM allowed Kreischer Miller to identify necessary focus areas and set priorities, as well as create a baseline for future assessments. "We are now better set up to track our performance and analyze results going forward," Seeger said.

The assessment helped the firm to measure the progress it had made. After conducting the firm's analysis and making policy changes, the percentage of female directors increased from 14% in 2017 to 26% today, Seeger said. With regard to ethnic diversity, the firm's percentage of ethnically diverse team members rose from 3% to 9% in the same period.

How to assess your D&I efforts

If you're ready to assess your organization's D&I efforts, following are some steps to take. Note that this process can take time when it's done thoughtfully, Cooke said. It could take a couple of months, given the time necessary to gain leadership buy-in on the importance and incorporation of D&I in your organization, perform the assessment, understand the results, get staff input and insight on areas to address, and develop a strategic plan. "Don't feel you have to have all the answers today," she said. "The journey will be more successful if firms get the foundational work right."

Define what diversity, equity, and inclusion mean for your organization

In the early stages, it's also important for employers to be clear about how they define diversity, equity, and inclusion. "Don't be an organization that just throws the terms around without really thinking about what they mean and gaining alignment on the definition, concepts, and values that you are trying to convey," Cooke said.

A strategy needs to encompass not just diversity but equity and inclusion as well. What this means in workplace terms, Cooke said, is whether you have the right complement of people who represent the community you serve, whether your approaches ensure that everyone has access to the same opportunities, and whether you provide a space of psychological safety where everyone is encouraged and expected to contribute and be valued for those contributions.

Determine what indicators of D&I you want to measure and gather data

Some key indicators of how well an organization is doing in terms of D&I include the hiring, promotion, retention, and turnover percentages of groups that are underrepresented among staff or at leadership levels.

For example, HORNE LLP tracks whether people are moving into positions of opportunity, from associate all the way to partner, since it believes that career progress is an important indicator of D&I progress. "Establishing a strong pipeline is the only way to have a sustainable, strong, and diverse team," said Joey Havens, CPA, CGMA, executive partner of the more than 900-employee firm.

However, organizations should consider other metrics as well. They may also track how long it takes employees from different demographic groups to be promoted or reach certain leadership levels to see if it is more difficult for women, ethnic minorities, or other underrepresented groups to advance, and to spot where the roadblocks might lie. Organizations should consider breaking down their numbers by office or practice group level as well to pinpoint sectors that are doing particularly well or that are in need of improvement.

Data about why employees leave can also be valuable. HORNE uses exit interviews to better understand what makes people leave and tracks referrals to see if team members are recommending the firm to friends and colleagues, Havens said. Grant Thornton also surveys employees and gathers ongoing feedback from its business resource groups (BRGs) on inclusion and belonging, said Rashada Whitehead, Grant Thornton's head of culture, diversity, equity, and inclusion. BRGs are groups of employees who join together in their workplace based on shared characteristics or life experiences.

Develop goals

In developing goals, organizations should avoid creating inadvertent D&I ceilings, Whitehead advised. If an organization aims to increase women's leadership to 40%, for example, that percentage should be viewed as "a goal, but not a limit," she said.

There are clear benefits to spending time to assess your D&I efforts, Seeger said. "By seeing how we are doing, we can plan better and determine where we may need to course-correct," she said. "By measuring our efforts, we hold ourselves accountable for the success we look to achieve."

Using the Accounting Inclusion Maturity Model

Firms seeking a free, ready-made measurement tool can turn to the AICPA Accounting Inclusion Maturity Model (AIMM), which features a straightforward assessment that enables firms to judge where they stand in four key areas (workplace, workforce, marketplace, and supplier and community).

  • The Workplace (or Culture) section measures the impact of your firm's D&I commitment on the workplace in which your people create value, find acceptance, and advance their careers. It also considers how you bring diverse employees together and make their voices heard.
  • The Workforce (or People) section measures the processes you have in place to ensure that your workforce is diverse and reflective of the communities in which you operate. Also, it reviews how your organization ensures fair advancement, performance evaluations, and application of benefits.
  • The Marketplace (or Clients) section measures how your firm influences diversity in the marketplace through such factors as the types of clients you choose, the communities in which you do business, and how you market the diversity of your organization.
  • The Supplier and Community section measures how you incorporate and consider diversity in your selection of outside vendors, as well as how you engage in diversity-related interests or projects in your community.

Firm leaders can fill out a confidential online questionnaire and receive a report telling them how their firm is performing in each of these areas. The AIMM allows users to establish a benchmark and track their progress over time and to compare their results with other users'.

Your answers to the questionnaire will result in a percentage that will assess your organization as either aspiring, emerging, managing, or optimizing D&I. "An organization that is optimizing in the D&I space is what we are all striving for," said Crystal Cooke, director—Diversity & Inclusion at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. However, she noted that a lower result is "not necessarily a sign of deficiency but an opportunity to explore different approaches to creating an inclusive environment and achieving better business results." The assessment, she said, can point organizations to aspects of D&I they may have not yet considered and suggest best practices they may want to adopt.

About the author

Anita Dennis is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at or 919-402-4125.




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