Strategies for CPAs to encourage positive changes in diversity

By Ken Tysiac

The racial injustice taking place throughout the United States has hit home hard for members of the AICPA National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion, who spend much of their time developing strategies and resources for improving the diversity of the accounting profession.

Commission member Elena Richards, minority initiatives and talent management leader in the Office of Diversity at PwC, has a 12-year-old daughter who’s fiercely optimistic that she will be able to accomplish anything she wants if she puts her mind to it.

“That’s what keeps me going,” Richards said, “trying to make this a better space or world for her so she can live on any block that she wants, run down the street in her sweatshirt, and her mom will not have to tell her not to put her hood on. It’s awful, but I do have to tell her that.”

With the help of the National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion, the AICPA has developed tools such as a comprehensive assessment that currently helps an accounting firm or organization evaluate its diversity and inclusion practices, and the PCPS Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit, which provides insight on how to attract a more diverse candidate pool and retain and develop a diverse workforce. These tools and others are available on the AICPA website at aicpa.org/diversity.

The members of the commission have reinforced their commitment to working for positive change. Ken Bouyer, who served as the commission’s inaugural chairman in 2012 and is director of inclusiveness recruiting for EY Americas, said the current environment provides an important impetus for change.

“It’s given me determination to fight harder and longer and just double down efforts that frankly I’ve been putting a lot into over the years,” Bouyer said. “It has given me additional fuel and reinforced in my mind that we collectively as a profession and individuals need to focus on what’s right and what’s just in this society.”

Commission members said they are determined to use their position to help CPAs make the profession more diverse and inclusive. They shared some of their strategies for CPAs to bring about change:

Get educated. The AICPA resources page has archived webcasts and other information on diversity-related issues. An inquiring mind and an internet search engine can put you in touch with many more resources.

“I am a brown Latina immigrant, and I would be stretching the truth if I said I fully understand how my Black colleagues feel,” said Jenny Herrera, CPA, CGMA, a partner in Citrin Cooperman’s D.C. Metro office and local co-lead of the firm’s Empowering Diversity and Gender Equality (CC Edge) Committee whose three-year term on the AICPA commission ended in June. “We must take meaningful action and have difficult conversations around our differences. We can all take steps to exercise greater compassion.”

Opportunities abound to learn about this topic. Sharon Bryson, CEO of the North Carolina Association of CPAs whose term on the commission also recently ended, said her organization is purchasing training materials on racism, diversity, and inclusion to be shared with NCACPA members.

“We’re just trying to put it more in the forefront because these conversations have to happen,” she said.

Meanwhile, Black and African American members of the profession can take advantage of this opportunity to talk with colleagues who are members of what Bouyer calls the “Frozen Middle.” These are people who aren’t Black or African American and want to help but don’t know how.

“There are many folks that are apprehensive because they say they don’t want to do the wrong thing or say the wrong thing,” Bouyer said. “That leads them to be that Frozen Middle. I do think this is an opportunity for us to help coach people.”

Check on co-workers. Black and African American employees living through this moment in history are experiencing a range of emotions. Showing empathy by simply asking how they are feeling is a good first step, Richards said.

It’s important to be prepared for whatever their response might be, even if it’s: “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Someone may or may not be ready for those conversations,” Richards said. “So while you may be going out on a limb to ask the question, feel really comfortable that the person you’re going to may not be ready for that conversation. But don’t let that be the only conversation. If I were to say to you that I’m not ready to have that discussion right now, that doesn’t mean to shut you down and not necessarily ever come back.”

Bouyer said it’s important to understand the raw emotion that Black colleagues have experienced for the past month.

“I go through my periods of being numb, and I come back to it,” he said. “But I still have to do a great job at work. I still have to put on a professional demeanor and a face to it. That’s not easy because you can’t check your emotions at the door all the time, and with a video like that it was difficult.”

Lead with care and concern. A good leader at this time will make efforts to enhance an organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts, Herrera said.

“This may be in the form of communication, training, development, professional advancement, and talent acquisition programs,” she said. “These efforts should be focused on building an organization’s existing programs to foster a diverse and inclusive culture. If your organization does not have a diversity and inclusion program, the time to establish one is now.”

Conversations about racism may be uncomfortable, Richards said, but a good leader will talk about these issues in spite of the challenges.

“Demonstrate the behaviors we want everyone to model,” she said. “You can’t ask others to do behaviors that you’re not willing to do yourself.”

Be authentic. The NCACPA was committed enough to these issues that it had hired a consultant to help with diversity and inclusion in February, before the recent events.

Still, Bryson said, the events of the past month made her realize how much more work needs to be done in this area.

“I was unprepared as I began to learn more about where we are as opposed to where I thought we were,” she said. “And instead of choosing to be embarrassed about that, I’ve decided to turn that reaction I’ve had on a very personal level into a learning opportunity and be the best leader I can be for our team and our organization.”

Leaders throughout the profession are coming to the same realization, Richards said. She encouraged them not to shy away from issues and conversations that make them uncomfortable.

“Authentically try to engage with everyone,” she said. “Give everyone opportunities to be a part of that conversation. If certain people are talking and others are not, ask them for their point of view or perspective. Engage everyone in the dialogue.”

Bryson was talking with one CPA firm partner who was disappointed with their own failure to address these issues with employees in the past.

“This same individual said, ‘That will never, ever happen to me again,’” she said. “There was an expression of regret about not doing it sooner. It’s that learning situation, that learning opportunity, and saying, ‘OK, I’m going to take care of this, and I’m going to take care of it forever and ever.’”

Advocate in your sphere of influence. Those who are not firm managing partners or members of the C-suite still have an opportunity to create change.

Partners and team leaders can look on their teams and see whether opportunities and top assignments are being provided to diverse employees.

“Ask some questions,” Bouyer said. “How diverse is my account team? And how inclusive is my account team? And that can come not just from the partner ranks but all the way down through the managers, seniors, staff.”

Richards advocates that employees seek out leaders at their firms and organizations and encourage them to recognize and address these issues.

“For any CPA, I’d recommend you go to your supervisor, your leader, manager, HR, or diversity person,” she said. “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.”

Be open to transformation. Hiring based on “fit” can lead to the exclusion of diverse candidates who may not be like other employees at an organization.

“If we want to foster a racially just, diverse, and inclusive culture, we have to change our approach of making some of our employees ‘fit into’ our firms,” Herrera said. “Rather we have to focus on transforming our firms to fit all employees.”

In hiring, Bouyer talks about being watchful for a “preference tradition and requirement” that may lead to the exclusion of diverse candidates or hires.

“If you’re hiring someone in a role, is your preference why you’re hiring that person? Is it a tradition? What really are the requirements?” he asked. “I think it’s important to just pause to reflect on your own organization, your own actions. I think the small things you do can have a ripple effect.”

Be accountable and responsible. Putting out public and companywide statements supporting diversity and inclusion is important.

Listening to employees can help them feel understood and included. But this also is a time for action and following through on strategies.

“Leadership’s responsibility in this profession is to move everyone from the conversations we’re having right now to accountability and action, and to be able to measure that,” Bryson said. “We can talk to CPAs about what they’re doing in their firms, but without the action steps, and again, the accountability, it’s not going to happen.”

Bouyer encourages CPAs to think about their legacies when they create a plan of action. He believes members of the profession won’t want to remember that they stood on the sideline while these important changes occurred.

“Down the road when you’re talking about this moment in the historical context, what role would you have played in the evolution and change that have occurred?” he said. “What will you tell your kids and your grandkids about your role in this moment? Did you just sit on the sidelines? Or were you engaged? And did you really make a difference?”

Ken Tysiac (Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com) is the JofA’s editorial director.

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