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

By Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, CPA, CGMA

Tragic, sad, and unbelievable are just a few of the words to describe COVID-19. Those words apply as well to the most recent events involving Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Christian Cooper, and George Floyd. The events involving Black and African Americans have been hurtful, shocking, and polarizing.

But here is where the similarities stop. With the COVID-19 pandemic, there is targeted funding, expected outcomes, and accountability, as well as the best and the brightest minds working together on treatment plans and a vaccine. With over 100,000 pandemic-related deaths in the United States and more expected, COVID-19 requires a basic understanding of the threat, consistent safety precautions, individual accountability, and new thinking about how we work and interact.

We need similar resources and focus to address the consequences of systemic racism and unconscious bias. Instead, in the pre-pandemic environment, we noted more than a few cases of “changing direction” in diversity and inclusion with less funding, reduced headcount, and less organization-wide emphasis. Further, in many instances, diversity and inclusion was managed far below the top leadership, and its approach has been mostly risk-management-based, with a focus on what “not to do” rather than how to achieve lasting change.

Over the years, Black and African Americans were cautiously optimistic when the CEO said, “Inclusion is important.” However, if my mom was right and “love is as love does,” we needed more than words. We need specific plans with accountability with expected outcomes to address racism and unconscious bias.

The pain pouring out over the past days is a consequence of an agony that permeates every aspect of our lives — writing a check in the grocery store and being asked for ID when no else is, being looked over for promotions, and or even having others cross the street to avoid you. The statements issued by business leaders have been beautiful and well written. But are they just words?

In the Black and African American community, along with the guidance to “avoid the police,” “never leave the store without a receipt or bag, even for gum,” and “never walk with your hood up,” we have added another one: “Make sure you get it on video.”

The frequency of tragic events has accelerated to a level we can no longer ignore, a point where sleeping at home in bed, visiting friends, taking an afternoon jog, going into your own home, or visiting a park to bird-watch are not safe. What’s different now is the cumulative effect of horrific videos showing multiple scenarios. These scenarios refute the “these are isolated incidents” reasoning. This is also why it is disheartening to see the distractions from the message we are working hard to get across. And while the destruction of property and violence are unacceptable on every level, we must maintain our focus on inclusion and not be swayed from the progress we want and need.

What else is different? We have visible and public encouragement from our allies and champions. I am personally overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from our colleagues who always said, “Kimberly, I see you.” My photo gallery is a rich kaleidoscope of people from across the accounting profession. I have appreciated the interactions, the friendships, and the opportunity to give my colleagues a safe space to ask questions they wouldn’t be able to ask anyone else. I am now compelled to expand that safe space, to give a different view, and to help with progress.

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. 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 the legal department’s 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 that are 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 the both 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.”

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 the general session with top leadership involvement. Breakout sessions are usually for optional topics. 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 do 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. When the camera is off, the social media furor has diminished, and if or when the next tragic event unfortunately happens, 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.

— Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, CPA, CGMA, is executive director, Finance Thought Leadership for Oracle. She is a former AICPA chairman, former chairman of the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, and former chairman of the Maryland Association of CPAs and is currently the vice chairman of the AICPA’s National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ken Tysiac, the JofA’s editorial director, at Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com.

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