Strategies for promoting diversity and inclusion

Here are a few general guidelines to follow when trying to make your firm more inclusive.
By Lucinda Harper

You know your organization could stand to be more diverse. After all, both research and anecdotal evidence has shown that being more diverse can help organizations attract more clients or customers and make more money. And as the percentage of minorities in the U.S. increases, organizations that have employees who look like and share experiences with their clients are more likely to come out on top.

But how do you do it?

There are a few general guidelines to follow when trying to make your business more diverse and inclusive. We asked several accountants experienced with leading diversity initiatives to share their strategies. While their suggestions aren't always easy to implement, they should help put you on the path to making your organization more representative of the population.

Be authentic

"Commitment must come from top leadership, authentically," said Jerry Maginnis, CPA, a recently retired Philadelphia office managing partner for KPMG who championed diversity during his tenure. "Without this, your ability to have a diverse workplace is greatly minimized."

Just sending out a single official statement professing the firm's commitment to hiring CPAs of different cultures and backgrounds is not the answer, he said. While you should send out such a statement, you'll then need to follow up on its message in subsequent emails, newsletters, social media channels, and face-to-face interactions. "Keep the message in front of the team and let them know what is being done," Maginnis said.

Look for ways to involve everyone at the firm in your efforts. Ask employees to serve on diversity-related committees or participate in diversity-related events. Encourage CPAs to serve as mentors to new hires who are diverse. Appoint a diversity champion whose role is to concentrate on promoting diversity throughout your firm.

Top management should learn about the issues surrounding diversity (this AICPA website can help) and how to approach people of different backgrounds and have meaningful discussions with them. That may not always come easily, but it's OK to feel awkward at first, said Richard Levychin, CPA, CGMA, a partner at KBL LLP and past member of the AICPA National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion.

Focus on recruitment

Many firms recruit diverse talent by attending student conferences held by organizations representing minority accountants. Popular conferences include those hosted by the National Association of Black Accountants; the Association of Latino Professionals for America; and Ascend, which represents Asians and Pacific Islanders.

"Student conferences are a gold mine if you are looking for students with diversity," said Julius Green, CPA, J.D., partner at Baker Tilly Virchow Krause LLP. Baker Tilly has hired many students as interns and then converted them to full-time employees upon graduation, said Green, who is also the immediate past president of the Pennsylvania Institute of CPAs (PICPA).

PICPA, under Green's leadership, launched Inspire Future CPAs, a program designed to introduce the profession to middle school and high school students, largely at minority and inner city schools. It has signed on 20 schools whose students are interested in learning about financial literacy and the path to becoming a CPA. PICPA hopes to add 30 more schools to the roster next year, including many in minority-heavy school districts.

Collaborate and form partnerships

There is no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to diversifying your organization. Many industries and firms have come before you, and many more are starting on the path just like you. "All of corporate America is trying to diversify," Maginnis said.

That's why collaborating with other organizations can be the key to learning best practices. KPMG has worked with Comcast Corp. to host multiple events each year around diversity issues. The meetings are very popular among employees. "People are more than happy to share their experiences, and you get to meet other people within the company who you would not have ordinarily been able to meet," Maginnis said. PICPA also hosted a diversity round table in 2015 and invited managing partners from various CPA firms, Green said. PICPA hosted another, similar event to swap ideas again in April.

Are the strategies working?

One way to gauge your programs' effectiveness is to crunch the numbers. Assess the percentage of minority new hires, the number who move on to partner level, and the attrition rate of minority accountants at your firm relative to a period of time in the recent past, or relative to the profession as a whole.

"Another way to determine if your firm's environment is inclusive is to simply ask your employees," said Anthony Newkirk, Ph.D., senior manager for diversity and inclusion at the AICPA. For example, you can incorporate questions on your annual employee engagement surveys that ask employees whether they feel included.

You may want to make diversity a performance measure for high-level employees at the firm. Maginnis, for example, was evaluated internally at the end of each year on the progress of the office he led in achieving the firm's strategic diversity objectives.

But if you are truly immersed in creating diversity at your firm, hard measurements may not even be something that you need, Levychin said. "If you are in the flow, you don't even notice that you are being effective. You just wake up one day and you are," he said. Ultimately, Newkirk says, creating a culture of inclusion is key. "A firm's ability to foster an environment that allows for the participation of all members of the workforce will determine the success of any diversity and inclusion strategy," he said.

Lucinda Harper is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this story, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

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