By Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk
Originally published in AccountingToday and written by Jody Padar. To listen to the full podcast, from which this is written, click here. If you or your firm need any assistance starting your own program, or simply have questions, reach out to me. I am happy to help!
Diversity, equity and inclusion — these are topics that have been at the forefront of news reports for months. As more accounting firm leaders get a better understanding of how to transform their practices, they begin to realize that in order to achieve greatness, they absolutely must have a diverse team.
But what does improving diversity, equity and inclusion actually look like in an accounting firm? Let’s explore.
Business benefits for DE&I
Even though DE&I is the right thing to do, it definitely helps to get buy-in from certain people if you can answer the question,“What’s in it for me?” There needs to be a financial reason to change, something tangible, for some leaders.
According to Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk of BBR Marketing, companies with higher gender diversity tend to outperform competitors by about 15 percent. Going further, highly diverse companies are 35 percent more likely to have higher financial returns. Inclusive companies enjoy lower turnover, too, so you can not only hire better talent, but you can keep them on longer.
“When you include people from different races, ethnicities, walks of life, whatever the minority might be, you make better decisions because you’re getting input from people with different life experiences,” Ruszczyk said.
If you instead look around the room and see faces that all look like yours, you won’t get that varied perspective.
How to create a more diverse, inclusive accounting firm
For firms that maybe haven’t given much thought to consciously focusing on diversity, even figuring out where the starting line is can be hard. When the partner group has decided that DE&I needs to be a focus, a good place to start is an employee survey.
“Often, it’s best to have this executed by an outside party so people feel like they can be more honest and not suffer any repercussions if they say something that may be negative,” said Ruszczyk. “You want people to feel that they’re safe and can say what they need to.”
After that, Ruszczyk advises creating a diversity statement — something that captures where you are as a firm and where you want to go — as well as what success looks like. Promote it, add it to your website, and put it in your marketing efforts. Let people know it’s important and out there.
Also remember that without buy-in at the top, it just won’t work. That doesn’t mean that every single partner has to be on board 100 percent. But generally, leadership needs to be committed too.
Ruszczyk suggested one practice that above others can really help to get at the heart of DE&I in any accounting firm — unconscious bias training.
“Nobody wants to hear that they’re biased, but we all carry these unconscious biases with us throughout life,” she said. “So if people are open to hearing about this and thinking about it, it makes you [and your firm] that much more open to the idea of making change.”
Unconscious bias training can also be a way to get naysayers on board with thinking and acting differently for the sake of the firm’s future. Awareness is half the battle, and sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know — you know?
When it comes to actually recruiting and hiring more diverse talent, appeal to a more diverse workforce. Start with colleges and universities that are outside the normal scope of recruiting efforts. Are there historically black colleges in the area? Ask your employees for their recommendations. Get involved in different networking groups.
How to hire a DE&I consultant
If firms don’t really understand the concept of DE&I, it could be hard for them to know what to look for in a DE&I consultant. Ruszczyk suggested starting out with simple conversations and then expanding from there — learning about the person’s qualifications, whether they’re a good fit for the firm, what they bring to the table, and so forth.
“It’s kind of a partnership,” she described, “so approach the relationship with the appropriate amount of due diligence.”
Words of caution — and wisdom
No matter where your firm is in the DE&I process, remember that it’s a long-term culture shift. It’s not one-and-done, or a project with a deadline that gets shelved when you get far enough. We have a long way to go, and we’re not moving fast enough. We need some big changes to create more diverse, inclusive firms. But if we don’t call it out, it’s never going to change.
“The goal is to become more diverse. But the inclusion side is where the rubber really hits the road,” Ruszczyk said.
If you can hire minority staff members, but they don’t stay, consider if they don’t see a path for their own future there. “Learn why they don’t stay,” said Ruszczyk.
Give all team members equal opportunities for mentorship, in an environment they’re comfortable with. It might not just be golfing or going to sporting events. (Hint: It’s probably not these activities!)
DE&I initiatives will involve plenty of uncomfortable conversations and inward reflections — and that’s good. That’s what should happen!
Get comfortable being uncomfortable. It’s past time for accounting firms to get on board with DE&I initiatives. Hopefully, now you have some ideas for a good starting point. And the great news? It’s never too late. More good news? This is often a great process for next generation leaders to spearhead.
There is no right or wrong place to get started with DE&I initiatives at your firm. For some, inclusion has to come first so people stop leaving the firm. For others, they need to develop a more diverse pipeline coming in the door. It all depends on where your firm is in the process, where you want to go and what success looks like for you.