DEI: What Priority is it Given at the Top?

by Kathleen Hoffelder, NJCPA Senior Content Editor – December 22, 2021
DEI: What Priority is it Given at the Top?

Great strides are occurring within organizations to make hiring practices and promotions more diverse, equitable and inclusive. But to achieve broader, comprehensive change, discussions should start with the main influencers at the top — the board.

Organizations that discuss diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) from a top-down approach tend to put in place more permanent diversity policies and engage more internal departments. A 2020 EY report, “How Boards Can Lead on Racial Diversity, Equity and Inclusion,” states that boards are the ones that can play a big role in leading the DEI charge. According to the report, boards can lead their companies through “business and social change in ways that promote sustainability, performance and value for the benefit of the company, its investors and other key stakeholders.” The report suggests that companies should be examining the ways that racial diversity, equity and inclusion intersects with corporate value and other areas of board oversight, including corporate strategy, risk management, human capital and culture.

Bill Bradshaw, CDP, director of inclusion and diversity at Withum, says DEI should fit into an organization’s goals and objec­tives. “When companies align their DEI priorities with business objectives, it’s easy to see where they should focus their efforts. Whatever decisions the firm makes around processes, people, benefits, philanthropic engagement, client work, etc., should tie back to the pre-established vision and goals,” he explains.

Making DEI practices part of an organi­zation’s culture will also help create a more equitable work environment. “Like many other organizations, we realized that we could be doing more. Several efforts and elements of our culture are now specifically focused on DEI, and we expect that to grow in the coming years,” says Lea Chown, senior manager in the human resources group at Friedman LLP.

Not Just Talk

Withum put its policies into action with the recent launch of unconscious bias training. More than 75 percent of its team members voluntarily participated. As Bradshaw explains, “Our two-part training, which consisted of an e-learning module and facilitated dialogue, expanded on what unconscious bias looks like in the work­place and how acknowledgment creates a more-inclusive culture.” Team members received tools to recognize, mitigate and dive into themes surrounding bias.

So, what was the outcome? Upon com­pletion of the training, Bradshaw says the team members acknowledged the need to pause and self-reflect before making hiring decisions and staffing client engagements.

Similarly, Bowman & Company LLP kick started its DEI initiatives by assembling a Diversity & Inclusion Committee. The committee helped plan Bowman’s first firm-wide Day of Understanding, which provided a facilitated discussion on unconscious bias and an opportunity for staff to be a part of the movement towards a more equitable workplace and industry.

“We hope to embolden different perspectives and expand the accounting industry’s equitable opportunities,” explains Robert E. Biddle Jr., principal at Bowman & Company. “We acknowledge that the road ahead may be long, but we are committed to journeying it together.”

Friedman also created inclusive initiatives across all staff levels. It regularly asks employees five questions about themselves, which allows them to highlight and share something unique about who they are and their experiences. “We have found that these stories are helping people connect with each other to share similar experiences and learn more about each other, fostering strong connections across our firm,” says Chown. Additionally, they recently made Veterans Day and Juneteenth official firm holidays. “These two days in particular hold special significance to several of our employees, and we are proud to help honor them.”

Where it Begins

Informing future racially or ethnically diverse accounting professionals about the job opportunities in the field is just as important as fixing current hiring policies. As Crystal Cooke, director of diversity and inclusion at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants and the vice chair of the American Institute of CPAs National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion, notes, when looking to hire these candidates, one should start by addressing high school students. “Because of the small number of Black CPAs, school counselors also don’t think to direct Black students into the profession. To me, this translates to us needing to go back into high schools and provide more education and widen the pipeline from the earliest level.”

It may also be necessary to change how these high school seniors view accountants. Cooke notes that “a lot of people think accounting is just tax. Broadening and scaling our reach is probably what’s necessary.” She also adds that these students should be hearing the message that accounting provides good job security.

Many organizations and accounting firms have realized that scholarships are a way to reach these individuals and assist with their financial burden. The NJCPA has expanded its accounting scholarship offerings to include a Minority Scholarship. Funded by Deloitte, the new scholarship was created to open the doors to the accounting profession for New Jersey high school seniors who are racially or ethnically diverse and considering accounting as their college major. Multiple scholarships of $1,500 each will be awarded to qualifying applicants from four New Jersey high schools as part of a pilot program.

Additionally, Bowman is one of 10 accounting firms across the U.S. to co-sponsor the AICPA’s PCPS (Private Companies Practice Section) George Willie Scholarship and Internship Program, where 10 ethnic minority college accounting students will receive up to $10,000 each for their final academic year tuition and an internship. “Welcoming this intern into our workforce is just one of the ways we are committed to creating a more eclectic and inclusive workforce,” explains Biddle.

A concerted effort by boards, top organizational leadership and academia could help move the needle that much further in making the accounting profession more open, as well as equitable.

Crystal Cooke

Crystal Cooke is the director of Diversity & Inclusion at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants and vice chairof the American Institute of CPAs National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion.

Lea Chown

Lea Chown is the senior manager in the human resources group at Friedman LLP.

Robert Biddle

Robert E. Biddle, Jr. is a principal at Bowman & Company LLP.
William  Bradshaw

William Bradshaw

William Bradshaw, CDP, is the director of inclusion and diversity at Withum.

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This article appeared in the Winter 2021/22 issue of New Jersey CPA magazine. Read the full issue.