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Defining, embracing inclusion in the accounting world

What three firms are doing in the face of change

Corey Butler, MNCPA communications manager | Footnote

Stop me if you've heard this before: diversity and inclusion matter.

It's not just a slogan suited for a bumper sticker, or a tagline reserved for a company email signature. Companies and firms nationwide are embracing all talent available to them, and not just for practical business sense and survival; they're doing it because all people, regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, professional experience, language or socioeconomic status, matter. Their talents matter and their contributions matter, especially in an increasingly competitive market for the best and brightest employees.

It's a message Barry Melancon, CEO of the AICPA, has preached from coast to coast in the U.S., from New York City to Los Angeles. It's a message that matters in Minneapolis as much as it does in Grand Marais and Luverne.

"Inclusion is about making sure your culture is where people feel comfortable about being authentic and can contribute at their highest level," said Tammy Dehne, the human resources director with Lurie LLP's Minneapolis office. "It's about blending their lives, as well. It's not just about work."

It's not only the talent pipeline that's changing. Customers and clients are, too. Demographers predict that, in the next 15 years, those who currently make up the minority class (in terms of race) will become the collective majority. The combined buying power of Hispanics, African Americans and Asians is now at $4 trillion, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth.

And, according to the AICPA, the growth of minority populations is predicted to contribute between 44 and 70 percent to the total growth of U.S. purchasing power from 2000 to 2045.

"It's an important topic not only for our talent, but also within our services and with our clients," said Heather Gunderson, CPA, a tax partner with BerganKDV, which has eight offices in Minnesota and Iowa, including smaller cities and regional hubs. "We're trying to be more intentional about it."

Creating a community for all

Ernst & Young LLP's Sophie Campbell-Smith, CPA, an advisory partner in the Minneapolis office, is part of what the firm calls its Inclusiveness Council. Each of the firm's offices has such a council, with the core of the council to move inclusiveness from something they talk about to something they're doing.

"We need to create a sense of community for all of our people," said Campbell-Smith, who joined the firm in 2006 after moving to Minnesota from Jamaica.

The Minneapolis office has five professional networks: one focused on women, another on ethnicity, one slated for families, a network for LGBTQ employees and, its newest one, Accessibilities, a group focused on those of all abilities and supporting employees who have visible and/or invisible challenges. Additionally, EY has a health and wellness community, and a community engagement community that focuses on volunteering outside of the office.

"It's our duty to pay it forward," Campbell-Smith said, noting the importance of the symbiotic relationship between the organization and the community.

EY's minority partners and staff account for about 35 percent of the firm's employees.

At BerganKDV, talent director Cori Power said the firm's own version of a diversity and inclusion council is in its infancy.

Last year, an engagement survey of staff saw a lower engagement score from female employees. It paralleled what Power saw at a prior partner retreat -- the lack of women partners -- sparking the question, "What's happening here?"

"That was a red flag," Power said, noting that staff was split fairly evenly between genders. "We (at the meeting) also looked very similar to each other."

These events followed a couple of years after two firms merged to form BerganKDV. And, while the two firms pre-merger were interested in tackling the issues of diversity and inclusion, it wasn't until recently after smoothing out the transition that time could be spent on it.

In January, a group of more than 20 employees -- mostly women -- gathered and talked for more than 90 minutes about creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce, why the members are interested in diversity and inclusion, and ideas about what the purpose of the group should be. They also met in March for an hour, with another hour-long meeting scheduled for April. In May, the group will participate in a half-day planning session to set the purpose and vision document to help guide the group moving forward.

Gunderson, the tax partner with BerganKDV, is on the forefront of the conversation. Pre-merger, she was the first woman partner at her firm; it's a rung on the ladder she wants to help others reach who traditionally may have not made it there.

"I was able to pierce that veil, and I want to help others through that," she said. "Part of it is being intentional."

Gunderson's passion for bringing employees together, specifically women, was further cemented after attending a women's leadership summit last fall. There, she made many connections with other firm leaders who are taking similar steps -- and are at various stages of implementation -- to address this momentous shift. Gunderson said those contacts happily share what they've experienced to help foster a more inclusive workforce overall.

For Lydia Moua, a recruiter with a focus on diversity within Lurie's Minneapolis office, she said culture is steeped into the process from the initial contact with candidates.

"It's been my mission to find the right people for our firm," she said. "It's our culture that is the fabric of our firm. At Lurie, we believe in treating all people with respect and knowing they can all contribute. This starts with leadership and the way we interact with each other and continues in how we attract, develop, retain and reward our talent."

In that, Lurie boasts a 30-percent level of women partners. The firm doesn't have specific metrics to check off boxes for certain traits, but rather focuses on finding the right talent who fit into the inclusive culture Lurie has built and continues to build, a tenet of the organization dating back to its inception in the 1940s.

Lurie seeks out diverse individuals by expanding their talent pool and increasing their communications channels, using targeted online forums, private social media pages and community organizations. The firm also focuses on building strategic relationships within the education system, being involved with and contributing to the greater community and, finally, exercising the right tools for retention.

"Diversity is part of our brand," Moua said. "You get to that inclusive nature through your culture and leadership, and how everyone carries themselves and interacts with all people in our organization, as well as our clients."

Work to be done

While progress has been made in the profession, from firms and companies large and small, Campbell-Smith says there is much work to do.

"A lot of organizations talk about diversity and inclusion, but it's hard to translate it from theory and throw it into action," she said.

That means these conversations must start before candidates even express interest in working for a firm or company. It means going out to colleges -- and high schools -- to showcase the benefits of pursuing accounting to all students, to help grow and diversify the pipeline, especially in the face of fierce competition from other fields.

"I've seen a ton of progress over the years in changes in the accounting and business world ... but our population isn't naturally moving toward accounting and careers in business," Campbell-Smith said. "I think we still need targeted programs and tools to move it in that direction."

EY, like Lurie and BerganKDV, spends time making those connections with schools and groups, like the National Association of Black Accountants, among others.

Moua, the recruiter with Lurie, said it's imperative to go where the talent is.

"Through our decadeslong participation and involvement with minority- and women-owned businesses, we know that diverse perspectives lead to better work. Our understanding of diversity allows us to continually transform and adapt our recruiting process to make Lurie attractive to all talent,"she said. "In this tight talent market, if we're not competitive and paying attention to what's happening, we're going to face challenges."

And therein lies the true test. While the idea of seeking out, bringing in and cultivating more diverse candidates is a noble concept in and of itself, it's not always easy or, in some cases, entirely possible. For example, EY, Lurie and BerganKDV are vastly different firms (both in size and geographical spread). Minneapolis offers a much larger candidate pool (and, thus, a more diverse candidate pool) than Marshall or Grand Rapids. The Minnesota State Demographic Center reports that 81 percent of Minnesota's statewide population is non-Hispanic white, and that number increases dramatically when you get outside of the metro area and regional hubs.

"You can't change things quicker than they're ready to be changed," Gunderson, of BerganKDV, admitted, adding that the firm and its staff must be the ones to spark transformation.

U.S. Census Bureau numbers show that from 2010 to 2015, the fastest growing racial groups in Minnesota were Asian, African American and Hispanic.

With that, Power, the talent director at BerganKDV, is frank about their place in the process, knowing that other firms are ahead of them in embracing the changing times, but also understanding they're not necessarily late to the party, either.

"You have to start somewhere," she said. "We've put good structure around what our learning and development programs will look like."

Corey Butler is the MNCPA communications coordinator. You may reach him at 952-885-5533 or cbutler@mncpa.org.

Tips for fostering a more inclusive organization*

  • Leadership must buy in. Make sure the tone starts at the top.
  • Don't just talk about it. Do it. Find tactical ways to start the process. Be actionable. Start small.
  • Make it core to your operations. It's not just something you do off to the side, it's also how you run your business. Always keep inclusion in mind.
  • Cast a wider net. You can't think about recruiting in the same way.
  • Incorporate inclusion into your culture. Find the best way to retain talent and create an environment that people want to call their own.

*Shared by those interviewed in this article

MNCPA Diversity Initiative

Ethnic diversity in the CPA profession has not been reflective of the ethnic diversity of the general population, particularly in Minnesota. The challenge isn't that companies and firms don't want to hire a racially diverse staff. The talent pool of racially diverse accounting graduates simply doesn't exist.

The Minnesota Society of CPAs recognizes that new efforts are necessary to embrace diversity, which is why the MNCPA board of directors voted to launch a pilot program designed to encourage students of diverse backgrounds to consider accounting. Racially diverse high school students will be paired with CPA mentors during this yearlong program. Students will gain a better understanding of the rich career opportunities available to CPAs through a series of social and educational events, such as skill-building sessions, one-on-one mentor conversations, firm and company tours, and campus visits. Students are awarded a $500 scholarship to attend college once they complete the program.

Not only will advances in ethnic diversity increase the talent pool of future CPAs, but it will enable the profession to better serve clients and employers, strengthening the CPA's role as an objective expert.

We are currently in the developmental phase of this new and exciting initiative, and are working to secure sponsors to fund the program and gain support from high school administrations. Stay tuned for more details.