Updated: Jun 28, 2020
I enjoy this profession. I fought hard to be a part of it. I struggled through the CPA exam and, like many of you, put in long hours to promote within my firm.
As respected business advisors, I understand we must ensure our clients are economically protected. I understand that, in the midst of Covid-19 and international protests against police brutality, we have a responsibility to meet tax deadlines and financial reporting needs. I understand that we do not want to polarize clients by taking a stance on certain social issues.
Diversity, however, is a social issue the industry has willingly embraced. I admire the AICPA's National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion. I respect the diversity initiatives taken on by Big 4 accounting firms and other accounting companies. For the most part, public accounting seems to understand the need for diversity, and that is to be commended.
In spite of these efforts to promote diversity, efforts to specifically improve black recruitment and retention have not improved. Only 1% of firm-hired CPAs are black. With such little representation, many black employees in our industry have silently suffered from a bias many have become familiar with over the past few months - implicit bias.
Implicit bias operates in an unintentional, even unconscious manner. This type of bias does not require the perceiver to endorse it or devote attention to its expression. Instead implicit bias can be activated quickly and unknowingly by situational cues (e.g., a person's skin color or accent), silently exerting its influence on perception, memory, and behavior. Because implicit bias can operate without a person's intent or awareness, controlling it is not a straightforward matter. (Blair, Irene V., Steiner, John F., Havranek, Edward P., "Unconscious (Implicit) Bias and Health Disparities: Where Do We Go from Here?," The Permanente Journal, Perm J. 2011 Spring; 15(2): 71–78, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3140753/#)
Before I expand on the impact of implicit bias on black employees, let me explain how it can impact public accounting's bottom line. Black people, specifically black women, are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs. Due to prior experiences with bias and racism, most of these black entrepreneurs will seek out black tax and accounting professionals. While the public accounting industry continues to overlook this market, independent black accountants and tax professionals are making significant profits by targeting their services to the black community. For examples, check out Jumping Jack Tax and Vrainment Financial. If public accounting does not address the need to recruit and retain black employees, they will lose the opportunity to work with a profitable market as more funders aspire to invest in black business.
If the public accounting industry wants to recruit and sustain black employees, they will have to intentionally include us in efforts to overcome bias. Although I cannot speak for all black employees, in my conversations with several others, the public uproar over the offensive 911 call made by Amy Cooper, as well as the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery triggered disappointing memories of implicit bias many of us have experienced throughout our professional careers.
Here are a few specific examples of implicit bias we experience as black CPAs:
Being photographed for a company newsletter to show the firm "promotes diversity," while ironically being one of two black employees at the firm. This is called "tokenism."
Being excited to see a black person come into the office for an interview, only to learn the firm hired a less-qualified candidate because they "fit company culture."
Watching the Human Resource Chair skip our office when introducing "important" visitors to other Managers and Partners in the office.
Wearing natural hairstyles regularly, but having coworkers go out of their way to complement our hair only when it is straight.
Comparing our salaries to our peers on LinkedIn and Glassdoor, only to learn our pay falls within the "low range" in spite of our qualifications, experience and contributions to the firm.
Attending CPE courses and rarely seeing a black instructor. This suggests that most CPA firms do not foster the talent of black employees towards Senior Management or Partner.
Struggling to participate in office small talk since we cannot relate to needing a tan, dying our roots blonde, being happy to see certain neighborhoods gentrified and other conversational topics that exclude certain people of color.
Watching most black employees resign or get terminated without any interest from Human Resources or our Recruitment and Retention team as to why black employees have not been a fit at the firm.
Having to deal with subtle comments from coworkers suggesting it was easier for us to be accepted into top undergraduate or graduate schools because we checked the "African-American" box.
Working in diverse cities, only to see the firm hire interns that fit the same racial demographic year after year.
These are just a few of many examples.
I like my firm. I like this industry. I like what I do. Not everyone in my firm has treated me with bias, and to be honest, my experiences with bias and racism are minimal compared to some of my black peers. I think this industry has more good to offer than bad, however, our industry's employee retention could suffer if firm leadership allows these biases to persist.
Here are a few suggestions I have to battle implicit bias:
Include minorities in recruitment and retention teams. If your firm only has one black employee, be open to their ideas on how to recruit other talented black employees. Black talent cannot always be found at Meet the Firms, Alpha Kappa Psi Career Night or at other traditional recruiting events. Since implicit bias also exists at the university level, you might have to recruit at diversity events or other cultural forums where black students feel more accepted.
Consider cultural differences as an opportunity instead of a barrier. Help talented black employees find opportunities to bring in clients that share their culture and values. If they are interested, also see if they would be open to visit local high schools and colleges to assist with fostering and recruiting black talent.
Create an inclusive culture, starting at the Partner level. Regularly check in on your employees with a genuine heart and ask how the firm can support them. Consider setting up a task force that is intentional about including minorities of all backgrounds in technical committees and other firm opportunities.
Be mindful of exclusive, informal networks. I get it, some accountants are introverts and there is only so much a firm can do to make them feel included. Others, however, might feel excluded due to bias. Similar to the popular cliques in high school, be mindful of company cliques that can dominate company culture and make minority employees feel inferior and excluded.
Please note that we black accountants realize we have work to do as well. In fact, a group of experienced CPAs recently formed the National Society of Black CPAs to address the need for more Black CPAs. I personally have been inspired to join my state society's Diversity and Inclusion Committee. I have also discussed opportunities to do high school outreach with firm leadership.
I am not discouraged. I find my comfort in God and the recent nationwide support for justice. I share this because I want to see our profession thrive. I am hopeful for the future of public accounting. I believe a change is going to come.
The Little CPA