How Diversity and Inclusion is Shaping the CPA Profession

by Kathleen Hoffelder, content editor, NJCPA – October 30, 2017
How Diversity and Inclusion is Shaping the CPA Profession

Just talking about diversity and inclusion (D&I) shows how far businesses have come. The concept used to be part of a human resources handbook that was never incorporated into everyday life. But today, D&I has become top of mind for all professions, particularly accounting. 

Whether working in an accounting firm, as part of the CFO’s department, or as a sole practitioner, accountants have benefitted immensely from diversity in the work­place. Having a diverse office and espous­ing inclusion techniques generally makes for a well-rounded, more tolerant office environment. But it also has a practical, business application, too — diverse staff should help firms attract and retain more diverse clients.

Why Be Diverse?

By definition, diversity means having different elements, qualities or charac­teristics, which, when applied to people, means having more than one national origin, color, religion, socio-economic stratum or sexual orientation. An office environment with that mixture, therefore, should promote idea generation, innova­tion and participation. “When diversity is celebrated in any work environment, it provides employees the assurance that the employer recognizes and embraces that people with different backgrounds, skills, attitudes and experiences bring fresh ideas and perceptions,” says Ann Marie Reyher, CPA, director of wealth structuring ser­vices at Lombard International. 

Employee Satisfaction

But can there be diversity without inclusion? Most accounting professionals would say no. “Diversity doesn’t work without inclusion. CPAs can be very diverse but if inclusiveness is not embedded into a firm’s culture, all the value of diversity is lost,” explains Imad Khoury, SPHR, national director of talent acquisition at CohnReznick. He notes that “diversity and inclusion have helped the profession with the fact that CPAs are now aware of the importance of a diverse workforce and creating an inclusive work environment.” 

For Glenys Merejo, CPA, director at Citrin Cooperman, being a member of a diverse organization like the New Jersey Society of CPAs (NJCPA) has helped her build a great career in the accounting profession. Diversity, according to Merejo, has given her the ability to understand coworkers who are different than her, “not just race, gender or nationality but, more importantly, their personality, lifestyle, ed­ucation and what makes them tick.” Taking this deeper dive into what coworkers are all about allows her to “create closer work friendships and employ their talent and experiences so that our work together can be more productive,” she says.  

Diverse teams, in general, help to avoid the complacency of groupthink, adds Edward I. Guttenplan, CPA, CGMA, MBA, managing shareholder at Wilkin & Guttenplan, P.C., and 2017/18 president of the NJCPA. “They challenge the status quo and guard against settling for less-inno­vative or creative solutions to businesses’ complex problems. There is also the social and economic impact of providing oppor­tunities to those in our communities who may have different cultural backgrounds or have otherwise found the pathway to eco­nomic success more challenging,” he says.  

A diverse office also has a positive im­pact on retention and staff engagement, he notes. “Through diligent practice, patience and understanding, we have achieved a unique culture that celebrates diversity by honoring the differences in our multi­generational firm and opens the door to embracing all forms of diversity.” 

Joan A. Kampo, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, director of human resources at WithumSmith+Brown, agrees. If you sur­round yourself only with individuals who are just like you, it can inhibit progress, she says. “People from differing genders, races and backgrounds bring different experi­ences and viewpoints which can all come together to help solve problems as a team.”  

According to Anthony Newkirk, senior manager of diversity and inclusion at the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), diversity initiatives1 need to start with the c-suite and funnel down. “If your employ­er does not look to hire both entry-level staff and c-suite leaders of diverse back­grounds (including gender, age, ethnicity, etc.), you may want to reconsider your strategy.” He explains that “diverse leaders in the c-suite provide unique perspectives and serve as role models for younger diverse staff.” 

Working in a diverse state like New Jersey also helps encourage companies to initiate diversity programs. Citrin Cooperman’s Merejo says “as one of the most diverse states in the country, diver­sity is not only a part of New Jersey, it is who and what we are.” In a dozen munic­ipalities in Bergen County, for example, Hispanic populations more than doubled in the first half of this decade, while Asian populations in several other towns grew at a similar rate, according to press reports quoting U.S. Census Bureau survey infor­mation in 20162

Client Benefits

In competing for business, how a firm relates to a client is crucial. Going an extra step, for example, and discussing local politics or, town news with a member of a client’s staff is appreciated, but having that same conversation in a client’s native language secures more of a bond. 

With clients becoming more racially diverse, it is “good business sense and important to the success of any firm to hire individuals who reflect their customer base as it leads to a greater understanding and awareness of our clients’ needs,” agrees WithumSmith+Brown’s Kampo.  

Lombard International’s Reyher notes that “the service professional needs to be ready to serve all types of clients as the percentage of diverse entrepreneurial clients rises.” She says, “it is always better to have multiple interpretations and approaches to be able to serve a greater variety of clients and situations, rather than everyone contributing the same thoughts and conclusions.” She adds, “an organization that harnesses diversity is able to draw upon the widest possible range of views and experiences so it can listen to and meet the changing needs of its end client.”  

Accounting professionals, she says, can also learn how to be better managers when faced with diverse clients. For example, “a manager may be approached about conflicts and dynamics between employ­ees and have to mediate between them. When tackling this type of issue, or even an issue with a client, hearing about another’s experience can shed light on a life different than your own and provide you with a new perspective. When you evaluate your struggles, values and experiences, you can really begin to grasp where an individual is coming from and understand the why of their actions and behaviors,” says Reyher.  

But an awareness of D&I benefits for staff and clients is not enough without actionable programs. As CohnReznick’s Khoury notes, “awareness has to be translated into actions at all levels of the organization to make D&I one of the business drivers.” 

Initiating Change

Many companies have embraced D&I pro­grams aimed at women, minorities or cer­tain age groups. EY, for one, creates specific programs that address every part of the re­cruiting pipeline. “We’ve kept a dedicated focus on attracting women and ethnically diverse students and professional hires and also focus on outreach to LGBT+, veterans and people with disabilities,” says Kenneth Bouyer, diversity and inclusiveness recruit­ing leader for EY Americas. He adds, “two thirds of our workforce are Millennials.” 

EY also offers equal parental leave for new mothers and fathers, offering up to 16 weeks of fully paid time off when wel­coming a child through birth, adoption, surrogacy, foster care or legal guardianship. “Additionally, U.S. employees are also now eligible for a lifetime maximum of $25,000 per family to cover the cost of advanced reproductive technology procedures (i.e. in vitro fertilization), surrogacy and adoption fees. Equalizing parental leave allows both parents to thrive personally and profession­ally,” says Bouyer.  

In support of people with autism, EY launched a neurodiversity program this year, hiring 14 individuals to serve as accounting support associates across the country. In other diversity and inclusion initiatives, it created EY Unplugged, which enables ethnically diverse staff to network and connect with one another.  

Other firms have internal programs to foster a better D&I culture. As Cohn­Reznick’s Khoury explains, “with an established campus recruiting strategy, the firm’s D&I Council has been able to leverage D&I by bringing a diverse pool of candidates into the networking process as well as the interviewing and hiring process.”   

Personal Reflections

Though diversity in the workforce has changed for the better, it still has a long way to go. As WithumSmith+Brown’s Kampo puts it, 10 years ago the accounting industry “seemed to still largely reflect the demo­graphic of those who traditionally entered the accounting field — white males. Since then, the demographics have changed.” She notes that there are many more female accounting students and definitely more women in the industry currently. “However, there still is a higher amount of turnover of females at the senior accountant to mana­gerial levels, and that is a challenge that all firms must continue to be aware of, address and ultimately work to improve,” she says.  

For CohnReznick’s Khoury, a culture of diversity in the workplace is a necessity. “I am passionate about the topic of D&I. As a Middle Eastern gay man in a tradition­ally conservative industry, D&I initiatives have allowed me to showcase how being accepted and included is the cornerstone of any organization.”

Shaun Budnik, CPA, audit innovation leader at KPMG, not only credits a di­verse office with helping her be success­ful, but having diverse mentors as well. “Having a mentor is about what valuable insight they offer, regardless of gender, race, religion or professional back­ground,” she says. “My personal board was comprised of a female partner, a few male partners and a few professionals that worked outside of my company.” 

As a founder of Wilkin & Guttenplan, Guttenplan knows first hand how to set up D&I programs. “We made it our focus to create a unique, multigenerational workplace that honors our diversity. We began our mission by embracing the ideas, work styles and methods of our younger generations. We found ourselves learning to consider and bal­ance the needs of everyone, from seasoned partners to first-year staff,” he said. Simple differences came down to teaching younger staff the importance of face-to-face meetings and training older staff on how to review files using digital mark-ups. 

Next Generation

Generation Z, those individuals born be­tween 1996 and 2010, are already filtering into the workforce in either a full- or part-time capacity. This generation is entering the workforce at the most diverse time in history, so they are likely to adapt to D&I programs better than other age groups, but challenges still remain.   

As WithumSmith+Brown’s Kampo notes, accounting students today come from all backgrounds and nationalities. “We are starting to see more diversity in the students who are majoring in accounting, which is a positive sign, but it will take a few years to see the impact in our workplaces.”

EY’s Bouyer adds that the best way to reach out to the next generation of accounting professionals is to connect with them at a young age. “Building a diverse talent pipeline starts at — or even before — the high school level, and it’s up to businesses and industries at large to attract this talent,” he says. And since account­ing or professional services typically are considered “traditional” industries, Bouyer says we need to raise awareness about the tremendous opportunities that exist within the accounting profession.  

It also makes sense to connect with non-accounting majors to see what they can bring to the table, he adds. “An import­ant element of our early ID strategy is our commitment to ‘STEAM’ hiring; this focus is an evolution from the traditional ‘STEM’ subjects, including not only science, tech­nology, engineering and math but also the arts, with a focus on hiring more women and non-accounting majors.”   

CohnReznick’s Khoury expects positive changes in diversity and inclusion with the next generation of accountants. “In the next three to five years, diversity and inclu­sion will be embedded into everything we do, so much so that it will become second nature to us,” he added. 

1 blog.aicpa.org/2017/05/7-ways-to-improve-workforce-diversity.html
2 northjersey.com/story/news/new-jersey/2016/12/08/census-data-show-growing-diversity-north-jersey/95113992/

This article appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of New Jersey CPA magazine. Read the full issue.