Over the past year, DEI (otherwise known as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) has become a hot topic, including in the accounting industry. According to Glassdoor, DEI-related job openings have risen by over 50 percent in 2020. Whether it comes up on a RFP for a potential client or in recruiting and retention efforts, firms are quickly learning that diversity efforts and creating an inclusive environment are becoming a reality of doing business in today’s world. Because of this, marketers should be part of DEI strategy at their firms.
“DEI initiatives are important in the accounting industry because the industry is not representative of America with respect to gender, race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation,” explained Edward Warren, Business Development Director at Dinamis and a Board Liaison on AAM’s DEI Committee. “Partner groups are still overwhelmingly white and male while the country is becoming more ethnically diverse. Women and people from underrepresented groups are starting businesses at higher rates and struggle to find people who look like them and have their lived experiences to represent them as their CPAs and other trusted advisors.”
The Business Case for Diversity
As promoters of firm culture and key strategists in growth and business development, marketers must help firm leadership understand the benefits and importance of diversity in a field historically dominated by white men. As Warren explained, the business world has become more diverse than ever and those businesses are looking for accountants and advisors that represent them. It is now commonplace to see in proposal requests information on a firm’s diversity makeup.
“Clients want to be served by people who reflect who they, and their customers, are,” expanded GHJ Partner and Chief Strategy Officer Mari-Anne Kehler, who also helps lead her firm’s DEI initiative. “It would be difficult as a firm to grow in certain segments if you only have a homogenous pool of employees.”
Appealing to prospective clients is just one reason why DEI initiatives should be important to accounting firms. It has also been shown that diverse workforces lead to a diversity of thought, which leads to innovation for both clients and the business itself.
“Recruitment of diverse talent can provide diversity of thought, as well as new perspectives and ideas brought to the table, approaching situations and decisions from alternative ways never thought to proceed before,” explained Siri Svay, Practice Growth Specialist from PKF Texas and Co-chair of AAM’s DEI Committee. “By expanding on what has historically worked in the past, we can open the door to new opportunities and continue evolving the industry for the better.”
In fact, according to a McKinsey study, companies with diverse executive suites were 15 percent more likely to generate higher profitability compared to companies with predominantly white and male executive teams.
“There must also be open and frank discussions about the benefits of having diverse teams and diverse leadership,” Warren said. “Companies with diverse boards and leadership tend to more profitable than their peers.”
Marketers Part of DEI Strategy
While the business case for diversity speaks for itself, it is not always on the front of mind for all firms. Marketing can help drive home the need for DEI initiatives as well as play a strategic role in developing policies and practices.
“You need commitment and action from the top,” said Kehler, who recently became a Certified Diversity Professional (CDP). “GHJ’s leadership was willing to invest the time and energy to have me become certified because they felt it was important to have elevated in-house knowledge to make sure we are following national and global best practices.”
While becoming a CDP is not necessary for all marketers, Kehler said there are great workshops, e-learnings, readings and other tools available on best practices when it comes to DEI. It is important for marketers to consider their personal role and how they can contribute to allyship at their own firm.
“It is important to audit the policies and procedures in place and see where barriers reside,” Kehler expanded. “Most organizations may not even realize these barriers exist when it comes to unconscious bias.”
Kehler recommends looking at hiring practices, mentoring, and training plans for barriers that may cause hurdles to create a diverse workforce.
“Listen to your people and create a safe environment for people to feel free to give honest feedback without repercussion,” Kehler said. “Willingness to disagree respectfully and have compassionate conflict opens the door for dialogue so change can happen.”
DEI Makes Marketing Easier
Marketers need to be a key part of a firm’s DEI efforts to help in the creation of organic marketing materials that showcase these efforts and help attract both employees and prospective clients.
“If a person of color is scanning your CPA firm’s websites looking for someone who looks like them – and I do not mean the stock photography – will they find someone they can identify with in the partner profiles?” Warren said.
Both potential employees and clients want to see themselves in the leadership of a firm. While part of the lift is on HR to develop inclusive hiring practices, it is important for marketers to be part of the strategy team to assist with promoting the efforts as well as developing a culture of that embraces diversity.
“It is about perception – we can talk about how we support diversity, equity and inclusion, but someone can take a quick look at a website or social media and think that is not true based on what they see,” Svay said. “From both perspectives of recruiting and retention, candidates and team members can look at leadership and make their own assessments of the firm’s diversity. There may be blind spots internally that deter team members from wanting to pursue promotions or furthering their career – or even join the firm – because they might not see someone they identify with and thus feel like there is not a place for them at the top.”
This also rings true when it comes to advertising, social media and other marketing efforts. By highlighting an organic diversity of employees and leadership, firms can appeal to a wide breadth of individuals.
“Anyone can look at a firm’s social media messaging and get a sense of the firm and its culture without having to read a formal DEI statement,” Svay explained. “By seeing these indirect cues publicly, someone could instantly feel kinship and warmth, and that could help encourage new team members to join the firm and help reassure they can be their authentic selves and genuinely feel included in the culture.”
Pushing DEI strategy internally can help make a marketer’s job easier when it comes both to recruiting talent and bringing in business.
“As the number of woman-owned and minority-owned businesses grow, the opportunities for firms that have women and minority partners, managers and staff will grow,” Warren said. “Diversity of staff can and usually does lead to diversity of thought.”
As more and more companies, such as Coca-Cola are looking for diversity from vendors, the business case is building for DEI programs. Kehler shared that the naturally diverse makeup of her firm and DEI initiatives already put in place has helped GHJ stand out from competitors over the past year.
“Our diversity attracts prospects in significant ways both in for profit and nonprofit sectors,” Kehler explained. “If your employee numbers do not represent the population you serve, it is important to look at why and how to fix the gaps.”
It is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
One key aspect that should be noted in the push for DEI is that nothing happens overnight.
“A DEI initiative is a long-term commitment, not a quick check-the-box,” Svay explained. “Without the firm coming together to embark on the journey, especially with the tone at the top, it is going to be a rocky road.”
That does not mean there are not mile markers to celebrate, however. Each small step is a step in the right direction.
“It is important to set short-term goals and declare victory as those incremental goals are achieved,” Warren said. “I think the biggest challenge will come with continuity and waiting for results. If the long-term goal is to have a partner group that is representative of the community where the firm practices, then these programs have to become a generational commitment. That means programs may have to run for many years before the needle starts to move.”
Final Takeaways on DEI Strategy
In the end, implementing a successful DEI strategy is a full-firm job that takes buy in from leadership and support from HR and other departments to put successful programs in place. The benefits however can make the job of marketers much easier as diversity helps firms appeal to more prospects. This is why marketers should be a part of shaping their firm’s DEI strategy.
“We have to remind ourselves that we may not have all the answers right now, but we can take the steps and gradually build to bigger change,” Svay explained. “And also remember that it is not a one-size-fits-all solution, either. Every firm has different needs going on different journeys with different tools to guide them along the way.”
About Sarah Phelan
Sarah Phelan is the Senior Marketing and Business Development Manager at GHJ, an accounting and advisory firm headquartered in Los Angeles, CA, that serves clients throughout the globe.