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Tax Talent & Culture

Building inclusion at accounting and legal employers

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 5 minute read

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 5 minute read

Accounting and legal employers invest heavily in recruiting attorneys and accountants with a diverse identity, but too often they tend to overlook placing an even bigger priority on inclusion, and vital factor to retain the professionals already there.

“It’s great to get people in, but if they don’t like it, don’t feel included or valued, and don’t see growth opportunities, they’re not going to stay,” says ZeNai Brooks, an auditor at accounting consulting firm Crowe and a regional president and national director with the National Association of Black Accountants.

Indeed, Brooks and many of her peers are advocating for legal and accounting employers to increase their focus on inclusion, particularly within middle management, noting that specific, intentional inclusion is everyone’s responsibility.

Jay Courie, managing member at McAngus Goudelock & Courie (MGC), a midsize insurance defense law firm based in the Southeast, describes meaningful inclusion as a situation in which everyone is “having conversations about their various backgrounds and ways that they were raised or life experiences, such as how some of our younger Black lawyers’ lives may have been very different than some of our younger White lawyers’ or how some of our lawyers of different faiths may have had very different experiences.”

Driving the culture home

While it often is the employers that are creating the right initiatives on inclusion, it is middle management and staff members who really help drive the culture home. Sometimes, however, these groups don’t have the same understanding of the need for inclusion or the commitment to cultural change that upper level management envisions.

Brooks and many of her fellow accountants and lawyers of color have been involved in many forum discussions where they were encouraged to share their experiences and views on what the organization can be doing to better create an inclusive environment for employees of color. Unfortunately, too often middle management employees — both Black and white — are absent from these discussions. “Middle management and staff are not attending these conversations because the [conversations are] optional,” Brooks says. “If someone has to choose between being chargeable or attending this diversity conversation, not a lot of people are going to sign up, especially not white people.” Organizations must find ways to ensure that all levels are engaged, even if that mean mandating certain webinars, conversations, and trainings, Brooks explains.

So, how can a middle manager lead by example in cultivating a culture of inclusion? Brooks offers questions for managers who are uncomfortable talking to Black people about what’s going on but have a genuine interest in making colleagues feel supported. These questions also offer an opportunity for Black people to learn to be more comfortable sharing their personal and community experiences.

        • How was your evening (or weekend)? Did you do anything out of the norm?
        • Have you engaged in any social justice activities or conversations?
        • How are you and your family feeling about all that’s happening?
        • Did you attend the most recent company diversity & inclusion (D&I) webinar? What were your thoughts on it?
        • Is there anything we as a firm or as a team can do differently or better?

Reaching out to diverse colleagues

Other ways of building a culture of inclusion consist of extending a lunch invitation to someone that you typically don’t ask and being intentional about inviting Black colleagues to happy hours or other gatherings outside of work. For example, Brooks recalls recently receiving an invite to attend a happy hour with co-workers at her new firm. “A co-worker from a different business group went out of her way and comfort zone to introduce herself to me via chat and invite me to a girls’ outing,” she says. “This was a much-appreciated effort, and necessary as I have been working remotely due to COVID-19 and unable to meet new people.”

Conversely, Black colleagues and professionals from diverse racial or ethnic backgrounds can feel excluded even when situations appear innocuous or occur in every-day interactions. At previous firms where she worked, Brooks recalls seeing groups of people going to lunch together or leaving work at the end of the day for drinks without inviting her. She even remembers observing others gathering for coffee in the breakroom or discussing how they got together over the weekend for a workout or a college football game. Experiences like this are not unique to the diverse professional in either the legal or accounting fields, but does point up areas of opportunity for white people and firm leaders to engage their Black colleagues.

Ultimately, increasing the number of executives with a diverse identity at tables of power within the accounting and legal professions will have a profound impact on retention within those organizations.

Nicole Fanjul, partner at the law firm Latham & Watkins, says that as a partner who happens to be a woman of color, she understands that she plays a critical role in the retention of young Black associates at the firm.

“Representation matters whether you’re conscious of it or not, or whether or not you can picture yourself in a certain position,” Fanjul says. “It’s easier if you can see someone who’s got certain similarities.”

And recent trends underscore that point. Go on to any social platform and enter the hashtag #myvplookslikeme and you will see the excitement from women of color as they see themselves reflected in Kamala Harris, a women of color in the second most powerful position in the U.S.

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