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LGBTQ+ accountant attrition & ESG information integrity signal growing role for accountants, new study finds

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

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

Accountants may see an expanded role in ensuring the integrity of sustainable business information and management of DEI data, new research shows

An alarming number of LGBTQ+ accountants are leaving the profession — a unique development when compared to other underrepresented identities — according to a cross-regional series of research studies of thousands of accounting professionals from underrepresented backgrounds.

This research initiative, which was led by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), the California Society of CPAs (CalCPA), and the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), collected data from accounting professionals who identify as LGBTQ+ across Europe and the US.

Another important insight from the series of studies, which are summarized in this report, is that it clarifies how critical accountants’ role has become in ensuring information integrity of sustainable business information and management of diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) data. This effort helps to ensure DEI reporting is aligned with companies’ environmental, social & governance (ESG) strategies and evolving compliance needs. A key point made in the report is the importance of data transparency and the role accountants can play in ensuring the integrity of nonfinancial data.

LGBTQ+ accountants: “I need to present myself as something else in the workplace”

LGBTQ+ accountants’ high attrition rate — with one-in-five LGBTQ+ respondents in the US reporting they have left the profession due to a lack of DEI — is highlighted in IMA and CalCPA’s 2021 study in the US. Indeed, much of this attrition came down to LGBTQ+ accountants not feeling comfortable bringing their full selves to work, according to Loreal Jiles, vice president, Research and Thought Leadership at IMA and one of the lead researchers of the series. “The expectation that, ‘I need to present myself as something else in the workplace’ was a key contributor to the decision to leave employers, and sometimes, the profession altogether,” Jiles states.

To address this alarming rate of LGBTQ+ workers departing from the tax & accounting profession, accounting employers need to focus on fostering a culture of belonging. “Until people believe that they belong, until their voices are valued and respected, just as others are, intentionality on the part of leaders is required,” Jiles adds.

An added element of this troubling finding is that LGBTQ+ professionals did not believe that employers were taking sufficient disciplinary action for repeat offenders who create a hostile work environment. Indeed, many LGBTQ+ accountants noted that their employers have anonymous hotlines and other tools to report incidents of bullying and harassment, but saw little follow-through from management when issues or incidents were reported.

“They didn’t feel that there would be real reprimand,” Jiles notes, based on feedback from multiple survey participants. As a result, accounting firm leaders need to rethink how these anonymous reporting systems are designed and how penalties are handled, once multiple reports of incidents are reported by multiple people on the same person, who often may be a leader.

ESG information integrity driving growth of accountants’ role

The IMA and CalCPA research also identified ESG-related issues as a key catalyst for DEI action. More specifically, the research emphasized accountants’ growing role in information integrity on DEI data in order to meet evolving ESG regulatory demands and to aid in executing corporate ESG initiatives.

Jiles points out that the ESG part of data requirements is one of the largest components of nonfinancial data for which accountants are accountable. However, “before data can be reported, it has to be collected,” she says. “Activities to collect sustainable business information and manage ESG initiatives are often supported by accountants.”

Loreal Jiles

For example, the need to collect and disclose the demographic composition of corporate boards and staff has increased. Prompted either by reporting obligations or greater organizational or societal demand for transparency, many companies now track the percentage of staff or leaders who identify as members of underrepresented groups. “To move beyond representation quotas toward sustained progress in this area, however, the data analytics skills that accountants perform today with financial data should be leveraged to garner insights from trends during external recruitment and promotion processes,” explains Jiles. “These insights can serve as detective controls to unearth inequities embedded within existing ways of working.”

In addition, analysis and reporting are needed to ascertain what talent is needed, the budget for the talent, how it is forecasted, and to understand the overall costs of recruitment and retention. As DEI and worker resources fall under the Society part of ESG, the role of the accountant in this ESG reporting is growing. Further, accountants have an ethical obligation to manifest honesty and integrity, making decisions and judgments without bias. This ethical commitment underscores the relevance of the accountants’ role in DEI progress from an ESG perspective.

Requirements for regulatory disclosures around DEI data will only grow in the near term with national and multilateral institutions, such as the European Union, the World Economic Forum, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, and the US Securities and Exchange Commission increasingly proposing and mandating requirements for sustainable business information.

Executive levels are least diverse in all regions

Finally, the study underscored well-known DEI anecdotes about the lack of diverse representation at executive levels; however, now there is data to back up them up. Not surprisingly for anyone that has followed this topic, the representation of diverse personnel at executive levels is considerably lower than the diverse representation across the profession. Perspectives on how to address the need for more diverse representation at the executive level is distilled into two overarching strategic objectives: i) how to attract diverse talent; and ii) how to retain and promote that diverse talent once hired.

The full report highlights more than 70 actionable DEI practices that accounting employers can take today to attract and retain diverse accountants. These insights are based on more than 100 interviews and a series of global roundtable discussions conducted by IMA, CalCPA, and IFAC with research participants spanning individual accounting professionals to C-level executives.

While 70-plus potential best practices may seem overwhelming at first glance, Jiles says, small steps will help firms get there. “Look at practices from a strategic perspective,” she adds. “First, identify the practices that your organization is already performing and tell that story. Then, choose two to four actions from the attraction and retention categories that best align with your organization’s strategy and where you can add the greatest impact. Don’t try to boil the ocean.”

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