The year 2020 will be remembered for many things, not the least of which has been a race relations awakening. The accounting profession, too, has joined in. Many firms have taken steps to build on previous efforts by forming in-house diversity and inclusion committees and bolstering board and executive involvement in said groups. For efforts like these to bear fruit, though, these actions must go deep; they must become part of an organization’s mission. So says Herschel Frierson, managing director of Crowe LLP in Indianapolis and chair of the National Association of Black Accountants.
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By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor
The demographics of our country are undeniably changing, and that is driving CPA firms and other organizations to take a longer, more reflective look at how they treat people of color within their own doors. Diversity and inclusion committees and board and executive involvement in diversity initiatives are being strengthened. But are the steps currently being taken enough? If not, what can the accounting community do to better ensure a diverse environment that is more inclusive of varying points of view? To learn more, we are joined by Herschel Frierson, managing director of Crowe LLP in Indianapolis and chairman of the National Association of Black Accountants.
According to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Caucasians accounted for 77% of accountant and auditor jobs in the U.S. in 2019. Yet, the U.S. Census states that, by 2045, the population will be just 49% white. What does that say about the accounting profession's need for diversity and inclusion in the immediate to long-term future?
[Frierson] It says a lot. Lots of accountants, we're numbers guys and we always like to go to statistics. I think what you read off in that first statement there about where the population is as it relates to the country and the direction it's going in, we all know that we're becoming a more diverse country. It's becoming a more global world. We have access to go across the country, even during this pandemic, through Zoom. Our industry, unfortunately, we're not where we need to be, and that tells a lot about the work ahead of us.
We’ve got to work 10 times harder to become more of a diverse profession because, once again, it's all about making sure that we are catching up to where, quite honestly, the rest of the world is getting to, or is already at. A very diverse global economy.
People often talk about the business case for diversity and inclusion. I wonder if you can help spell that out for us. Why is diversity and inclusion of staff good for business?
[Frierson] I appreciate the question. Actually, you already gave the answer in the first question about where the country is from a diversity standpoint. We in this profession, right, we want to reflect our communities and, more importantly, we also want to reflect our clients.
I think we can understand and appreciate that our clients are a lot more diverse now. You go walk into a particular client doing a field audit, or whatever the case may be, doing a consulting engagement, the kind of areas I'm working in, do you reflect your clients? Do you reflect the communities that you do business in? That's a business case in itself. You want your staff and your leadership to reflect the clients that you work with. That's very important.
I'm a person that it's all about diversity of thought and diversity of experiences and backgrounds. People who don't look like me can bring very different perspectives. When it comes to, I'll call it solution engagement, solving problems, if I get everybody to think like me and is going to provide the same solutions like me, then why do they need me?
You want a staff, you want a delivery unit, if you're working in a particular firm, that will challenge your thinking to approach any client problems. You want to bring fresh perspectives. So, the business case, quite simply, is we want to bring better solutions. When you have a diverse population, diverse style, diverse background, diverse experiences, they're going to bring better solutions to the client.
Once again, I go back to the most simplistic thing I said earlier is you also want to reflect your clients. You want to make sure that your clients are seeing that you are a reflection of their workforce as well.
Recent tragic events, such as the killing of George Floyd, the shooting of Jacob Blake, the Breonna Taylor case and unfortunately more, as well as the reactions to these events, have driven organizations, including accounting firms, to take a closer look at their diversity policies, including forming in-house diversity and inclusion committees and strengthening board and executive involvement. What is it about the current social environment that's driving organizations to take these steps?
[Frierson] I think what's driving it is that, unfortunately, you saw it live on TV. You go by the old analogy: a picture's worth 1,000 words. Unfortunately, the killing of George Floyd, that video was worth million.
When it comes to experiences, you always want to put yourself in another person's shoes. If you can put yourself in another person's shoes, you can understand where they're coming from. I enjoy sports, but there's only so much I could relate to because, although I wish my name was Herschel Walker, it's Herschel Frierson. And I could talk about football and I love football and I'm watching football, but when it comes to that level of experience, I can only talk about it for so long. Because I've never been on a football field, never scored a touchdown. Only on Nintendo.
It goes back to the unfortunate situation with George Floyd. I think it hit people like myself and African-Americans and blacks harder because we've experienced that our whole life. I've experienced it my whole life. And when you see it on TV, I saw myself. Okay. Because I've been through that before.
I've been followed in the store. I've been pulled over by the police. I had a gun pulled out on me. I went through all the emotions of, okay, am I going to make it back home? I have friends that went through the same thing. So, when you see it on TV, my perspective I that could have been me. That was me. But, fortunately, I'm talking to you.
And I think the world saw it. And, once again, you're putting yourselves in George Floyd's shoes because you're seeing it real-time. I think companies have been doing a good job, right? But I think they went to another level of saying, "God, I'm looking back on my employees, I'm looking back on the communities, and we got to do better. We must do better."
I think the accounting profession is taking that torch on to say, "We got to do better. We must do better." Such as, and your great initial question about getting more people that look like me, I always say I want to get people that look like me in a profession because this is a great profession. It's the language of business.
So, if I have the opportunity of using my voice as a chair of NABA to get more people that look like me in the profession – and not only look like me in the profession, but make sure that we continue to grow within your company and firm, get into that C-suite level, get into their partners – that's what it's about.
We talked about the steps that are being taken in that question and in the intro. In your opinion, are the steps that are being taken enough? And, assuming that it's not, what more should organizations be doing to strengthen diversity and inclusion? What more can they do?
[Frierson] If you ask me five years down the road, I'm going to give you the same answer: We're not doing enough. We're not doing enough. If you're asking yourself, what more can you be doing, that means you need to be doing more. I don't know how much time we have on this particular podcast, but we can break it down at every level. The question quite simply is this: Have you challenged yourself and your organization and your current practices?
If the answer is no, you need to do more. If the answer is yes, you need to do more. Just like anything is, you always reflect back: “I could have did this better.” I could have did this more for a client.
We always do a review. After you get done with a particular project with a client, you always have a wrap-up meeting and internally say, "Okay, what did we do well? What did we not do well?" There is always more that we can do. Clearly, by the numbers of where we're at, we all can do more. We all need to do more. We all must do more.
What do you say to people who say they're trying to diversify, but they can't find the candidates? How can they improve their recruitment efforts to find those right candidates?
[Frierson] Wow. I’ve heard that, like, "Well, we can't find the right candidates." No, you can. You're just not looking. That's the comfortable answer: “We cannot find a good pool of candidates.” You're talking to Herschel Frierson, chairman of the board of directors for the National Association of Black Accountants. Come to us. I can find you the people.
We have NABA chapters. We’re talking about getting more African-American blacks into your organization, starting out at the school level, colleges. We have over 155 chapters across this country where we have NABA student chapters. I can point you to a university, pretty much in any geographic area, where you can find candidates.
Just two weeks ago – because of the pandemic, we usually do them in person – we held our first-ever virtual student conference, where we had over 1,200 diverse candidates. We had over 57 companies that conducted 700 interviews, and we could do more.
So no one says, "We can't find anyone." I say, "Well, come talk to me, because you're not looking." We have HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). Go to your HBCUs. They're there. You just got to look. You'll see what you want to see. Now it's time to open up your eyes.
I'd like to drill down into a few of the benefits you say diversity of staff can have on an accounting firm. How will diversity and inclusion benefit team synergy and cooperation?
[Frierson] It goes to, and you said a key word, team. When you're on a team, it's all about jelling as a team. And I would tell you that, what we all want, no matter what kind of accounting firm, organization, company, you want your team to bring the best, to be the best. To do that, to be the best, you got to have individual players that are the best.
And if I know that I work for a team, or I'm a part of a team, where I can be my authentic self, where I can just be me, just imagine what kind of commitment I'm going to have to that company and organization to make sure I bring the best solution to that particular client.
It's all about, you said a key word, inclusion. If I include everyone and make sure that they are their authentic self and can bring who they are and their background, no matter the color of their skin or sexual orientation or religious belief, when we all appreciate each other, you talk about a dynamic team because everybody on the team plays their part. But if you've got one of those team players that is not being themselves, or is not even in the game, you're going to lose the game.
We cover the team perspective there. Now, you say that diversity and inclusion will strengthen not only team productivity, but also individual performance. You described it a little bit there, but could you go into a little bit more detail on how that is?
[Frierson] A great follow-up is, when I say that, if I'm coming to a workforce, and you talk about individual performance, if I'm coming into a workplace where I know the organization is focused on D&I, I'm not sitting at my desk virtually or in an office thinking about, "Do these people appreciate me? Am I being myself?"
I'm sitting at my desk, I'm a part of a team trying to figure out, "How can I make this solution better for my particular client?" If I'm not being 100% myself and I'm sitting saying, "I'm just going through the motions because, hey, I don't feel included as a part of this team," then I am not 100% all-in on providing client solutions.
You're not sitting up at maybe 10 o'clock at night, doing that value-add saying, "Hey, I want to make sure I do not let my team down because they believe in me." I'm included. My firm, my company, appreciate the diversity. But if you're working for an organization that just is running through the motions, you're not going to go all-in. You're not going to put in that extra effort.
Yes, you appreciate you have a job. Yes, you appreciate that you get a salary. But if you go to those teams and look at those organizations and companies where individuals are performing at their best, they're performing at their best because they're being who they are.
How can greater diversity and inclusion have an effect on improving client relationships?
[Frierson] It's several things. When you're talking about client relationships, who is your client? That goes to the question: Your client has clients. I know that sounds kind of crazy, but if I'm working for a firm and my client is retail, for example, what is their client base? Who are the leaders in that particular retail space? Especially now more than ever, many clients, they want to say, "Hey, who are the team that I'm working with? Who are the consultants that I'm working for? Do they look like my own employees on my team? Do they reflect the communities that we serve?"
If I'm a retailer and I'm working a particular city, and all our cities across America are pretty diverse, this is our clientele. But then if I am a patron of a particular retailer, I want to know: What does your supplier diversity look like?
If I'm giving money and my commitment, my money to a retailer, but they're not putting it back in diverse communities or diverse organizations, minority-owned businesses, minority-owned CPA firms, then I have a problem with that as a customer. Quite simply, it's the right thing to do. I still struggle with the whole business case question and I appreciate the business case. Because it's just the right thing to do.
To me, the whole business case, it's almost like the business case of not to do it. It shouldn't be about a business case of not to do it. It shouldn't even be a question of business case. It should not even be a question. The question is, what do we need to do more of to be more diverse and more inclusive?
That's the question. It's not really a question of a business case. It's more of a question of what can we do to be more diverse and more inclusive? We go back to your first question and you read off the stack: Do you want to be behind the world or do you want to be ahead of it?
We talk about the steps that firms and organizations have taken in the aftermath of tragic events. How important is it for organizations to continue to make change that isn't spurred by societal unrest? How can diversity and inclusion become more a part of an organization's DNA?
[Frierson] It's more important now than ever, in light of, unfortunately, the Breonna Taylors, the George Floyds, the Ahmaud Arberys. There's been so much in the past year.
What you don't want to do is say, "Hey, we've gone all-in. We're making these inroads. We're creating these diversity initiatives and programs." Then you and I are talking a year from now, and that same company, that same firm, has not done anything else.
Because it wasn't at the front of the mind. You're doing more harm than good if that is your plan. It needs to be a long-term strategy. It's not a short-term strategy because it's not going to go away. It never has. It never has gone away. You're just now seeing it. I've been living it my whole life.
You’ve got to continue to look at this as a long-term strategy and continue for month after month, year after year, reflect, "Okay, are we getting better in these particular areas? Where are we still struggling?" You need to continue to make this ... this is your culture. Your culture should be diversity and inclusion.
I tell students all the time, when they're about ready to go for interviews and try to figure out, "Okay, who I'm going to accept?" Especially diverse candidates, it’s where am I going to accept an offer if they're honored enough to get multiple offers?
I said, “Go to their website and read their mission statement.” Is diversity and inclusion a part of that? Are they talking about their people? What is their culture? It's all about what is their culture. Is D&I part of their culture? I guarantee you, those successful companies, not only in the country, in the world, D&I and equity is a part of their culture.
Herschel, thanks for being with us today to talk about this important topic. Not only for the accounting industry, but for society in general.
[Frierson] No, thank you. I appreciate having the opportunity to speak to you. Let's do this again. Once again, I would say the National Association of Black Accountants is a resource for all firms and companies that are looking to move the needle in our profession. And please reach out to us at nabainc.org. Whatever we can do to support you in your organization, we're here for it.