Retaining African Americans in the accounting profession

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The low number of African Americans in the accounting profession is discouraging, and that number might even be declining despite the best efforts of hiring firms.

In 2007 and 2008, 22 percent of all accounting graduates hired were minorities, according to a study by Howard University School of Business’s Center for Accounting Education (CAE), but only 4 percent were African Americans, down from 8 percent in 2006 through 2007.

Public accounting firms and other organizations “have recognized both the different experience of African Americans in their firms, and the cost of the high turnover that generally comes with it,” the study states, and have made significant investments in implementing inclusive policies and procedures, but these efforts need to be taken to a second level.

Many inclusive policies to date have focused on the needs of the individual entering the firm. In addition to looking anew at what steps African American staff can take, the study, Retaining African Americans in the Accounting Profession, A Success Model, focuses on changes accounting firms can make to their procedures and training that will enhance retention.

Implementing the Success Model begins when all of the stakeholders of the firm ­­– the newly hired associate, supervising senior, and management – examine their self perceptions and potentially self-limiting beliefs, as well as perceptions of others, and take personal responsibility for them. The individual staff accountant must evaluate how education, family, or religion may affect their view of a firm’s business practices and culture. The model also encourages them to embrace learning opportunities, pass the CPA exam, and make a commitment to the profession.

The report’s authors make a strong case for management and inclusiveness training for supervising seniors who, with only two years of experience themselves, have enormous responsibility and power in determining the career path of a new hire:

“There is an assumption that the supervisor has been exposed to the accounting processes for two or three years, and is ready for more responsibility, often without taking into consideration that supervision and management require a very different skill set than providing technical work on an engagement.”

Like the new hire, the supervising senior must examine his own “blind spots.” Some of the questions the model recommends for the supervising senior’s self evaluation are:

  • What is my orientation to social engagement with people who are from a different background than me? Am I open or suspicious? Am I willing to give others the benefit of the doubt? What is my assessment of the associate’s competency in this area?
  • What is this associate’s cultural history? What do I know about this history? Historically, how could the stereotypes with which I’m familiar impact how this individual sees him or herself?

Stakeholders at the management level must examine the firm’s culture and systems for potential bias. “We cannot underestimate how important it is for new hires to fully understand an organization’s culture, both formal and informal, in terms of the subtleties of what behavior is acceptable,” the study’s authors said.

Informal social interaction cannot be relied on to convey cultural subtleties to all new associates. Strong organizational systems are the only answer. “Inclusive systems begin with a comprehensive on-boarding structure, and include all aspects of being successful in public accounting: technical, social, organizational, and cultural. On-boarding should also include mentoring, buddies, and interpersonal support and coaching.”

Case studies show differing outcomes for staff accountants based on different kinds of communication during performance reviews. “This Success Model does not advocate the end of the performance review. Rather, it simply calls for a more conscious process that brings raters’ and influencers’ unconscious biases to the surface for exploration before ratings are finalized.”

The Success Model does not analyze the recruitment process, but the authors stressed that recruiters must be transparent about the work culture of their firms, beginning with recruiting for internships.

The Success Model was developed through a series of surveys, focus group meetings, and one-on-one interviews. In addition, the authors’ own experiences served as a basis for the recommendations.

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