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Why Managers Are Key to D&I Success at Work


When experts make suggestions on how to improve the efficacy of diversity and inclusion initiatives in the workplace, they often focus on what firm leadership can do. But Jina Etienne says that actually might be one of the reasons why D&I programs often aren't as successful as they could be. Instead, they should include middle managers.

Apr 13th 2021
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There is a general perception across corporate America that middle managers have a tough job. In their article “Why Being a Middle Manager Is So Exhausting,” I think Eric M. Anicich and Jacob B. Hirsh describe it best:

By virtue of their structural positions, [managers] are simultaneously the ‘victims and the carriers of change’ within an organization, receiving strategy prescriptions from their bosses above and having to implement those strategies with the people who work beneath them. As a result, middle managers often find themselves stuck in between various stakeholder groups, which can produce ‘relentless and conflicting demands.’

For managers in CPA firms, those stakeholder groups often include clients for whom they may be the primary contact, responsible for managing the client relationship and take a leadership role in managing engagements. They also include other departments and teams where they may be asked to lead, support or act on firm initiatives, programs and projects.

So, in addition to managing up (directives from leadership; demonstrating technical expertise) and managing down (developing people; supporting process), they are also managing out (client relationships; business development) and across (cross-functional teams; firm projects).

Fostering inclusion is a foundational goal with all D&I initiatives. Inclusion is not a goal you can set and then just check off as completed. It is dynamic and elusive; it’s the combination of day-to-day interactions, the perception-based and observed words, actions and behaviors of leadership and colleagues, the impact of business practices and policies, and the perceived value of employee programs and benefits.

Employees who feel seen, heard, supported and valued by their organization report higher levels of job satisfaction and motivation. They are more comfortable and more confident in their work. In fact, Glassdoor reports that D&I is important for more 3 out of 4 employees and 75 percent of job seekers. That is why it is important for leaders to communicate their commitment to and support of diversity and inclusion. But translating leadership intention to the experience of employees day to day is where many D&I efforts break down. And that is exactly where managers sit: in the middle of the organizational hierarchy.

As firms roll out D&I initiatives, the latter adds both responsibility and complexity to the manager’s role. While this can sound daunting, it also puts managers in a unique position to make a difference. Leadership may set the tone, but managers determine employee experience. Their words, actions and behaviors are seen as evidence of firm policy, cultural norms, promises of career growth and stated commitment to D&I.

If their manager supports a policy or rewards performance, it provides employees with reassurance that those policies are meaningful and their performance is recognized. If their manager proactively supports diversity initiatives, employees attribute that support to the broader organizational commitment. In other words, if an employee feels “my manager supports me,” they are more likely to say, “My organization supports me.”

Managers are the change agents and should be considered a key element of the D&I success formula. Rather than delegating D&I implementation to managers, firms should work with managers to ensure they have the tools, resources and training to support diversity and inclusion efforts.

At the organizational level, firms can:

  • Share details of their D&I strategy, including background information ( so the “why,” not just the “what”) and the methodology for developing the strategy
  • Invite input into the tactics and timelines for strategy implementation
  • Identify evaluation metrics for managers based on outcomes, not activities
  • Provide change management training to advance managers’ skills for coaching staff through their own changes
  • Offer managers coaching and personal development opportunities aimed at leading and optimizing the performance of diverse teams

At the individual level, managers can:

  • Ask for details. What are the firm’s D&I goals? How will the practice measure success? Where does it stand now? What is expected of the manager as an individual? How will D&I be incorporated into performance reviews?
  • Get involved. Join an employee resource group. Encourage participation in diversity training, and attend diversity events and programs.
  • Open the way for conversations. Reach out to your team to better understand their perceptions and challenges. Ask what diverse members on the staff need to feel supported and included.
  • Become a mentor. Serve as a career guide and resource to diverse staff members. Consider reverse mentoring to better understand the experiences of minorities within the firm.
  • Be an ally. Bring attention to challenges and barriers underrepresented groups face within the firm, and become a spokesperson for diverse staff across the firm and with external stakeholders.
  • Be a champion. Actively advocate for change by asking questions to challenge the status quo. Push for the inclusion of all voices in all decisions impacting staff development, employee resources, firm practices and HR policy.
  • Be a sponsor. Recommend staff for key projects and leadership development opportunities. Amplify the ideas and expertise of diverse staff with leadership.

Managers are the key to helping employees feel included and supported. By actively working to understand the experiences and needs of diverse members on their team, managers can drive changes that go beyond just inclusion. They can foster the most powerful feeling of all: a sense of belonging, which is a fundamental human need. Managers who can inspire, champion diversity and recognize the importance of individuality will ensure their employees feel more connected, confident and motivated. That connection is the key to unlocking the power of diversity that fuels performance and growth.