Creating a More Diverse Firm

May 3, 2017

Not long after I came on board at the AICPA, a professor invited me to visit an accounting class at the University of Southern Mississippi. I found a group of phenomenal students who were very engaged and asked great questions, especially the juniors and seniors. When I spoke with individual students after my presentation, they followed up with specific questions that showed how much thought they had given to their career paths. Since then, I’ve stayed in touch and visited the campus again. I’ve even helped two students in their job searches. One is now working in a small firm in Mississippi and the other in a firm in my home state of Minnesota, both of them thriving.

I think this story is important because it illustrates one way that small firms can expand their recruiting options and their diversity when locating new sources of talent. Many CPAs in small firms might welcome a more diverse staff, but there simply may not be a great deal of diversity in their own communities or at the schools where they usually recruit. They’re missing out on opportunities, but they aren’t sure what to do about it.

That’s a problem worth addressing. Although smaller firms may not do a lot of recruiting, when you have fewer people, you want each one to be the best you can find. And I can tell you from personal experience, that there are many great students and professionals out there who may not be on your radar. Here are some tips for finding and keeping a more diverse staff.

Chart a New Course
Want to stand out in the recruiting marketplace? In your recruiting, include colleges that aren’t already being targeted by all the other firms in your area. For example, many firms may not be aware of the wealth of talent at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. If diversity is your goal, include schools with larger minority populations. Accounting professors at most schools are usually happy to develop relationships with local firms, and you may be asked to talk to a class or meet with a few top students. This will set your firm apart at any college, offering you the chance to build relationships with the best students long before they graduate. Keep in mind, too, that many state CPA societies have young professional groups or career days. Contact your state society to see if they can be a resource to you in your efforts to expand diversity.

Get People Engaged
It’s important to engage all your new professionals by involving them in the firm from day one and making them feel that their contribution is important. This kind of welcome and inclusion is especially valuable if a new recruit will be the only woman or minority in a firm. In my six-person firm, I liked to bring all my new recruits along to observe client meetings. It gave them a chance to learn what our firm was about, who our clients were and how we communicate with and serve our clients. It also made them feel like important members of our firm, something that will resonate with any new recruit. We also held weekly in-office lunch meetings where everyone could express concerns, talk about any struggles communicating with clients or ask questions on how to move an engagement forward. These meetings included all staff and they helped everyone grow within the firm.

Encourage Networking
After a new person was given a chance to understand how my firm worked, it was time to start developing their soft skills and marketing abilities as part of their business development skills training. That included taking them to networking events outside of the office and encouraging them to participate in organizations and events that related to our firm and that were of interest to them. One example for our firm was the Builders Association of the Twin Cities, which fit into one of our niche areas of practice. In addition, firms should help new staff understand how their existing networks are valuable to the firm as well. For example, some may be members of organizations for women in business or the National Association of Black Accountants. For millennials, the Rotary might be an organization they’re involved in since it allows members to give back to society. It’s important that you introduce them to your networks and that they introduce you to their networks as well. This creates an opportunity for both the firm and new professionals to expand both professional and personal networks.

Leverage Your Success
Once your firm becomes more diverse, it will be easier to continue to attract a diverse staff who appreciate an inclusive workplace, since being known as an inclusive firm is a great way to recruit talent and clients. Be sure to tout your success in this area so that people are drawn to a firm that looks more like the world in which they do business.

Understand the Value
Enhancing your diversity doesn’t have to be a difficult job because each of the steps here is a good practice. The trick, though, is understanding the value that a diverse staff can bring to your firm and making the effort to find opportunities to recruit and retain them. Studies have shown that diversity can offer tangible benefits to a firm by minimizing conformity and encouraging people to think more deeply and ask more questions to make better business decisions. For example, when working together to find correct answers to problems, participants’ answers were 58% more accurate when they were in a diverse group, according to a study by researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas and Columbia University. Imagine the positive benefits that greater diversity of ideas and perspectives could bring to your firm.

Want more help in getting started? The AICPA offers a wealth of resources on diversity and inclusion and on women in the profession. Also, be sure to take advantage of a free, three-part webcast series on workplace inclusion that is currently archived and available for listen at your convenience.

Carl Peterson, CPA, is the AICPA’s Vice President of Small Firm Interests. Have questions for Carl? Contact him directly at or 651-252-4618. Also, be sure to register for Carl’s next, free Small Firm Webcast on June 8 at 2PM EST!