Diversity, equity, and inclusion are more important than ever.

September 25, 2020

"When people from diverse backgrounds and cultures work together, we all succeed. We must evolve not only the way we hire but also ensure we’re retaining and promoting employees by building programs across the employee lifecycle to create a culture of belonging."  - Rosanna Durruthy

In today’s challenging business climate, the need for an innovative, resilient workforce strong in problem solving and opportunity identification is more important than ever as businesses must find new paths forward. Although there is no easy answer, diversity of perspective and backgrounds and creating a true sense of belonging are essential elements.

While many firms have made great strides to build more diverse and inclusive teams, creating a true sense of belonging for everyone is vital to bring it all together. Inside this article, you can explore new findings, practical actions and resources that you can use to strengthen your firm’s DEI initiatives.

Identity threats

What causes an employee to feel they do not belong? While there are countless reasons, the answer is what is known as an ‘identity threat’ (any situation that makes evident that one is different from others). For example, a young white male talks with his young black female colleague over coffee about his new promotion to manager. Although they both joined the firm at the same time after graduating from the same university, she has not yet been presented with the same opportunity for advancement. Even though this threat was unintentional, it triggered feelings that threatened her identity. Could identity threats be derailing your firm’s initiatives without your realizing it? Findings from research conducted by Michael Slepian and Drew Jacoby-Senghor to understand the impact of identity threats that people experience regularly provide new insight.1

  • Participants reported an average of 11 experiences of identity threats per week
  • When employees felt they did not belong in the in the workplace, they felt they could not be themselves at work - as a result, they had lower workplace satisfaction, found less meaning in their work and had one foot out the door
  • When employees felt others asked for their input only because they were supposed to, or sought their opinion as someone who can represent their social group (surface inclusion), they felt like they belonged less

Bottom line - Inclusion does not necessarily lead to a sense of belonging. Reduced sense of belonging works against inclusion. People want their social group to be included and their individual self to belong.

Economic imperative

To tap into the full potential of human diversity, organizations need to hire diverse talent and create an inclusive working culture underpinned by a fundamental sense of belonging, fairness and equity, enabling people to bring their ‘full self’ to work, according to a new report, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion 4.0 by the World Economic Forum. Companies leading their geography and industry for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging perform better than their market average across a wide range of key performance metrics.2

  • Profitability - 25%-36% more likely to outperform on profitability.
  • Innovation - Up to 20% higher rate of innovation + 19% higher innovation revenues.
  • Decision-making - Up to 30% greater ability of spotting and reducing business risks.
  • Employee engagement - Statistically significant causal relationship with engagement and retention for all employees.

How does your firm compare to these findings? Are your results as strong as you would like?

Five steps forward

Here are effective actions that you and your colleagues can put to work in your practice right now. Success requires these initiatives to be supported, acted on and measured at the top. Each employee can and should contribute as a part of their regular routine.

1. Know and support each individual

The secret to making employees feel included, according to Slepian is getting to know the people on your team as individuals. If you do not know each member of your team, get to know them. Learn what is important to them. Understand their strengths, interests, goals and dreams. Make time to check in regularly.

  • We have not had a chance to get to know each other outside the projects we have worked on together - I was hoping we could sit down and talk, maybe over a coffee.
  • Tell me about yourself, your story and your background.
  • Where do you most need support now?

2. Be observant and curious

During this time of uncertainty, take the opportunity to learn from what is happening around you. When difficult situations occur, talk about them. Engage in dialogues with those you know who are impacted. Listen intently to their perspectives and how it makes them feel. Focus on their ideas for ways to move forward. If there are things that you do not know or understand, ask.

  • What is your take on the situation?
  • How does it make you feel?
  • What are your ideas to handle it?

3. Create an identity-safe environment

Everyone on your team needs to feel safe expressing their ideas and know their concerns are being heard. Slepian recommends building an identity-safe environment that demonstrates a value for individuals from underrepresented backgrounds and demographics. Start by polling your employees to gather input on what an identity-safe environment should look like in your firm and how best to implement it. Include everyone in the conversation rather than singling out minority individuals or constantly relying on them to take the lead.3

  • What should an identity-safe environment look like?
  • What is acceptable behavior in the workplace?
  • How can the firm speak to diverse audiences?

4. Encourage everyone to be a DEI Officer

Take a tip from Barbara Whye, Chief D&I Officer, VP-Social Impact and Human Resources at Intel and challenge each employee with the responsibility, no matter their role.4 Be on the lookout for areas where your practice is falling short, from regular activities and conversations to standards and operations.

  • Where does the firm need to refocus?
  • What specific areas need attention?
  • What changes would you make?

Create a central repository, with the option to be anonymous, for employees to record and share their observations and recommendations that need attention. Work with your team to regularly address these issues and identify ways to resolve them.

5. Hold yourself and your colleagues accountable

Move from awareness to action. Start with yourself. Take responsibility. Focus on the story unfolding around you. Hold yourself accountable for your words and actions.

  • When you observe inappropriate conversations, speak up.
  • When you notice recruiting practices that do not promote diversity, talk with your colleagues about ways to expand them.
  • When you see employee onboarding activities that do not make individuals feel welcome, ask how the firm can improve them.

Everyone is critical to the solution. Hold each other accountable to move this agenda forward.

For more resources, visit the PCPS Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit (which includes items like an example employee survey and understanding unconscious bias tool) and the AICPA Diversity and Inclusion Resources for Firms.  To evaluate your firm’s diversity and inclusion efforts and learn more about best practices take the Accounting Inclusion Maturity Model assessment.

If you have not explored the George Willie Ethnically Diverse Student Scholarship & Internship Program, take a look at this valuable opportunity to demonstrate your firm’s commitment to diversity in your recruiting initiatives. The deadline for firms to be considered is November 1, 2020.

1, 3  Are Your D&I Efforts Helping Employees Feel Like They Belong? Michael Slepian, Harvard Business Review, August 19, 2020
2 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion 4.0, A toolkit for leaders to accelerate social progress in the future of work, World Economic Forum, June 2020
4 Time to Act, Inclusion in Technology By 2030, Barbara Whye, Intel Corporation Chief D&I Officer, VP-Social Impact and Human Resources with host Y-Yvonne Hutchinson, July 15, 2020