CFOs should act with intention to make diversity a reality

They can help ensure that businesses benefit from an inclusive workforce.
CFOs should act with intention to make diversity a reality

Companies need to be more active and intentional about hiring and developing people from diverse backgrounds to reap the rewards that increased equity and inclusion bring, a panel of diversity experts representing accountants, recruiters, and academics told an AICPA & CIMA conference.

More than a human resources task, promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) demands that C-suite leaders, including CFOs, are prepared not just to bring diverse candidates onboard, but guide them to success, they said.

“To be truly effective, DEI must be everyone’s responsibility,” said Tracey Walker, RSM US’s national leader of government affairs, and culture diversity and inclusion. “Inclusion starts with I. That means we as individuals own the journey … you have to be a participant in order to achieve the outcomes,” said Walker, who is based in Washington, D.C.

She was part of a panel discussion at the 2021 AICPA & CIMA CFO Conference on 6 May on the role CFOs can play in advancing DEI.

Panellists discussed how CFOs can encourage their company leadership to shake up their recruitment strategies and build a pipeline of qualified and experienced talent from a variety of diverse backgrounds to ultimately better diversify senior roles.

CFOs can also empower managers of their teams to employ more diverse staff and provide an inclusive work environment. Greater diversity and inclusivity in the workforce gives companies a broader approach to solving problems that will bring substantial, tangible benefits, speakers said.

In its 2020 Diversity Wins report, McKinsey & Company showed that firms with more executive-level women were 25% more likely to outperform financially in 2019 than less gender-diverse firms.

When it came to ethnic and cultural diversity, the study showed that companies in the top quartile outperformed those in the bottom quartile by 36% in terms of profitability in 2019.

Tokenistic hiring is doomed to backfire, panellists told the attendees. Instead, leaders need to make themselves vulnerable and embrace the benefits of employing people who might not look like them or share a common background.

“Are they willing to accept different styles, different looks, and different colours?” said Stephen Rivera, CPA, CGMA, Johnson & Johnson’s vice-president, global technical accounting advisory services and policy.

“You don't get a great team when everyone sounds and looks like you. You need to have that diverse slate of different candidates … the thought process and the energy, and even the differences in how people think, get you to a great spot.”

Branch out

Employing specialist recruiters to actively search for more diverse candidates and tapping into a wider variety of business networks are two ways companies can start to change their hiring, speakers said.

Increased homeworking means companies are no longer limited to drawing diverse candidates from a local pool but can employ people to work remotely from around the country, Rivera said.

But the process doesn’t end on an employee’s first day at work. Once they are onboard, new hires need to be given an equitable chance and opportunities to thrive.

“Onboarding doesn’t just happen at the inception. It’s a journey. And especially when you’re dealing with a marginalised community, you have to ensure that you set them up for success,” said Angelina Brathwaite, Toronto-based senior client partner at recruiter Brunel International. “It's always good to have that touch point with that individual so you’re able to help them navigate through the system.”

Mentoring, coaching, and sponsorship can prove invaluable, while internal networking and support groups for employees play an important role in building a greater understanding of diverse backgrounds and allyship, speakers said.

But to truly boost DEI, CFOs need to take a bird’s-eye view of their teams and implement practices and training to help erase the systemic biases that have made it harder for people from diverse backgrounds to succeed, speakers said.

Ensuring equity

“We talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion. But what does that mean?” said Tina Harris, Ph.D., professor and endowed chair of race, media, and cultural literacy at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, who also moderated the discussion.

“We know what the definitions are, but are we going to do more than just to have that physical representation of diversity, and make people feel included, and ensure that there is equity?” she said.

To make a long-term difference, CFOs need to get out of their offices and comfort zones to reach out to college students, the pipeline of the profession. They should explain why both accounting and finance and their own companies are positive places to work.

They need to highlight their commitment to creating a diverse corporate culture and willingness to mentor and guide candidates throughout their careers, speakers said.

Going a step further, CFOs should also link up with high schools to help spark interest in a diverse mix of students around a career in accounting and finance, speakers said.

More than ever, DEI is a two-way street. Tech-savvy students are doing their own research on how companies stack up and making sure they apply to firms that offer them the chance of a successful career in a safe environment, RSM’s Walker said.

“Inclusion is not about counting people; it’s making people count,” she said. “So any leadership on the sidelines, waiting for some miraculous thing to happen, you’re missing out, because each individual has to be the change.”

Sophie Hares is a freelance writer based in Mexico. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at