WASHINGTON – African-Americans who quit public accounting performed well on the job and were paid adequately – but didn't culturally integrate into their firms, a preliminary survey by Howard University's Center for Accounting Education (CAE) found.
The findings were presented at a first-ever Symposium on Upward Mobility and Retention of African Americans Within the Accounting Profession, held in Washington, D.C. by CAE. It was attended by 50 diversity and recruiting leaders of major firms, the AICPA and National Association of Black Accountants (NABA). The meeting was called because the accounting profession has invested heavily in recruiting minorities to diversify their work force, only to see a mass exodus of African-Americans within a few years of their hiring.
CAE's survey found that 40% of African American accountants who left public accounting firms early in their career were rated above average in their final year; another 56% were rated average. Only 4% were below average. But even after two to five years on the job, 65% of those who left felt they did not integrate into their firm. Concern over work-life balance was the most frequently cited (by 44%) specific reason for quitting. Compensation was not mentioned significantly as a response.
“These findings shatter any remaining myth that it's about the money, or that poor performance is driving African Americans from public accounting,” said Frank K. Ross, Director of CAE. “African Americans do not feel that they belong, and their inability to fit in is driving them away.”
“Firms as well as the people they hire need to adjust attitudes and behaviors, because both sides have a heavy stake in improving the outcome,” Mr. Ross added. “Firms want their minority hires to succeed, and those hires want to succeed, but the mechanisms to ensure success are lacking.”
Some typical survey respondent comments about not integrating culturally into public accounting were:
ï “The team that I worked on had several cliques which I didn't feel I was a part of.”
ï “I think corporate America will always be a culture that is foreign to minorities.”
ï “Peers never seem to fully understand where I'm coming from or (my) perspective on life and decisions.”
In the conference, representatives of the major firms and professional associations spent two days identifying the challenges and brainstorming new solutions for better recruitment and retention of African Americans. Among the challenges were:
ï The profession has not presented itself to students as interesting, attractive and rewarding, and is largely invisible to young people.
ï The profession does not appeal to a generation concerned with work-life balance.
ï Introductory college courses do not reflect the true nature of accounting work and do not market a career in the profession.
ï Firms do not provide adequate mentorship and sponsorship for minorities, and do not offer minorities as many key assignments as they could.
ï Firms rely on inexperienced front-line managers, whose weak people management skills do not serve early-career minorities and can lead them to misinterpret managers as racist.
ï Firms have unclear ownership, strategies and tactics for advancing African-American women.
ï There is no mechanism for holding firm leaders accountable on diversity issues.
ï African-Americans are culturally disengaged on teams and in firm offices.
ï Bias continues to be present in firms.
ï African-Americans focus too much on client service and not enough on “soft” career-advancement skills.
ï African-Americans are not proactive enough in seeking key assignments, finding mentors, getting performance feedback, and passing the CPA exam.
Among the solutions put forth – all of which will be discussed more fully in a paper to be distributed to the profession in early 2011-were:
ï Target middle school, high school, community college and undeclared-major college students and their career advisors with a media-marketing campaign promoting a career in accounting.
ï Hold boot camps and other events to market the profession and expose students to it.
ï Partner more effectively with professional and business organizations, and educators, to promote a career in accounting.
ï Develop extensive programs in firms to better define, identify and eliminate bias, whether conscious or unconscious.
ï Tie the achievement of diversity goals to compensation for leaders and supervisors.
ï Establish more extensive, frequent and effective feedback including guidance on how to be successful.
ï Assign high performers to senior level sponsors.
ï Take steps to ensure that early-career African-American associates are treated equitably in engagement assignments.
ï Create stronger incentives, including financial, for early-career accountants to take the CPA exam. Allow them time to study and prepare.
ï Provide new associates with training on how to probe for meaningful performance feedback.
ï Implement programs to educate new associates on “what success looks like” in the organization.
CAE is sponsored by many of the nation’s leading accounting firms as well as professional organizations. The growing roster of stakeholders include: Bert Smith & Company; Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio & Associates; Deloitte; Ernst & Young; KPMG; PricewaterhouseCoopers; National Association of Black Accountants; AICPA; BDO Seidman; Becker CPA Review; Coleman & Williams; DiversityInc; Grant Thornton; McConnell, Jones, Lanier & Murphy; NABA Division of Firms; RSM McGladrey; Walker & Company; and Williams, Adley & Company.