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CPA Firms Not Doing Enough to Retain Minorities

February 18, 2010

A study by Howard University’s Center for Accounting Education and Cook Ross Inc. found that many African Americans are leaving public accounting out of frustration with a lack of advancement.

The study notes that only 1 percent of public accounting partners are African American and only 3 percent of CFOs of Fortune 500 companies have minority backgrounds. Accounting firms have been trying to improve their recruitment of minorities, but efforts to hold on to minority staffers, particularly African Americans, are falling short. In 2007-2008, 22 percent of all new accounting graduates were minorities, down from 26 percent in the previous year. Within this group only 4 percent were African Americans in 2007-2008, down from 8 percent in 2006-2007.

CAE director Frank Ross told me that much of the problem can be traced to the performance evaluations given to staffers by their managers at the firms. Managers need to examine the subtle biases they may have hidden even from themselves. The study builds on several prior studies that the Center has been conducting in recent years. They can be found at

“Everyone was coming up and saying they were having problems with their performance evaluation and they didn’t fully understand why they were evaluated a certain way,” he said. “People did not explain to them when they sat down and went over their performance evaluation. They told them one thing, but when it was written down or when they got the combination of all the evaluations, it had no resemblance to what they were being told.”

The study recommends that employees, managers, key leaders and partners must examine their expectations, assumptions and subconscious biases, so they can interact with minority accountants as objectively as possible. Human resource structures, training, and systems must also be more inclusive of all aspects of being successful in public accounting, such as the technical, social, organizational, and cultural aspects.

Mentorship programs, buddies, and interpersonal support and coaching should also be available to minority accountants. The study recommends that African American associates should focus on “building eminence” in their first two years on the job by continuing new learning and applying it on the job, building key relationships across various levels and groups, and putting forward excellent performance in order to become established at their firms.

Ross has found that many African Americans are leaving public accounting firms and migrating toward industry jobs, or going back to school to get their MBAs. The economy has not helped matters as many firms lay off staff members and cut back on recruiting. Ross acknowledged he has been receiving calls from many more former students in the past year asking him for recommendations and assistance. “A lot more than I formerly would have gotten,” he said.

You can listen to a podcast of the interview here.

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