Committing to diversity takes thought and hard work - but it offers more tangible rewards than just feeling good

Although second-year staffer Mark (not his real name) was only the third person of color in the office, he was not particularly concerned about the direction of his career.

Mark had passed the CPA Exam, was viewed by others as friendly and seemed to be on the career track.

What did concern him, though, was the fact that his job assignments did not seem to be as progressive as some of his peers. The other day when he overheard his peers being invited to a swim party and for drinks after work by one of the partners, he realized that he did not have a seat at the table.

If you're an only, what do you do?

Being an "only" is not in and of itself an issue; it's how you navigate the network and the many unspoken rules of the professional world. Remember, even individuals from the same ethnic group have different cultural experiences. There are many factors that affect how individuals relate to others, from socioeconomic to regional norms to family structure and birth order.

When Ronald Taylor, CPA and recruiting operations and diversity director of Eisner in New York, was asked what steps one should take to successfully maneuver through the maze called public accounting, he shared, "You must first assess your strengths and determine your goals as a professional within the firm. Do you want to become a partner or eventual strategic alliance associate in industry? Once you determine your goal, you can start to work to attract the right mentors and draft a success-achievement strategy. The key for this to work, though, is that someone within the organization must be willing to serve as your occasional tour guide."

Diana Solash, HR director at Ernst & Young, encourages minority staff to, "Always speak up and share your career ambition with your managers, partners and human resources - whether that ambition is learning about a specific technical area or industry, or progressing to the next level. If you are quiet about your ambition, people may assume that you are not committed to your career or the firm. By voicing your interests, people will keep you in mind for client assignments, leadership opportunities and mentoring."

WHY IT MATTERS

Do firms have an obligation to retain diverse professionals?

During challenging times it's critical to invite the right professionals to the table and work to retain and develop them.

As a recruiter and firm leader, why invest in a staffer's career by hiring them, but not spending the effort to ensure that they fit into the firm's culture?

Consider that, with the cost of benefits, recruiting, training, salary and employer taxes, it costs a minimum of $80,000 for a first-year staffer - a hefty cost if that individual does not hang around long enough to provide you with a reasonable net billing margin to compensate for this labor investment.

In order to be successful, inclusion and diversity initiatives have to come from the top, led by a senior-level professional with an adequate budget, and be a requirement for the advancement and bonus participation of firm leaders and staffers.

Competition is no longer down the street or on another coast, it's international and moving in quickly. Senior leaders who embrace and connect with those who are different tend to be better positioned and prepared to consider more innovative strategies and take on new challenges.

Professional team events and networking opportunities should be encouraged among staffers and firm leaders.

Firms that coach their team members benefit most from their success, according to Mia A. Thomas, a principal at LarsonAllen LLP in Orlando, Fla. Thomas said that at their firm, "Associates are encouraged to engage with a coach within the firm to help them consider and implement goals. Their success and happiness within the firm extends into their daily life, so we want to support them however we can. We believe that communication is vital, so that inner connection they have with their coach will transpire into their needs and wants for a successful career with our firm."

START WITH NETWORKING

Take an informal survey and you will find that the top reasons minority professionals leave firms include isolation, lack of mentors and poor job assignments compared to peers.

If the firm includes diverse leaders within the leadership ranks, then staffers of color can feel that there are real opportunities for them to advance into positions of leadership.

Remember, the water cooler communications network is still active, and if it's rumored that no one of color will ever advance beyond a certain level, then if you happen to be in that group it will take lots of encouragement and networking to feel encouraged to break the stigma and advance through the ranks.

Firms should encourage employees to participate in outreach programs, including financial literacy, nonprofits and school recruiting projects to provide a comfortable setting for connecting with peers and senior management outside of work.

Including short networking opportunities and exercises during staff meetings and training events is a great way to help staff connect. It always helps with the implementation phase if diversity and staff development goals are part of the review process for leaders.

With technological advancements, there are numerous ways to help staff network and feel connected to the firm, such as through Twitter, podcast events, internal e-mails, and having face-to-face and virtual meetings.

Always remember that no matter what technology route the firm uses, it must remain professional at all times. There have to be rules and training involved to help staffers network. Seasoned professionals understand that networking is not:

* Racing to see how many online social networks you can join and how many "friends" you can amass within a one-week period.

* Sending Facebook notes or tweets about routine daily tasks (i.e., no one cares to hear about how wonderful your soda tastes).

* Handing out a pocketful of business cards at a lunch session and complaining about how you did not receive a call from anyone the next day.

* Dispensing false compliments or saying what you think others wish to hear.

Encourage team members to be authentic. Networking is about connecting and comfort zones; therefore, the more practice you get, the better you become.

THE LOOK OF SUCCESS

Success is not having to search for diverse talent outside of your organization because of the lack of internal candidates. It is also not having to make excuses for the dismal number of diverse professionals included in the totals on your annual EEO-1 report.

Remember, being a good corporate citizen takes more than giving donations to the favorite local charity or building a Habitat for Humanity home down the road. It takes inviting qualified individuals, including diverse staffers, to the table to help increase income and not just to bide their time before they are escorted to the door.

40 YEARS OF DIVERSITY

At its recent Accounting Scholars Leadership Workshop in Peachtree City, Ga., the American Institute of CPAs' Minority Initiatives Committee released a preview of an e-book that will be released later this summer titled, "CPAs of Color: Celebrating 40 Years." The e-book, available at www.aicpa.org/download/members/div/career/mini/2541-331_mic_ebook.pdf, emphasizes the opportunities that the profession provides and confirms the AICPA's commitment to attracting a diverse pool of talent to a profession that is vital to the world's economy.

The institute and its strategic alliance partners, such as the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting, Ascend (formerly the National Asian American Society of Accountants), the National Association of Black Accountants, the National Council of Philippine American Canadian Accountants, and the PhD Project offer a number of successful programs to help attract and retain professionals of color. For more information, visit www.aicpa.org/members/div/career/mini/acct_diversity_orgs.htm.

Genevia Gee Fulbright, CPA, is president and COO of Fulbright & Fulbright CPA, as well as the author of several books, chair of the AICPA Minority Initiatives Committee, and a member of NC State University's Accounting Department Advisory Committee. Reach her at ggf @moneyful.com.

(c) 2009 Accounting Today and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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