Accounting leaders see 'an obligation to combat racism'

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Accountants have an obligation to set an example in diversity and inclusion and fighting racism, Ohio Society of CPAs president and CEO Scott Wiley said in a Zoom webcast Thursday that included leading members of the profession discussing diversity and inclusion efforts at CPA firms and the wider business community in the wake of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis.

In a discussion that included Tim Ryan, U.S. chairman and senior partner at Big Four firm PwC, and Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, an executive director at Oracle and former chair of the American Institute of CPAs, the accounting profession leaders talked about the dramatic events in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police officers and how many Americans have been forced to confront systemic racism, with protests erupting across the country and abroad. In recent days, a number of leaders in the accounting profession have issued their own statements about the events and condemning prejudice (see story).

“As our country faces these difficult issues, we have an obligation to combat racism,” said Wiley, who committed to a number of efforts on behalf of the OSCPA. “As a profession, we must without exception or hesitation condemn injustice and reaffirm our commitment to cultivate workplaces that make equality, diversity and openness priorities, setting an example for the greater community. This organization has long had the courage to take action, and we’ll do it again today and tomorrow. I’ve heard from many people that they’re looking to their leaders to provide strength, leadership, encouragement and conviction. Now is an important time to reaffirm our commitment to diversity and inclusion and to denounce racism. It is important for me, as this organization’s leader to start by doing so here today, to speak the truth that too many in positions like mine have been unwilling to say for far too long: Black lives matter.”

Ellison-Taylor would like to see the profession go beyond mere words and take concrete action to ensure greater representation of African Americans in accounting. “I feel that in the profession we have gotten a lot more comfortable with saying ‘diversity and inclusion,’ but what we need right now is a comfort level with saying ‘Black’ and ‘African American,’” she said. "Because inclusion is important. It absolutely is. Thank you for saying, ‘Black Lives Matter.’ I know that there are some people who needed to hear that. When we in the profession are talking about diversity, I’m glad to hear that we’re talking about the full spectrum: diversity of thought. All of those things are so important. But yet, if you look at the table, Black and African Americans were not routinely sitting there, and the whole initiative was unevenly allocated across all of the various segments. While I can definitely see progress, there are diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives happening at state societies, and I’m happy to be sitting on the National Commission of Diversity and Inclusion with AICPA, but as to who is missing at the table, my community is missing at the table. There is absolutely more we can do.”

(clockwise from top left) Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, Scott Wiley and Tim Ryan
(clockwise from top left) Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, Scott Wiley and Tim Ryan

She pointed to the recent incident in New York where a white woman who was walking her dog in Central Park threatened to call the police on a black man who asked her to put her dog on a leash and said she would claim he was attacking her. The woman, Amy Cooper, was later fired from her job at the financial firm Franklin Templeton Investments, after a video of the incident went viral.

“So many times we go to D&I sessions, begrudgingly sometimes, because we’re interested in hearing the topic, but a lot of times we leave the room thinking, 'Who are those people who do those things?'” she said. “We don’t realize that the things that we say, it could be us. The things we do or not do, it could be us. We’ve made progress. ... I can’t get up every day thinking there’s no progress to be made. [But] there’s something we all can do individually and certainly within the firms.”

PwC’s Ryan discussed his work since 2016 on talking about diversity issues at his firm and in organizing the group CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, which has signed up more than 900 CEOs. “That really accelerated when our own Botham Jean was shot and killed in his apartment in 2018 while he was watching Thursday Night Football,” said Ryan. “An off-duty Dallas police officer came in and shot and killed him. What I was proud of at that time was that we at PwC knew what to do because we had been practicing having these conversations for a long period of time. Fast forward to today with the horrible events over the last couple of weeks. Our people are talking, and what I’m hearing is thousands and thousands and thousands of conversations taking place within the virtual hallways of PwC all across the country.”

Ryan recently discussed the commitments of PwC and CEO Action on his LinkedIn page, and he talked about his plans during the webcast.

“We committed to a number of different additional actions because we do believe that action is important,” he said. “We have a number of diversity councils and [employee resource groups] at the firm. We have them by geography and we have them by ethnic groups. What we don’t have is a one-firm diversity council where it directly reports to me to advise me. We are forming a one-firm diversity council that will be made up of our non-partners. We already have a partner diversity council that advises me, but I need to hear from our associates, our managers and our directors on what’s important.”

In recent weeks since Floyd was killed and protests erupted, he has received over 500 ideas suggesting what the firm should do. Once it is formed, the council will advise him on what should be in its diversity and inclusion strategic plan. Ryan plans to share the plan and the outcomes with all 55,000 people at the firm at least once a year starting this summer.

Ellison-Taylor believes advocacy for diversity and inclusion should be more of a priority for policymakers. “There are a number of things in public policy that also impact us,” she said. “For instance, if our elementary and secondary schools aren’t necessarily as great as they can be, that’s going to hinder us in my community from being able to have the study skills, the critical thinking, the good judgment that we need to pass the CPA Exam. If we can’t get through the exam, then that could inhibit us from the pipeline of even being considered for the opportunity. That’s why the day of service, the volunteerism, the advocacy work is so important. In the business school program, it would be interesting to know if different groups took on the challenges, where would they see the best and biggest benefit? That would be a great exercise to then in turn give back to the business community to say if we changed this, what would happen.”

Wiley said the Ohio Society of CPAs would release its own commitment to action Thursday following the webcast. It includes three specific actions related to board and CEO leadership, organizational commitment, and advancing public policy.

“I believe that the future of the accounting profession is depending on us, all of us,” he said. “We must work together to create the change that needs to happen. We must lean into the uncomfortable conversations, move from words into actions and stick with it. Our real test will not come in one week or two weeks. It will come in three months or four months when there’s a temptation to focus on another pressing business issue and press pause on this. At that point, we’ll need to hold each other accountable for continuing to move forward.”

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