Practice Profile: More conversation, more action

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Transparency and open communication are major tenets of a good work environment, and what Top 20 Firm Dixon Hughes Goodman aims to achieve for its employees. This commitment, which has earned the CPA firm many Best Place to Work For awards and accolades, was evident in a recent firmwide panel discussion, which DHG broadcast live for its roughly 1,500 employees in 29 offices.

The discussion was the first in a series of conversations the firm plans to have on a variety of issues, and the right topic for this opening session quickly became obvious to firm leaders. “As part of our inclusion and diversity strategy, we wanted to have some livestream broadcasts on various inclusion topics,” explained DHG chief people officer Effin Logue. “Originally, because we were looking at a February/March timeframe, we were thinking about women’s history, but as the [#MeToo] movement continued to be discussed nationally and with the media, and we were hearing people talk about it … One office managing partner told me about a discussion in the office about it. There was trepidation by people — what does this mean? We took this as the perfect opportunity to do the inaugural discussion, have a firmwide discussion and make it about something everyone was having anyway. We thought it would be most interesting to have a variety of leadership perspectives, and many are extremely passionate about diversity and inclusion.”

The passionate participants included firm CEO Matt Snow, who shared the stage with Logue, partner Nathan Clark and partner Nikki Yarborough, who also co-leads the firm’s inclusion and diversity council. They had also noticed the conversation gaining traction before the broadcast on March 16.

The #MeToo movement

“We saw that start to unfold last fall, and questions [arise] internally with some partners, and when I talked to leaders outside the firm,” Snow recalled. “[There is a] feeling — ‘That wouldn’t happen here, we’re OK.’ Everyone wants that. Something about that didn’t feel right to me. It’s not that I felt we had a horrible culture, or that something was going on. It just begs for conversation.”

In a recent survey of accounting and tax professionals, conducted by Accounting Today’s parent company SourceMedia, the majority of men and women respondents believe that the profession suffers relatively few incidents of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior, though roughly one-third of surveyed women reported experiencing harassment in accounting, and many more women — and men — were aware of or had witnessed inappropriate behavior in the workplace.

Like Snow, Logue thinks assumptions about certain industries, including accounting, not experiencing harassment are misinformed.

“We have received, not a huge number of allegations, but we get a couple a year, and we take them very seriously,” Logue reported. “If anyone is naïve enough to think with professional services, it doesn’t happen here, it happens everywhere. I have worked in a number of industries, and know how pervasive it could be.”

“Anyone who assumes this can’t happen there, anyone who thinks that’s the case, step one [in addressing the issue is acknowledging] it can happen anywhere,” Snow said. “We’re talking about humans… we’re talking about working with humans. Don’t assume it can’t happen.”

Instead, Snow continued, open communication is essential, and the firm’s panel discussion proved an effective way to get people talking. Specifically, DHG framed the conversation around a culture of respect.

“More at DHG, we felt we had to have the conversation about having a culture of respect. Effin helped me put that into something that was actionable. We took for granted that everything was fine, but you look at what went on in some of the ‘Me Too’ situations, the unwillingness to deal with the problems, or talk about it. We didn’t want to allow that to happen. ‘Me Too’ was about specific, horrific situations, and our examples were of training on a culture of respect, which Effin showed me; another layer beyond the horrible actions that took place. How do we respect one another, and constantly learn? What are people expecting, what are the small things we do and, in interacting, we don’t want to say disrespectful things or be blind to matters, but be aware of that.”

Snow recognizes this knowledge begins with him and his team: “We wanted to really set the tone at the top. We had everyone in the firm tap into the livestream, and were reassuring in our aim for a culture of respect. We don’t pretend to be perfect, and we’re working together to reinforce that. We have conversations, and if something happens you don’t feel comfortable with, let’s talk about that.”

Much of DHG’s conversation that day addressed these situations of discomfort, such as inappropriate mentions of an colleague’s gender or sexual orientation, or employees who would prefer handshakes over hugs.

The firm also conducts training, and has recently revamped those sessions to be more practical and interactive. The employees are given scenarios to act out and identify what could go wrong, giving them a “chance to experience it firsthand instead of reading a policy manual,” said Snow, who had some of his own revelations through the training.

“Frankly, it opened my eyes to some things,” he shared. “In some situations, you see something happening, you have an obligation to report. It opened my eyes to the fact that we all have to look out for each other, and it’s not an ‘on our own’ kind of thing. If someone is treated improperly, you need to report. I wouldn’t allow [harassment] to happen, but knowing the expectation, of saying it, it helps as a third party, this feeling that we’re all in this together, and look out for each other.”

DHG’s panel discussion and training sessions also cover another issue that’s arisen out of the #MeToo movement — the question of how or even if relationships between colleagues should change.

“A number of people felt good that we talked about the pendulum swing — how typically these conversations can swing from people being overly comfortable with each other, to not at all comfortable with each other, which leads to discrimination,” Logue said. “We have an open dialogue to not have the pendulum swing too far in the other direction. One example, something I had heard, was a partner said, ‘I’m worried about if I should bring a female colleague out, because I’m her mentor, or coach.’ He’s now worried about how he will be perceived, and might be reluctant to do that. We gave an example, if it was with another male colleague, that resistance or concern wouldn’t exist. That’s a classic example of the pendulum swinging too far into discrimination.”

Snow also called upon the pendulum analogy when discussing the firm’s reporting process. There’s an independent and anonymous hotline that employees can use, along with the firm’s HR resources. Once an incident is reported, the firm is committed to fairness to both parties involved.

“There’s almost an apprehension to report,” Snow said, explaining that during the panel discussion, he assured staff that “if team members report something, it will be investigated and we will take action; you will be protected. Similarly, if anyone is implicated, we will look at it fairly and judiciously, to make sure all parties are fairly represented in this matter. It’s a pendulum swing in the other direction. [We want people to] report, but [to follow up on] it fairly and judiciously for everyone involved.”

Defining the discourse

While DHG’s discussion included these kinds of reassurances and reminders of firm policy and procedures, the conversation also sparked new dialogue among employees. This was formalized in follow-up discussions at the different office locations, ranging from lunch-and-learns to smaller meetings.

Directly after the panel discussion, Snow and Logue witnessed an immediate positive reaction. “People sat around and had lunch, and more conversation about it,” Logue recalled. “A number of people had conversations right after the live­stream to discuss what was said. We had tremendous feedback.”

This response has bolstered the firm’s plans for future, and potentially similarly sensitive, discussions. According to Logue, some of the requested topics include issues of race and people with disabilities.

“This was a real success, and we will continue to have this type of event about different things — the door is wide open,” Logue said. “We’ve already considered a discussion about [military] veterans and what we should do; what are the veteran perspectives we wouldn’t typically think about?”

Another venue the firm provides for these kinds of conversations are its common interest groups, rebranded from the more commonly titled employee resource groups to reflect their employee-generated origin (though once employees form a group, DHG grants them documentation and a charter, along with the necessary resources). Among those the firm currently has are groups for African-Americans and veterans, along with a substantial women-forward group. The firm is in the process of creating an elder care group and one for employees returning to work after a leave of absence.

These groups are part of the firm’s new, three-year inclusion and diversity strategy, which DHG is in the process of presenting to the executive committee. It plans to track its success in the same way it has measured previous efforts.

“We never expected to snap our fingers and instantly have an inclusive and diverse environment that is perfect,” Snow said. “It’s a long-term strategy at the firm. The progress is not just in numbers, but the culture. We look at the annual engagement survey, and slice and dice results by different diversity metrics — how certain populations look at an issue, and how we can engage them more.”

DHG is clearly unafraid to broach topics that can border on taboo, which one of their most recent initiatives makes evident. “Last year, we rolled out compensation transparency,” Logue explained. “We trained the employees of our firm about how they’re paid. We explain to people the exact dollar amount — there’s a lot of science. They see salary ranges, and we explain how those are created using market data. We explain how their salary fits in the range.”

This approach not only builds trust, but combats misinformation, Logue continued. “The internet makes everything easy to access, but it’s not accurate data. People say, ‘I wonder if I’m paid equitably?’ but a lot of sources have bad data that leads them to an incorrect conclusion… We approached it in terms of when we talk about mission and values, trust is one of those values, and transparency is a part of trust. We have been certified as a great place to work, with high trust, and it’s hard to have high trust if you’re not transparent. Pay is one of those traditionally secret things that shouldn’t be secret.”

Essentially, instead of ignoring conversations on more sensitive topics employees are already having in the office, DHG is providing a microphone. Logue offers one simple but guiding reason: “I’ve been doing HR for 34 years. When you’re not transparent with people, they make up stuff.”

At a glance

Firm Dixon Hughes Goodman

Headquarters Charlotte, North Carolina

CEO Matt Snow

No. of partners/staff 239/1,327

Services Assurance, tax and advisory

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Practice management Sexual harassment Dixon Hughes Goodman LLP Building a Better Firm