Here’s a hint – it’s not their performance. It’s not compensation either. So what could it be?
A new survey, conducted by Howard University’s Center for Accounting Education [CAE], found it’s a lack of cultural integration into their firms.

CAE’s survey found that 40 percent of African American accountants who left public accounting firms early in their career were rated above average in their final year and another 56 percent were rated average. Only 4 percent were rated below average. But even after two to five years on the job, 65 percent of those who left felt they did not integrate into their firm. Work-life balance was the most frequently cited reason for quitting. Compensation was not mentioned significantly as a response.

“These findings shatter any remaining myth that it’s about the month or that poor performance is driving African Americans from public accounting,” said Frank Ross, director of CAE. “A majority of African Americans do not feel that they belong, and their inability to fit in is driving them away.”
Ross also said 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. “Firms want their minority hires to succeed and those hires want to succeed but effective mechanisms to ensure success are lacking.”

The results of the survey were presented at the first-ever “Symposium on Upward Mobility and Retention of African Americans Within the Accounting Profession,” held in Washington D.C. by CAE. Approximately 50 diversity and recruiting leaders of major firms, the AICPA, state societies and the National Association of Black Accountants were in attendance to talk about how despite heavy recruiting efforts to diversify the workforce, an exodus of African American talent takes place within a few years of their hiring.

Summit representatives identified challenges and brainstormed solutions for better recruitment and retention of African Americans. Among the challenges were:

•    The profession has not presented itself to students as interesting, attractive and rewarding, and is largely invisible to young people.
•    The profession does not appeal to a generation concerned with work-life balance.
•    Intro college courses do not reflect the true nature of accounting work and do not market a career in the profession.
•    Firms do not provide adequate mentorship and sponsorship for minorities and do not off minorities as many key assignments as they could.
•    Firms rely on inexperienced front-line manager, whose weak people-management skills do not serve early-career minorities well and can lead them to misinterpret managers as racist.
•    Firms have unclear ownership, strategies and tactics for advancing African American women.
•    There is no mechanism for holding firm leaders accountable on diversity issues.
•    African Americans are culturally disengaged on teams and in firm offices.
•    Bias continues to be present in firms.
•    African Americans focus too much on client service and not enough on “soft” career advancement skills.
•    African Americans are not proactive enough in seeking key assignments, finding mentors, getting performance feedback, and passing the CPA Exam.

Solutions were also discussed and will be more fully presented in a paper to be distributed to the profession in early 2011. Some solutions are as follows:

•    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.
•    Hold boot camps and other events to market the profession and expose students to it.
•    Partner more effectively with professional and business organizations, and educators, to show students the value of a career in accounting.
•    Develop extensive programs in firms to better define, identify and eliminate bias, whether conscious or unconscious.
•    Tie the achievement of diversity goals to compensation for leaders and supervisors.
•    Establish more extensive, frequent and effective feedback to young associates, plus guidance on how to be successful.
•    Assign high performers to senior level sponsors/mentors who will support them and become their advocate.
•    Take steps to ensure that early-career African-American associates are treated equitably in engagement assignments.
•    Create stronger incentives, including financial, for early-career accountants to take the CPA exam. Provide funds to all recent graduate hires to register and pay exam fees the summer before they start work.  Then allow them time to study and prepare.
•    Provide new associates with training on how to probe for meaningful performance feedback.
•    Implement programs to educate new associates on “what success looks like” in the organization.

For more information on the symposium or about CAE, contact Patt Kellibrew, CAE coordinator at or visit