How to know when accounting firms need to hire full-time DEI leaders

Can newly hired diversity, equity & inclusion leaders help better manage tax & accounting firms’ launch and adoption of new initiatives in this area?

Tax & accounting firms are increasingly hiring full-time heads of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), especially those firms outside of the Big Four plus Grant Thornton, BDO, and RSM. In fact, firms such as EisnerAmper, Baker Tilly, and Withum have invested in full-time hires since the start of the pandemic. We sat down the heads of DEI at these firms to discuss what indicators may appear when it is time for a firm to invest in a full-time DEI role.

Bill Bradshaw, head of DEI at Withum, started his career at one of the Big Four firms in the audit area and brings experience in diversity and inclusion from KPMG. He describes how Withum realized it needed to hire a full-time DEI leader. “The firm knew that it needed to enhance its efforts around attracting and retaining underrepresented talent, and in order to do so, build brand awareness and position Withum as an employer of choice in the professional services industry,” Bradshaw says.

Factors driving the need to hire full-time DEI executives

Conversations with these DEI practitioners can reveal key indicators to determine when it is the right time for an accounting firm to invest in a full-time DEI role, such as

Your DEI strategy has been reactiveTenaya Taylor, Chief Diversity Officer at EisnerAmper who came to the firm as a seasoned practitioner with more than 25 years of expertise in DEI, multicultural marketing, communications, and advocacy from her work at Fortune 100 companies, summarizes the point perfectly. “It is time to hire a DEI executive full time and put people and resources behind the work because previous efforts did not work and did not signal that there is a real commitment to DEI across your people, culture, clients, and community impact,” Taylor explains.

You have a need to retain early-to-mid-career talent to meet demand — Most of the visible DEI activities among accounting firms is focused on entry-level talent, underscoring the industry’s need to attract more accounting college graduates. At the same time, these investments in early-career professionals will be lost without increasing efforts to retain them, which means prioritizing DEI endeavors on inclusion and belonging. Indeed, members of Gen Z and the Millennial generations are two of the most diverse generations in US history and now make up large parts of the US workforce, consumer base, and the public at large, and their voices and buying power will only increase in the coming years.

Since the start of the pandemic, managers’ influence on the actual experience of firms’ culture has increased. And because of remote working becoming so commonplace, team members have been interacting with fewer people, which leaves them with less opportunity to informally interact with colleagues on other teams in so-called “water cooler” chats.

As a result, upskilling managers to respond to the increased expectations of team member from more diverse backgrounds is a necessity, as is having a senior-level DEI practitioner with the know-how to do this critical in firms’ retention efforts. To better enable this, Taylor says she regularly holds office hours for managers or anyone else at the firm who wants to receive feedback.

Your underrepresented talent are indicating they need more resources — The demand for accounting and consulting services remains strong, and to meet the need, firms have been hiring and engaging in M&A activity to meet this demand. As we see growth in the numbers of various employee groups (employees with disabilities, people of color, veterans, and caregivers, to name a few), communities are calling for more recognition and engagement through affinity groups, networking opportunities, learning and development opportunities, and influence in firmwide strategy and culture. By providing a range of opportunities to support specific groups and create channels for learning and allyship, firm leaders can strengthen the entire organization.

Investing in a full-time leader ensures underrepresented talent has a collective voice at the center of the firm’s leadership. For example, Shane Lloyd, Head of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at Baker Tilly, says the firm recently launched an affinity group for veterans after launching employee-led communities that are focused on sustainability, moms, various racial and ethnic groups, and the LGBTQ community. Lloyd brought DEI experience from his work as a consultant, from academia, and his time at Amazon before joining the Baker Tilly.

Your corporate clients are asking about your DEI credentials — Accounting firms are a core part of their client companies’ supply chain. Public companies’ shareholders, boards of directors, and customers expect diverse perspectives to drive better business outcomes.

Corporations are directing this requirement downstream throughout their supply chain. “Serving our clients with diversity of thought for optimal business results is nonnegotiable,” says EisnerAmper’s Taylor. “Our clients and prospective clients are expecting us to be contributors and leaders in driving inclusive and equitable experiences for all to deliver it.”

Senior DEI leaders are not a cure-all for resolving issues

While filling the role of a full-time DEI leaders is sometimes seen as the solution for all of a firm’s DEI challenges, it should really be seen as the beginning of a more intense phase of the journey. The DEI leader did not create long-standing issues in the firm or the industry. And it takes everyone’s cooperation and a commitment of the firm’s leadership to accept some harsh realities based on feedback from employees.

This process also requires a willingness to remain steadfast in the firm’s DEI commitment to move through this resistance to change. The tendency to maintain the status quo runs deep, but it can be overcome.