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Diversity and the accounting profession

Improving diversity is not just a legal imperative. The concept of diversity is an inherent good with ubiquitous appeal and ethical, social and commercial value for accounting firms. But while good practices are developing, the profession still has some way to go in the transition to becoming more diverse.

Diversity and the accountancy profession is a new piece of research, led by a research team from Cardiff Business School and HEC Paris. It identifies and examines the systemic problems that are making the pace of change so slow, and sets out several recommendations for breaking down the current exclusion barriers and establishing the profession as an agent of change. While specific aspects of diversity (eg, gender) have been studied in prior research, this study analyses how diversity practices in general are developing among accounting firms. It looks at how accountancy firms are making sense of diversity, and provides a snapshot of the policies and practices that are being rolled out.

The report is based on UK data from over 50 interviews with accountants at various stages in their career and from firms of different sizes, and on an online survey of 237 respondents. By assessing common responses among interviewees, it provides illustrations of best practice in key areas and tackles several important research questions, including the following.

What is the best way to understand diversity?

Diversity, while a well-known concept, is also a malleable term. This report found extensive confusion about what it means and how it should be understood. When diversity is made sense of only as a legal duty, for example, then this stifles the potential for broader organisational change. In order to establish clarity and develop a broader understanding of diversity as a being the right thing to do, then, the report sets forth several recommendations, including establishing clear codes of practice; keeping the focus on all minority groups, and not just on gender; and collecting and reporting diversity data as a means of measuring progress and assessing policy outcomes.

What are the most effective forms of diversity training?

Most firms introduce employees to the concept of diversity using standardised online training packages, which are largely based on legal responsibilities. But while these can offer a useful starting point to diversity in the workplace, they can often be forgettable and perfunctory for employees. In order to consistently embed good practices into work processes and tackle unconscious bias, this survey revealed that training needs to be collaborative, ongoing and informal.

How can employers ensure a fair recruitment process?

Many firms now ensure that there is diversity within interview panels and throughout the recruitment process. This research found that, combined with the right training, this both helps recruitment teams identify competencies that are discriminatory, and reach out to a more diverse pool of applicants, too.

What can be done to resolve the tension between beliefs about merit and diversity?

Individuals with diversity characteristics often have atypical career trajectories, and so it’s important that appraisals and performance evaluation processes consider equality issues. Formal and informal ways of recognising merit have been experienced and positioned as neutral, but have in practice tended to privilege those who are similar to current partners. Find out why two-directional mentoring, diverse promotions panels, and open discussion are all key to ensuring that employees have a fair and equal opportunity for career progression.

Can business networks be made accessible to all?

There’s no doubt that diversity networks can be helpful for employees who wish to extend their business relationships, but access to these networks – particularly in smaller firms and those outside London – can be a problem. Read several recommendations on how everyone can be given a chance to link in.

Finally, as a profession, how do we match our actions to our words?

Interviewees observed that they hear diversity talked about more than they actually see practical changes in the workplace. In order for practical and behavioural changes to gather impetus, an agenda of this size and importance needs strong leadership and a sense of collective responsibility.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.