People & Leadership

7 steps toward achieving sustainable inclusion at your firm

When we look back on 2020, the nationwide protests against racism and police brutality are sure to be one of the year’s defining issues. These events have amplified a challenge that the accounting profession has been grappling with for years: diversity and inclusion.

Diversity is often seen as a threat rather than a strength, and we believe we must do better. This isn’t just an issue for law enforcement or legislators, but one that accounting firm leaders are responsible for addressing every day.

With that in mind, we recently hosted a virtual event featuring Eric Ellis, President and CEO of Integrity Development Corp., a firm that helps build diverse, inclusive and respectful organizational cultures in order to drive sustainable, improved business results.

At times like these, companies around the globe wonder whether they should weigh in. It can be complicated to find the line between virtue signaling and genuine support. What is clear is that firms cannot be silent on these issues.

Fortunately, Ellis provided seven steps to working toward sustainable inclusion.

Step 1: Decide to engage

Many organizations would rather stay silent than risk alienating clients by voicing their commitment to fighting racial injustice. However, if you don’t put out an anti-racist statement because you don’t want to alienate clients, what kind of client base is that? What does it tell other potential clients and employees about the kind of company you are?

Step 2: Listen

Few firm leaders are well-versed in racial injustice and best practices for creating more diverse and inclusive workplaces. Fortunately, you don’t have to have all of the answers. You just need to provide a safe forum for employees to express their feelings and concerns. It’s also helpful to engage external experts to facilitate these types of conversations.

The objective of these events is to help employees manage their feelings and anxiety to support their emotional health and improve workplace effectiveness.

Step 3: Destigmatize bias

Everybody is biased. There is no human living or dead who has never harbored unconscious assumptions that kept them from building authentic relationships with people of different genders, races, skin colors, socioeconomic backgrounds, education levels, or abilities.

But by identifying and owning those biases, you can control knee-jerk reactions, conquer your fears of the unknown, and overcome closed-mindedness. Then you won’t be part of the problem, but part of the solution.

Step 4: Embrace empathetic listening

Empathetic listening involves focusing on the person and engaging with what they are saying. It’s about more than simply recognizing their words – it’s about understanding the feelings and emotions behind their words.

To engage in empathetic listening, the listener paraphrases what they heard from the speaker, summarizes the content of the message shared and feelings expressed, then checks for accuracy.

For example, if an employee confides they’re having issues with a manager, you don’t jump in with what you think they’re doing wrong or offer suggestions to resolve the conflict. Instead, you would say, “Let me see if I understand what you’re saying. You feel as though you didn’t receive a positive evaluation because of race. Is that correct?”

Even if you don’t agree with what they’re saying, empathetic listening ensures they feel heard and understood.

Step 5: Strengthen (don’t pause) your inclusion efforts

Many organizations that had diversity and inclusion initiatives in the works before the COVID-19 pandemic put them on the backburner during the pandemic. Now is not the time to put these initiatives on hold. Continue to take a hard look at your culture to ensure you’re strategically working to create a fair and inclusive workplace – especially for racially diverse employees.

Step 6: Recognize your diverse constituents

People come to the workplace with various perspectives, from protest advocates who believe justice requires immediate action, to people who are loyal to the current system, and people who fall somewhere in the middle of those two points of view.

You need to support peaceful protests for civil rights and acknowledge the well-documented history of racial injustice in our country without disrespecting or blaming people with different perspectives.

Step 7: Develop strong challenging strategies

Turn this moment into a fairness, justice and equity movement. Don’t just make a statement on social media or look for one or two neat things you can do. Commit to digging into this and develop a strong challenging action plan to make a difference.

We are all unique and want to bring our authentic selves to work. When you create sustainable inclusion in your firm, you allow your people to do that and increase success across your firm.