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Inclusion: the wise way to grow

By Ian Lavis on behalf of Praxity Global Alliance

 

HR chiefs pulled no punches at Praxity Global Conference in a frank discussion about diversity and inclusion. Delegates heard from accounting firms committed to addressing inequality.

From gender and ethnicity to sexual orientation, disability, age and socio-economic status, diversity and inclusion is one of the biggest issues in the workplace.

Delegates at Praxity’s Athens conference were given a real insight into the challenges facing organisations in a debate featuring partners and HR leaders from the US and France, hosted by Praxity Executive Director Graeme Gordon.

Attendees were reminded that while women represent 50% of new entrants into the accounting profession, they hold less than 20% of senior positions. Also, while firms have struggled to achieve more diverse and inclusive workplaces, the most ambitious firms in this field are now making real headway.

 

The only way to grow

Laurent Choain, HR director and chief people officer at Mazars, the largest participant firm in Praxity, with a presence in 91 countries, described diversity and identity, not only inclusion, as “the wise way to grow” for professional services firms.

He stressed the main priority at Mazars was to increase the number of women in partnering positions, but he warned delegates it is important to take a considered, inclusive approach to avoid alienating people.

He urged firms to be wary of unconscious and subjective bias, especially when committees decide on who to appoint as partners, adding: “It’s not only about integration it’s about transformation. It’s not a women issue, it’s a wider leadership issue.”

Demonstrating that progress has been made to address gender inequality, he revealed 96% of young women at Mazars believe the firm will give them an equal chance to be partners.

Gender equality is only part of the story. Creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace involves addressing differences and inequality in all its forms, and this isn’t easy to do within firms and across borders.

 

Understanding differences

Effin Logue, chief people officer at Praxity participant firm DHG, one of the US firms breaking down barriers to inclusion, stressed the importance of understanding key terms and measuring the effectiveness of diversity and inclusion programmes.

She told delegates: “Diversity is ‘who do you invite to your party’ and inclusion is ‘how do you treat them once they are at your party’. In the early days we focused on diversity but we have learned it is more important to focus on how we are treating our people.”

She said DHG was currently developing a new initiative to address the issue of ‘covering’, where people try to conceal their differences.

Examples of covering include:

-    A gay male who doesn’t put a picture of his male partner on his desk because he is afraid people will treat him differently or think less of him because he is coming out as being a gay male;

-    An African American female who will iron her hair rather than have it in its natural style because she wants to be included and accepted, and having straight hair is something in her mind that would make her feel more included. Even worse, it could be she has been told she cannot wear her hair in the natural style.

 

Being uncomfortable

Alisha Watkins, partner and inclusion & diversity council member at Plante Moran, another Praxity participant firm with a pioneering approach, said tackling diversity and inclusion involves having difficult conversations to understand and help integrate people.

She said organisations need to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable”, adding: “There is a lot around the discussion of diversity that is difficult to talk about whether it’s race relations, whether it’s gender differences in the workplace, whether it’s matters of sexual orientation….so we don’t talk about it. But the reality, and what we’ve learned, is that we have to be working to have these difficult conversations and we have to acknowledge that it is part of the journey. It’s the only way you are going to get to where you want to get to and overcome the hurdles.”

Both DHG and Plante Moran have developed a wide range of diversity and inclusion programmes to address recruitment and retention issues and help specific under-represented groups in US practices, such as women, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, veterans, and working parents.

 

Too white and too middle-aged

A big turning point for DHG came at a partner meeting in 2017, Effin told delegates. “Our CEO Matt Snow looked around the room and said, ‘we are too white, we are too middle-aged male, and we are too homogenous, and we will not be competitive if we continue this way’.”

DHG has since developed a diversity and inclusion council and challenged its partners, principles and directors to “join the diversity and inclusion adventure”.

 

Developing a strategy

The firm is now in the middle of a three-year strategy to promote advocacy, awareness and action in a bid to make the workplace inclusive for everyone regardless of gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation or any other status. This includes changing leadership behaviours, developing more inclusive meetings, and partnering with local advocates to encourage socially economically disadvantaged young black youths to take up internships.

Similarly, Plante Moran has developed a clear strategy with a diversity and inclusion council at its heart. Regan Hall, diversity and inclusion leader at Plante Moran, explained the current focus was to expand the scope of various inclusion programmes firmwide to include all those who are under-represented, increase the number of “culturally competent leaders”, and develop relationships with communities and professional organisations.

She stressed the importance of being prepared to evolve, adding: “Something that may have worked two or three years ago might not necessarily work in the future.”

 

Positive discrimination?

Asked whether diversity and inclusion programmes amount to positive discrimination, the guest speakers were more inclined to describe it as focusing on particular groups rather than discriminating.

Alisha explained: “We have to be intentional to overcome implicit biases and barriers. There is no way it’s going to happen without some form of intentionality.”

Laurent added: “It’s a long hard effort. It could be said to be positive discrimination in as much as we pay attention to gender because we want to push to have a larger pool of women that can tomorrow become partners or executives.”