How to Increase the Number of Black CPAs

Blacks are less than 5 percent of new hires in CPA firms and even fewer current employees. How do accounting firms succeed at attracting more Blacks, helping them become CPAs and enabling them to become leaders?

By Frank K. Ross, CPA

Most of the accounting profession recognizes the importance of attracting more Blacks to the field and helping them pass the CPA exam. Few, unfortunately, have a good track record in getting results. In 2002 and 2010, Blacks hired by CPA firms accounted for only 3 percent and 4 percent, respectively. Even slightly lower, the percentage of Black professional staff members of CPA firms was 2 percent in 2002 and 3 percent in 2010. As expected, this has resulted in the marginal representation of Blacks at the management level of CPA firms, with only 1 percent of Black partners in 2002 and less than 1 percent in 2010, according to the American Institute of CPAs.

I believe that this poor performance is due not to disinterest or resistance to the goal—as a whole, our profession means well and wants to do well—but we as a profession are struggling with fully understanding what works and what doesn't.

How do accounting firms succeed at attracting more Blacks, helping them through the CPA barrier, and enabling them to advance to the leadership level? Research at the Center for Accounting Education and my many years of experience as a senior partner in a Big Four firm have taught me that the way to start is with low-hanging fruit and a strong commitment from the top to make a difference—not overnight but over the long run. For more on recruiting strategies, read "E&Y CEO Engages Students to Foster Diverse Pipeline of Accountants."

Increasing the retention of all staff is a major challenge that the profession faces. Most firms continue to address this problem aggressively. As to their Black professionals, retention is even more difficult. The reason for this is very complex and not yet fully understood. What role does culture, subtle and unconscious biases, lack of advocates, etc., play in the high turnover? Continuing study of these areas is necessary. If the profession hopes to increase the number of Black CPAs on their staff, they need to make sure they retain more of their Black hires and eventually make them managers and partners in their firms. By doing this, they will, over the long run, improve the number of Blacks at the higher level. It will also make the profession more attractive to middle- and high-school students looking at the profession as a career.

Here are several practical, achievable strategies that firms of any size can follow:

  • Discover what motivates young Black accountants in your firm. Don't assume that what motivates you will motivate them. Use existing "minority" structures such as affinity groups and networks as a venue to help discover the unique motivating factors.
  • Encourage Blacks to take the exam during the summer before they join their firms as a full-time hire. Thus, when they begin work, not only do they have the academic credentials necessary, they also have the professional certifications.
  • Include certification as a measure in employee evaluation and aggressively monitor progress. For employees who don't take or pass the exam, discuss during the counseling session any hurdles standing in the way of the exam and develop an action plan to address them.
  • Assign a CPA mentor for all new hires who are not already a CPA. The primary role of the mentor is to encourage the new hire to pass the exam and answer any questions they may have.
  • Offer to pay for CPA review courses as well as fees to sit for the exam the first time. Reimburse candidates when they enroll; don't wait for them to pass the exam. The risks inherent in early reimbursement are well worth the long-term benefits of a highly qualified staff.
  • Give candidates time off to study and sit for the exam.
  • Provide a bonus or pay increase, and other recognition, if an employee becomes a CPA within a defined time period. Many firms already do this, but for those firms that do not, I strongly recommend that they incorporate such a policy.

Performance-Evaluation Process

The performance-evaluation process is one of the most important areas that firms need to review to ensure that it is not a hindrance to the retention of their Black staff members. Performance evaluations significantly impact assignments, individual morale, compensation and one's ability to assume increased responsibility. What can be done? In a paper entitled "Retaining African Americans in the Profession: A Success Model," I and Leslie Traub of Cook Ross wrote the following suggestions to improve the performance-evaluation process of Black associates:

Performance Manager/Engagement Manager/Partner

  • Examine conscious and unconscious beliefs about people whose cultural background is different from theirs, and how these beliefs can negatively or positively impact Black associates' evaluations and assignments.
  • Examine input into associates' performance for bias.
  • Ensure diverse input into evaluations.
  • Look for patterns of commentary by seniors, managers or other influencers about Blacks. Use data as a way to gently probe about larger bias issues. Offer concrete solutions to moving past bias. Many times evaluators of Black associates are afraid to provide honest suggestions as to the areas of weakness that should be improved upon. This cannot be allowed to happen.
  • Mentors must be aggressive but honest advocates.

Associates/Senior Associates

  • Use your relationship channels to share your concerns about performance ratings; be open to telling your story and experience on engagements, and understand that others have their story too. Try to be as dispassionate and factual as possible about your experience. Remember that you too have unconscious biases that might impact how you react to a suggestion as to how improvements can be made to your performance.
  • Clearly communicate needs and limitations about work opportunities to your engagement manager and partner. Look for opportunities for flexibility.
  • Seek out mentors who will serve as your advocate. Remember that they do not need to be of the same race or gender.

Increase the Number of Students Majoring in Accounting

  • Increase the profession's visibility and viability with younger people by supporting outreach efforts in Black communities. For example, Rutgers Future Scholars worked with Ernst & Young to host a learning event for high-school students. Encourage your successful Black employees, specifically managers and partners, to become more active with younger employees from traditionally underrepresented groups and in recruiting and outreach.
  • Join in marketing the accounting profession among high-school and college students in your community. Drive home the message that a CPA is a board-certified professional like a doctor or an attorney.
  • Incorporate into all new-hire orientations the message that an accountant's education is not complete until he or she is a CPA.
  • Provide scholarships to Black accounting students. These scholarships should incorporate the goal that the recipient agrees to take and pass the CPA exam within a certain time after graduation.

In the end, it's up to the individual to choose the career, choose to succeed and advance in it, and choose to become a CPA. But as firms, we can and must make that choice more desirable—and more attainable—for Blacks.

For more on existing diversity gaps among student populations, read "American Universities Hinder Diversity Among STEM Students."

Frank K. Ross is the director of the Howard University School of Business Center for Accounting Education and a visiting professor of accounting, teaching auditing and ethics. In 1968, Ross was one of the nine cofounders and the first president of the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA). In December 2003, he retired from KPMG after providing more than 38 years of service. Prior to retiring, he was the Mid-Atlantic area managing partner for Audit and Risk Advisory Services and managing partner of the Washington, D.C., offices. Ross was also a member of KPMG's board of directors and chairman of the KPMG Foundation board of directors.

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