Diversity and inclusion in finance aren’t new concepts. It’s long been a top priority for leaders in our profession, and in this year of uncertainty, we need new ideas and diversity of thought to re-imagine the path forward. The tragic events of 2020 have revealed the disparities that were hidden in plain sight — workplaces included. These events have challenged us to recognize that a checklist approach to diversity is not enough to achieve meaningful change.

As the first person of color to serve as chairman of the AICPA in its 133-year history, and the chair-elect for the AICPA’s National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion, I have led my fair share of diversity and inclusion initiatives and discussions. “Diversity and inclusion,” or D&I as it’s commonly become known, is a two-part phrase, and this year has made it apparent that many organizations have only achieved the “D” with significantly less focus on the “I.”

Diversity Does Not Equal Inclusion

The terms “diversity” and “inclusion” are often used synonymously. However, that notion couldn’t be farther from the truth. Diversity is easier than inclusion — please note that I said easier, not easy. Diversity is a box that can be checked on a list or a target you meet for recruiting. Inclusion is a verb. It’s a culture, and it’s ongoing. It requires intentional effort, is constantly evolving, and the work is never “mission accomplished.” While a few individuals can achieve workplace diversity on a recruiting team, inclusion requires all team members’ involvement and doesn’t allow us to rest on our laurels. Diversity alone is surface-level and does not get to the heart of what is needed — a sense of belonging, trust, and inclusion.

Inclusion’s Direct Effect on the Bottom Line

In a year of natural disasters, recession, and a pandemic, we relied on finance professionals to continue performing the critical business processes required to keep organizations afloat: scenario modeling, risk management, financial reporting, managing expenses, and generating new streams of revenue. Many organizations are seeking new opportunities to grow market advantage and meet evolving customer expectations. Inclusion is a strategic business imperative, and in these trying times, we must not lose sight of our goal of hiring and retaining an inclusive workforce to help achieve these goals.  An inclusive culture is non-negotiable to compete in tomorrow’s talent economy.

Every profession has had a similar experience: A diverse candidate is hired. After a few months, the employee realizes that the company isn’t as inclusive as he or she was led to believe, doesn’t feel included in the culture, and resigns. This vicious cycle repeatedly continues as the company recruits more diverse team members who experience the same issues. This leaves the company with low employee retention and gives it a poor reputation among diverse candidates. It also costs thousands of dollars to replace and retrain new hires. While it’s easy to believe that diversity and inclusion are the same, that misunderstanding can have serious effects on an organization’s success and profitability.

Every profession has had a similar experience: A diverse candidate is hired. After a few months, the employee realizes that the company isn’t as inclusive as he or she was led to believe, doesn’t feel included in the culture, and resigns.

True inclusion puts the onus on every person in the company — not just those in diverse segments. And when everyone plays a part, everyone benefits. Imagine how much more successful your business could be if everyone were comfortable sharing their different experiences, opinions, and ideas to tackle the issues at hand. What if an innovative or creative idea that you’ve never thought of yourself could generate additional revenue? Operational excellence, enhanced insights, and increased business influence require the synergy of many ideas across a diverse set of people, processes, and technologies. The business case for inclusion is undeniable.

Four Steps for Fostering Inclusion

Achieving inclusion isn’t an easy feat, and it requires a very different approach than achieving diversity. To begin the process of fostering inclusion within your organization:

1. Listen and learn.

Inclusion requires teamwork and trust, and trust is reinforced through authentic and compassionate attempts to understand one another. To achieve inclusion, we must listen and learn, no matter how uncomfortable or challenging the conversation may be. More than that, we must be willing to reflect on our own belief systems and challenge those biases — both conscious and unconscious. Otherwise, any change will only be lip service, and initiatives won’t last past the current leadership.

2. Use data to create a plan of action.

Finance is a data-driven profession, so why should our inclusion efforts be any different? Use data to assess where your company currently stands with its D&I initiatives, especially around recruitment, promotions, and retention. Then, review the disparities between the majority and minority segments. Is one segment more likely to get promoted than another? Which segments are experiencing low workplace satisfaction and have the highest turnover? Are there salary discrepancies between employees doing the same role? Once you’ve identified the areas of discrepancy, you can then use data to prioritize which challenges to tackle first and communicate the “why” behind your decisions using a data-driven approach.

3. Involve everyone — not just senior leadership.

The #1 rule in change management is to get buy-in from the top. With inclusion, that’s not enough. It’s not enough for a CEO to promote inclusion if middle management doesn’t practice it, and the human resources team can’t be the only ones with inclusion goals on their performance plans. To create a truly inclusive culture, you’ll need active participation from every person in the organization. But how can you achieve this? By aligning inclusion initiatives with day-to-day job responsibilities. Include individual-level key performance indicators as criteria on annual performance plans. When each employee’s job performance and promotion eligibility is tied to their success in advancing inclusion, it becomes top-of-mind even for those who have not experienced these challenges. Just as you would for a company-wide revenue goal — every person should be held accountable for fostering a culture of inclusion.

4. Promote much-needed connections via affinity groups.

Affinity groups in the traditional sense — those that bring together allies on race, religion, and gender – are important. But, to foster belonging on a fundamental level, we also need affinity groups that remind us that we’re all humans who want to feel included. Non-traditional affinity groups, such as dog lovers, weekend hikers, or movie enthusiasts, can enhance the sense of comradery, improve employee retention, and help us realize that we’re all more alike than different.

The Future Is Inclusive Finance

The future of finance will be defined by the companies that move beyond diversity and foster true inclusion in the workplace. It will be uncomfortable at first, as is any major change that goes against business-as-usual. It will require commitment, communication, and accountability on all levels, not just senior leadership. But if my story as the first person of color to chair one of the world’s largest finance organizations has taught me anything, it’s that we succeed not despite our differences but because of them. And every minute that you put inclusion on the backburner is a lost opportunity to tap diversity of experience and thought that could lead to your company’s next billion-dollar idea.

Kimberly N. Ellison-Taylor has a diverse background in finance and technology; she is currently an executive director at Oracle and the chair-elect for the AICPA’s National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion.

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