Gusto Next: Diversity and Inclusion in Accounting

Gusto Editors

Original webinar date: October 22, 2021
This article is part of a series where we share the top insights from Gusto Next—the premiere conference for accounting professionals. Read the entire series and watch Gusto Next 2021

Diversity and Inclusion are two of the most sought-after traits that potential hires look for in a new occupation. To create a wholly inclusive work environment, businesses should fearlessly protect their team members’ individuality. In this session, Jina Etienne shared what it means to have #fearlessinclusion in the accounting industry. According to Jina, inclusion isn’t just making sure people feel comfortable as your team members or clients—inclusion is the entire ecosystem of an accounting firm.

To learn more about the future of accounting, be sure to stay up to date with the entire Gusto Next article series. Also, if you want an overview of everything covered at the Gusto Next 2021 event, you can read Gusto Next 2021 is a Wrap — Here’s What You Might Have Missed on our partner blog.

The importance of diversity and inclusion in accounting

Nobody has an identical background. Even people who belong to a similar demographic group have different perspectives on life because each person is unique in how they view the world. When businesses understand that everyone is different and embrace what makes someone an individual, everyone on the team gains new opportunities to learn and improve.

Diverse group of people talking and sharing ideas in the conference room

“Fearless inclusion, that’s my hashtag. It’s what I stand for, it’s what I work for, [and] it’s what I believe in. What [#fearlessinclusion] means is that I invite everyone into my circle, and I celebrate our differences because I know that I will learn from others who are different from me, especially [when others] have different perspectives and backgrounds.”

Jina Etienne

Many organizations are focused on inclusion right now, but they approach it from an internal perspective. Instead of focusing on inclusion within your firm’s internal culture, you should also incorporate clients in your business’s circle of inclusion. As accountants and advisors, clients are part of your community as well.

“I’m a CPA, and I had my own firm for 17 years. Without my clients, I had no practice, and without my people [and] my team, I had no clients. Inclusion is really about the entire ecosystem. [The ecosystem] is both your team and your clients. Including the client in your space, your ecosystem, your community, [and] your tribe is necessary.”

Jina Etienne

Your firm doesn’t only learn from having a fearlessly inclusive culture—it grows from it. When you create a work environment where your team and clients feel accepted, your business thrives. Humans crave connections with each other. The more you connect people into your circle, the better your firm will run.

“Humans are pack animals. We crave connection. When we feel included and like we belong, … productivity goes up, absenteeism goes down, and retention improves. Fearless inclusion also means working hard to create a space where people can build connections. It’s taking down barriers to foster belonging.”

Jina Etienne

When you can create a place where people feel included, you will reap the benefits. Your team will dedicate themselves to showing up for work and contributing their best because they want to help build the business. Also, your clients will keep returning because they know your firm cares more about them than the services you provide for them.

Focus on customer intimacy when working with clients

It’s often easy to maintain distance from clients and avoid getting to know them as people when you work with their finances. The usual thought is that keeping your distance prevents you from becoming too attached to clients, making you seem more professional. 

“I didn’t always understand that [inclusion was so important]. … When I started my practice, my focus was on infrastructure. I was thinking about what tax software to use because I’m a tax person. … I was also worried about the aesthetics of my firm, like the furniture. Sure, that stuff is important. We know that without procedures, software, and people, you can’t run an efficient practice.”

Jina Etienne

Thinking about efficiency first is not an uncommon thought in the accounting industry. The idea behind a focus on efficiency is, “The more efficient I am, the better price I can give my clients, and the more people will want to hire me.” According to Jina, this way of thinking was essential to the accounting industry of the past:

“Back in the day, we didn’t talk about authenticity—we didn’t talk about inclusion. Client experience when I was in practice was, ‘I’m going to get you your tax return on time for the fee I quoted you.’ That was the primary focus of building my practice. It was the work, not the relationships. For decades, this has been the image of the industry.”

Jina Etienne

However, focusing on procedure and efficiency can only get a business so far. To build a professional relationship with clients, you need to start personally. Customer intimacy is essential in modern accounting firms because people are much more than their financial accounts. If you do not connect with your clients personally, they will not desire to return to your firm for more work. Without a loyal client base, profitability suffers.

“Profitability requires more than efficiency—it requires a connection. The thing about tax is that it’s really about understanding the client. You need to understand their life, their family, their business, their values, and so much more.”

Jina Etienne
Group of diverse work colleagues clapping during a presentation while sitting together in a modern office

Making the switch from procedure to person is necessary for any business to run well, not just accounting firms. When you can truly focus on a client’s human nature and create a space of inclusion, your firm won’t just be the spot for them to have their taxes done—it will be a place they feel safe. In turn, clients will be more willing to trust your firm with their financial future because they feel accepted when they walk through your door.

Building a community of inclusion benefits everyone involved

Developing a community of inclusion that encompasses everyone who steps in your firm’s door lifts everybody around you. Having a work environment where people show up, do their jobs, and go home without a personal connection like a cog in a machine can no longer be the standard. People want to be seen, heard, and understood.

“Today’s workforce is looking for collaboration and connection. They want to work for firms that value their individuality, welcome their input, and understand the importance of wellbeing. Employees want to work for these organizations because they’re not just saying diversity is important, they’re showing it in actions.”

Jina Etienne

The more your firm focuses on the holistic nature of employees and clients, the more desirable it will be. A genuine dedication to making people feel included will do more than make people want to work for you. It will also give your firm the ability to help clients build their community of inclusion.

“Our clients are starting to look at this model as well. We are all trying to build these cultures of diversity and inclusion. We are connecting the dots between work, life, and a holistic lifestyle. This means being really intentional about the employee experience and reviewing practices and policies. … In August, 4.3 million people quit their job[s] because they want that balance.”

Jina Etienne

When you create the workplace environment people desire, it helps you understand the true meaning behind being a people advisor. Advising people takes more than assisting clients to be more successful financially—it takes learning about the person behind their accounts. When you can connect the dots between customer relationships and inclusion, your firm will stand out as a leader in the profession.

Learn more about managing diversity in the workplace and how to make employees feel valued

Creating a culture focused on the holistic nature of clients and team members doesn’t happen immediately, especially if your firm was procedurally concentrated for years. Think of your firm like a garden: everything doesn’t sprout all at once. It takes nurturing and cultivation to become something great.

“[An inclusive culture is like] a community garden. We’ve got to nurture. We’ve got to weed. We’ve got to figure out what different gardens and beds need at a given time. If we’re doing it in an ecosystem where everyone grows together, it might influence another. … It looks a little messy, but if you ask me, it’s beautiful because it’s holistic.”

Jina Etienne

The process of developing an inclusive environment takes time, and it can be messy every once in a while. However, that mess is where growth begins. Your firm will grow into something beautiful when you give it the proper amount of time and commitment.

If you’re curious about the future of accounting, watch the entire Gusto Next 2021 presentation here. Additionally, the Gusto Next 2021 wrap article is a convenient guide for everything we covered in this year’s convention. You can also join our waitlist to be notified about next year’s Gusto Next, where we’ll have more advice about building an outstanding culture of inclusion.

Gusto Editors Gusto Editors, contributing authors on Gusto, provide actionable tips and expert advice on HR and payroll for successful business management.
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