In Brief

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Creating a diverse and inclusive work environment entails a variety of strategies. One common approach is to encourage professionals to be authentic to themselves at the office—but many managers don’t fully understand how racially authentic behavior is displayed in the workplace. From a practice management perspective, training supervisors in the art of perspective-taking can foster interpersonal relationships, build trust between diverse employees, and lead to higher retention rates for African American accountants.

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Organizations invest in diversity and inclusion programs to educate and to motivate employees about the value of workforce diversity and inclusive work environments. A common theme of these programs is to encourage employees to bring their whole selves to work—to be authentic. Although diversity initiatives inspire members of societally marginalized groups to be authentic, do their co-workers, particularly their supervisors, understand how racially authentic behavior is displayed in the workplace? Moreover, how might supervisors increase their familiarity with African Americans in order to understand why being racially authentic is important? Another essential question is: What is the effect on retention when African Americans feel at ease displaying racially authentic behavior while increasing familiarity with supervisors?

This article has a threefold purpose: 1) to offer insight on what racially authentic behavior might look like; 2) to describe how African Americans’ career aspirations align with supervisor familiarity and their desire to leave the firm; and 3) to consider how perspective-taking could improve a supervisor’s effectiveness at increasing familiarity with their African American colleagues and direct reports.

Racially Authentic Behavior

In a survey of 220 African Americans attending the National Association of Black Accountants’ (NABA) annual conference, 153 respondents indicated that they wanted to be racially authentic with colleagues. As such, it is necessary to understand how African Americans display racially authentic behavior and why they value being true to themselves. Examples of racially authentic behavior include the following:

  • Feeling comfortable listening to one’s preferred music;
  • Displaying tasteful yet racially oriened artwork or literature in one’s cubicle or office;
  • Wearing culturally representative yet appropriate clothing or accessories;
  • Inviting co-workers to restaurants or entertainment venues owned by African Americans;
  • Engaging in constructive conversations about race-related matters;
  • Feeling comfortable asking for alternative work arrangements to attend religious services; and
  • Wearing African American hairstyles.

Focus groups were conducted in conjunction with the survey. Three focus group participants shared the following experiences:

If [white colleagues are] in my car, I play rap, but I might say something like, “Hey, you want to hook your phone up for a little while, kind of rotate phones?” As I know what I’ve got on my phone you may not like, so we can switch it. So, I still kind of juggle what I like and embrace what I like, but still kind of expose them to what I like, but also give them a chance to be who they are as well. —Participant A, Focus Group 1

I love [Nike Air] Jordans, but I don’t want to be the stereotypical black guy that wears Jordans at work, so when I saw one of my white counterparts, he had a pair of Jordans… and so it immediately sparked up a conversation, so we talked about when the shoe came out and the history behind the shoe, what game he was playing when he was wearing the shoe. So, we kind of were able to wear Jordans at work. — Participant E, Focus Group 2

I had a blowout, and people would comment and say, “That doesn’t look like you, who is that girl?” And I would have to say, “It’s me, it’s just a blowout, settle down, it’s not hard. And I actually had that conversation during a meeting with two partners, and they had this whole conversation about my hair, and where I should go to get my hair done. I’m sorry, these are like 40-year-old white guys … telling me where I should get my hair done. —Participant C, Focus Group 1

For many African Americans, being racially authentic protects them from negative experiences related to unconscious/implicit bias, microaggressions, negative stereotypes, and discrimination. Racial authenticity is also an expression of the value to their self-concept of being African American in a society where the historical contributions of African Americans have often been forgotten or diminished. While being racially authentic has its challenges, it may lead to honest conversations that increase familiarity with supervisors, which may in turn lead to higher retention. The survey participants (who worked primarily in public accounting) answered questions about being racially authentic; supervisor familiarity; and their desire to leave the firm. For the 153 participants who wanted to be racially authentic, their responses revealed the degree to which: 1) racially authentic behavior protected them from negative race-related experiences; 2) the behavior affected their ability to increase familiarity with supervisors; and 3) supervisor familiarity influenced their desire to leave the firm. Exhibit 1 reports important associations between these three aspects of some African American accountants’ work-lives.

Exhibit 1

Degree of Supervisor Familiarity, Racial Authenticity, and Desire to Leave for African Americans Who Want to be Racially Authentic

Supervisor Familiarity; Racial Authenticity; Desire to Leave Low; High; Low; High Low; 14%; 23%; 13%; 24% High; 23%; 40%; 47%; 16%; Note: Survey participants answered questions on a 5-point Likert-type scale for supervisor familiarity and desire to leave, and the mean scores were 3.95 and 3.09, respectively. Participants answered questions on a 6-point type scale for racial authenticity; the mean score was 3.56. Participants were categorized as high or low if their individual mean score was higher or lower than 3.95, 3.09, and 3.56.

There are two key takeaways from Exhibit 1. First, 40% (61) of the respondents reported high racial authenticity and high supervisor familiarity—more than any other category for racial authenticity. Second, 47% (72) reported high supervisor familiarity and low desire to leave—more than any other category for desire to leave. Based on statistical analyses of the data, racial authenticity is related to high supervisor familiarity, and supervisor familiarity is related to low desire to leave. The challenge facing CPA firms is determining how to increase the percentage of African Americans who have high supervisor familiarity.

Alignment of Career Aspirations with Supervisor Familiarity and Desire to Leave

New recruits to public accounting could begin their careers with aspirations to: 1) become partner; 2) gain experience that makes them marketable; or 3) provide them with the skills to pursue other dreams. Strong relationships with supervisors are critical to realizing these aspirations. Exhibit 2 compares four groups of survey participants and their responses to three aspirational statements. The groups were: 1) low supervisor familiarity and low desire to leave (LSF/LDL); (2) low supervisor familiarity and high desire to leave (LSF/HDL); 3) high supervisor familiarity and low desire to leave (HSF/LDL); and 4) high supervisor familiarity and high desire to leave (HSF/HDL).

Exhibit 2

African Americans’ Aspirations by Degree of Supervisor Familiarity and Desire to Leave

Statement 1 When I started in public accounting, I only wanted to stay a few years.; Statement 2 I want to make it to partner.; Statement 3 I believe I can make it to partner. GROUP; D; NAD; A; D; NAD; A; D; NAD; A LSF/LDL 15% 26% 59% 11% 34% 55% 4% 15% 81% N =28; 3 years LSF/HDL; 30%; 11%; 59%; 49%; 19%; 32%; 41%; 21%; 38% N =53; 3 years HSF/LDL; 39%; 10%; 51%; 12%; 14%; 74%; 3%; 13%; 84% N =99; 2 years HSF/HDL; 26%; 5%; 69%; 39%; 32%; 29%; 21%; 13%; 66% N =40; 3 years Note: N = number of participants per group. D = Disagree. NAD = Neither Agree nor Disagree. A = Agree. For example, for group LSF/LDL, Statement 1, of the 28 respondents, 15% Disagree, 26% Neither Agree or Disagree, and 59% Agree. LSF/LDL = low supervisor familiarity and low desire to leave; LSF/HDL = low supervisor familiarity and high desire to leave; HSF/LDL = high supervisor familiarity and low desire to leave; HSF/HDL =, high supervisor familiarity and high desire to leave.

LSF/LDL.

This group has low supervisor familiarity, but also the lowest (15%) desire to leave. On average, they have been with their firm three years and more than half (55%) want to become partner; moreover, a substantially higher percentage (81%) believe they can become partner. Based on their ambitions—and the fact that 26% (higher than any other group) neither agreed or disagreed that they wanted to stay a few years—these individuals should be identified and provided challenging assignments and mentors who are adept at coaching employees who may maintain a low profile but have management potential.

LSF/HDL.

This group has the highest risk of leaving, due to the combination of low supervisor familiarity and high desire to leave. These accountants could have more negative workplace experiences tied to race; however, long work hours or difficulty passing the CPA exam are other factors. CPA firms should identify these individuals as soon as possible, in order to understand their experiences.

Of the 53 individuals in this group, 16 wanted to stay longer than a few years and 6 were unsure—perhaps higher familiarity with supervisors could lower their desire to leave.

HSF/LDL.

This is the ideal group for focused development and retention initiatives. They appear to have good relationships with supervisors and no immediate intention to leave. This was the largest group of survey participants, with the highest share of individuals wanting to stay longer than a few years (39%) and individuals wanting (74%) and believing (84%) they could become partner. Another distinguishing point between this group and the others is their average tenure of two years, compared with three. This is interesting because it is around the three-year mark is when junior accountants are typically promoted to supervisory roles. The question becomes: Will they remain HSF/LDL as they take on greater responsibilities while managing their desire to be racially authentic in two directions—with direct reports and supervisors? This observation illuminates a facet of the retention problem that might be overlooked and requires mentoring for African Americans as they move into supervisory roles.

HSF/HDL.

While it would be ideal to retain this group, most of these individuals are probably not retainable. Perhaps they have short-term objectives to obtain high-quality experience, pass the CPA exam, and move on to industry. Compared with the other groups, HSF/HDL included the highest percentage (69%) of those knowing they do not want to stay longer than a few years, yet the majority (66%) believe they can become partner; thus, they appear confident in their potential to advance, but have other plans.

When familiarity with supervisors is high and desire to leave is low, an optimal environment for the retention of African Americans exists. Survey participants self-reported their levels of racial authenticity and supervisor familiarity; therefore, it is imperative to ask: “what would supervisors report as their level of familiarity with African American direct reports?” Findings from another survey [see “Challenges Continue for African American Accountants” (M. Dey, L. Lim, C. Little, and F. Ross, “Challenges continue for African-American accountants: Survey shows mixed results despite a big effort to increase opportunities,” Journal of Accountancy, vol. 227, no. 1, p. 40, 2019) indicate that additional work is required to improve familiarity between African Americans and supervisors—perspective-taking—may be an important part of that work.

Perspective-Taking: An Interpersonal Relationship Management Tool

Exhibit 1 illustrates that familiarity between African Americans and supervisors is an important bridge between being racially authentic and a low desire to leave. Supervisors capable of building familiarity with African Americans may foster mutually beneficial relationships that positively influence retention. Increasing supervisor familiarity might be aided by “perspective-taking”—a cognitive process that supervisors can use to increase their awareness and appreciation for their African American co-workers’ experiences. Perspective-taking is imagining yourself walking in another’s shoes; or, apropos to the work-life experiences of African Americans, imagining yourself performing your job as an African American.

Importantly, perspective-taking is not just about empathy, but rather the hard mental work of trying to understand the challenges that being African American—along with associated stigmas—may present in daily interactions with co-workers. As referees of fair playing fields (i.e., the work environment) supervisors should treat team members equitably; moreover, given that an African American’s race is generally salient, supervisors need a technique to become aware of potential problems related to heightened visibility of African Americans. In the case of Participant A (introduced above), a perspective-taking supervisor considers:

  • What is it like be the only African American on the team?
  • Is one missed more because they are the easiest to be identified as not present?
  • Does one need a break from the crowd because it may at times be overwhelming to work in a group where one does not feel included?

Employees have the responsibility to competently perform their jobs and to work well with team members; however, they should be able to work in inclusive environments that do not require them to conform to expectations that are not consistently applied to others. Ironically, Participant A is the person who plays rap music in his car—as an actual supervisor—he engaged in perspective-taking by considering how his white co-workers may feel about listening to rap and offered them an opportunity to play their music in his car (and in the audit room).

Fortunately, prior studies [“‘Putting myself in their shoes’: Ethnic Perspective Taking Explains Liberal-Conservative Differences in Prejudice and Stereotyping” (D. J. Sparkman & S. Eidelman, Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 98, pp. 1–5, 2016); Perspective-Taking Increases Willingness to Engage in Intergroup Contact (C. S. Wang, T. Kenneth, G. Ku, and A. D. Galinsky, PloS one, vol. 9, no.1, e85681, 2014); Perspective Taking Combats Automatic Expressions of Racial Bias (A. R. Todd, G. V. Bodenhausen, J. A. Richeson, and A. D. Galinsky, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 100, no. 6, p. 1027, 2011); and Perspective and Prejudice: Antecedents and Mediating Mechanisms (J. F. Dovidio, M. Ten Vergert, T. L. Stewart, et al., Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 30, no. 12, pp. 1537–1549, 2004) have validated perspective-taking as an effective social strategy that reduces prejudice and bias when whites perspective-take on members of marginalized groups. Professor Michell Williams has observed that:

Perspective taking allows people to better understand what others find threatening to their valued identities and to their material well-being. It also provides the information necessary to mitigate the threat others perceive during collaborative interactions [“Building Genuine Trust through Interpersonal Emotion Management: A Threat Regulation Model of Trust and Collaboration Across Boundaries” (2007)].

One African American accountant shared her story about a first-year experience when she communicated to a supervisor the importance for her of going to church on Sunday, but she still experienced scheduling conflicts. To the firm’s credit, others intervened to solve the problem and she is beginning her third year with the firm. For African Americans, these types of experiences are threats that might be avoided by perspective-taking supervisors who can deescalate the severity of such experiences, which can be harmful to one’s well-being. In focus group discussions, an important observation about African Americans’ work-life experiences in public accounting was how emotionally taxing it was to perform at work while fighting against devaluation of their racial identity. One focus group participant said:

My goal when I came in was to at least make manager, but at this point in almost three years, I’m tired—not with the work, but just everything we talked about. It takes a toll on you, and I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this. —Participant H, Focus Group 2.

Perspective-taking can help supervisors understand and appropriately react to the potentially negative aspects of an African American CPA’s daily work-life. According to the Association for Talent Development:

Some diversity training programs adopt a perspective-taking approach, encouraging participants to work through scenarios and imagine what it would be like to experience the situation as a member of a different group. Interactive computer-guided simulations are now available that let learners assume the role of a member of a different group, and role-play workplace interactions from the perspectives of all parties involved (W. L. Johnson and A. S. Y. A. Anderson, “Perspective-Taking Skills for a Multigenerational Workforce,” Development, 2016; vol. 70, no. 2, pp. 70–71).

From a practice management perspective, training supervisors in the art of perspective-taking might have a twofold benefit: First, fostering interpersonal relationships can build trust between diverse employees and lead to higher retention rates for African American accountants. Second, it can lead to a higher return on investment in diversity and inclusion programs.

Edward E. Scott, PhD, CPA, is an associate professor of accounting at Slippery Rock University, Slippery Rock, Pa.