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Improving pathways for diverse talent in audit firms

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 27 Feb 2023

Grant Thornton’s approach to removing barriers for diverse people is intrinsic to how the firm operates as a whole, says its Resourcing and Inclusion Senior Manager Jemma Pearson.

The need to build a more diverse profile across the audit profession is front of mind among the sector’s largest firms.

In August last year, Deloitte unveiled plans to recruit an additional 6,000 staff up to the end of 2027, with the backing of a £125m budget to boost audit quality. In a statement, Katie Houldsworth, UK People and Purpose Leader in Deloitte’s Audit and Assurance team, said that the firm was not just looking to hire ‘traditional’ accountants and would therefore “continue to evolve our hiring processes to ensure we attract the best range of talent from all backgrounds”.

Two months later, EY announced that it had recruited 35% more students in the course of last year than it had in 2021, amid a drive to invest in young talent to assist future growth. In all, the firm had recruited 1,269 graduates and 204 apprentices, of which 41% were women and 45% were from an ethnic minority background – with 4% of that segment identifying as Black or Mixed-Black.

Outside the Big Four, other firms are no less engaged with the process of removing barriers for diverse jobseekers and ensuring they will play a key role in the profession’s future. One firm that identifies very closely with that mission is Grant Thornton.

Inclusive language

In her role as Resourcing and Inclusion Senior Manager, Jemma Pearson oversees recruitment across every part of Grant Thornton’s business, including its audit team. The firm’s approach to improving pathways for diverse talent begins at the earliest stage of the hiring process.

“We review the language in our job adverts to ensure they are as open and inclusive as possible and aim to get across that this isn’t just lip-service – this is our true culture,” she says. “We also put a lot of emphasis on flexibility. In fact, we’ve just changed the wording on our audit adverts with those points in mind. We also want our adverts to be clear that we are happy to consider people who are returning to the audit profession.”

That doesn’t just mean those who are coming back to work after long career breaks – Grant Thornton already runs an ongoing returner programme – but people who have been auditors in the past, subsequently worked in other industries and are now looking to head back into audit. “We’ve hired a few such individuals in the past year, who are now thriving in our agile culture,” Pearson says.

Moving one stage further, the firm has a positive-action recruitment process for candidates with disabilities or long-term conditions – and guarantees first-stage interviews for those who meet the minimum criteria of the job requirements. “There’s a huge amount of content on our careers site that’s focused on inclusion stories,” Pearson points out, “and sharing information on how we can make adjustments for disabled people or those with long-term conditions in the workplace. We currently have a Disability Confident rating of 3 [the highest], which demonstrates our commitment to this.”

Grant Thornton harnesses the expertise of specialist, diversity-focused agencies and job boards to develop candidate pools for roles. In addition, it provides pre-interview coaching for diverse applicants. “We will of course consider and progress less-diverse candidates alongside them, too, to ensure there’s no discrimination,” Pearson says. 

Alongside those measures, the firm takes care to enhance the diversity of its interview panels. “We think it’s just as important for male interviewees as it is for female candidates to see that there are women on the panel,” Pearson notes. “It shows that we have women in our firm who are making key decisions, and that this is an organisation that fully respects gender balance. Male candidates will need to embrace that outlook.”

Be your true self

Grant Thornton’s careers content makes genuine efforts to showcase the contribution of LGBTQIA+ talent, to help recruits and people already in the business understand that their identities are supported.

“We enable people to choose their relevant gender pronoun during the application and onboarding process,” Pearson says. “So, if a candidate chooses to be referred to by a pronoun that’s neither he nor she, HR will speak to the hiring manager to make sure that choice is supported right from the interview stage to the day they start, and beyond. In fact, I’m currently in the process of writing a new LGBTQIA+ training session for my team, so they can really ensure they’re getting the terminology, understanding and support right.”

In its interview confirmation emails, the firm removes further barriers by clarifying that candidates can dress how they choose to dress when they meet the panel – a policy that applies equally to non-gender conforming attire and religious wear. “The message is that you can be your true self here,” Pearson notes. ”This is something we’re really passionate about, and we have support right from the top – enabling that ethos to extend through our daily working lives, where our people continue to be supported and encouraged.”

Further to its positive processes around identity, the firm devotes significant efforts to social mobility – and currently ranks second in the UK Social Mobility Employer Index. “We were the first, large professional services firm to remove academic barriers to our trainee positions,” Pearson notes, “meaning that we take a rounded view of the candidate’s potential. Academic achievements in isolation are no longer something we screen candidates in or out on.”

In keeping with that approach, the firm was a founding signatory of Access Accountancy, a work experience programme that provides entry to the profession to those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. “We currently host around 200 students through this programme every year,” Pearson says, “enhancing their opportunity to join our profession in the future and ensuring our doors are open to all.”

Evaluating impacts

Pearson points out that the majority of Grant Thornton’s trainees go into the audit part of the business, so the firm’s trainee recruitment process is also designed – and, where necessary, redesigned – to improve pathways for diverse talent.

“For specific areas of our trainee recruitment process,” she says, “we run an adverse-impact review on each, chronological stage. That involves assessing our diverse candidates against our non-diverse candidates and seeing whether any part of the process is creating an adverse impact for a specific group. If we find that it is, we’ll make changes to that part of the process.”

As an example, following one such review in 2021, the firm introduced specialist coaching for Black candidates at a specific stage of the trainee recruitment process, because that was where the impact had emerged. “As a result,” Pearson says, “we hired more Black trainee candidates last year.”

Indeed, Grant Thornton has built a strong track record on ethnicity across the board: last year, 68% of the firm’s new audit-experienced hires, plus 50% of all hires across the experienced-hire spectrum, were from ethnic-minority backgrounds.

In parallel with those initiatives, the firm is taking significant steps to empower female staff and help them to envision the possibilities that may await them as their careers develop.

“Our Head of Audit is a woman,” Pearson notes, “as is our Head of Tax. In addition, we have a number of great women in leadership roles across the firm, who all take very active roles in driving high levels of interest in the finance industry among women. We do lots of podcasts and interviews with our female employees for both internal and external use to attract women into the profession. And last year, we ran a project on demystifying the partner role, so that more of our people – particularly women – would be able to understand how it works and think about the path to getting there.

“Working in finance is a tough job,” she adds. “Everyone works really hard. So, we want to ensure that every group that works with us feels supported. And we want to understand how to increase that support where needed, to ensure we provide an environment where our people can be their true selves: a culture that gets the absolute best out of everyone, and values difference in our people.”

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