ICAEW.com works better with JavaScript enabled.

Small steps in inclusion create meaningful change

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 15 Jun 2023

DE&I has been talked about for many years – but how do you enact it in your organisation? Laura Murphy explains why accounting firms need partners who are committed to meaningful action.

The importance of taking small steps towards meaningful change shouldn’t be underestimated, particularly when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), where such changes can take time to be effective. 

Perhaps your workforce isn’t as diverse as it could be and pay gaps have emerged by accident rather than design. Or maybe you’re worried that the systemic factors preventing people from entering and progressing in the profession – such as caring responsibilities, accessibility, education, or too few role models they can relate to – are too big for one firm to overcome.

This is why I believe that reform requires commitment from today’s accounting firms and the wider industry, including technology providers such as ourselves. Forward-thinking accountants not only want to embed and embrace DE&I in their own businesses, but they also want to work with clients and suppliers who share these same values.

The end of DE&I-washing?

A decade ago, DE&I was further down the agenda (if it was even considered at all). Now, it’s arguably as important to the company’s success as health and safety. People have a fundamental right to feel comfortable and protected, both physically and emotionally, at work. 

Yet, like sustainability, DE&I has been subject to ‘washing’ over the years – a tick-box exercise instead of something that’s woven into the very fabric of organisational culture. 

As a newly formed company, we’re at the beginning of our own DE&I journey. And although we have decades of experience within the business to draw from, we recognise that you cannot achieve lasting change overnight. 

So, to avoid over-promising and under-delivering, we live by the ‘2% a day better’ mantra and focus on initiatives that deliver genuine value to employees, the business, our customers and their clients. We’re carving our own path, making sure that what we do is authentic and right for us. Because when you’re working towards a common goal, individuals can amplify the message organically across their teams and professional networks.

Right now, we’re raising awareness around DE&I and working out what we know and don’t know. That means asking ourselves questions about the people we’re hiring and whether there is some kind of bias. Although sometimes uncomfortable, this exercise is critical for us to make meaningful progress.

Solving skills shortages

Apart from simply doing the right thing, there’s a compelling business case for putting DE&I on the agenda. Skills shortages have plagued accountancy for years, so there’s an urgent need to widen the talent pool. Our own research indicates there are just two potential applicants for jobs in major cities such as Manchester and Nottingham. Bright’s CEO, Kevin McCallum, also recently highlighted how the 6.6% pay gap between male and female accountants could mean losing top talent to competitors who offer parity. 

While candidates are still looking for great roles and remuneration, they’re also actively seeking out firms that offer flexibility and whose values align with their own. And they can quickly differentiate between employers who only talk about DE&I and those who actually live it. It could be as simple as offering remote or hybrid working across the workforce, which removes barriers for people with caring responsibilities or health conditions. 

At Bright, we’re also looking at the recruitment process from a DE&I perspective, including the kind of questions we’re asking in interviews and who is making the hiring decisions. It’s important for us to vary the selection process and reduce bias through training. 

Creating an environment where people can be themselves can feel like a minefield at times, but it’s essential to get it right and correct any mistakes. We must also make sure that DE&I doesn’t get lost as the company grows, especially as our organisation already spans numerous countries.

Practical steps

We don’t want to pay lip service to DE&I – any initiative should deliver tangible benefits and measurable results. 

Feedback from employee surveys and focus groups inform and shape our policies, and we’re setting up a dedicated DE&I group that gives people from across the company a voice to speak up for as many groups, including socio-economic classes, nationalities, genders and sexualities.

Our teams are encouraged to get out of the office and take volunteer days to broaden their perspectives and do something fundamentally ‘human’. One employee helped refurbish a community centre, transforming a foodbank into a social supermarket that offers dignity to users and provides access to vital activities and support. 

Volunteers are invited to share their experiences and resources with their colleagues. Going out, doing something hands-on and helping others provides opportunities to learn new skills, and can promote better mental health and a culture of allyship. 

Promoting ‘returnships’

Considering overlooked groups is an important part of any DE&I strategy. The over-50s – including those who have been out of the workforce or want a change of career before retirement – are a prime example. 

There’s serious work to do around age discrimination – figures show that just two-fifths of managers would take on large numbers of people aged between 50 and 64, yet three-quarters are prepared to hire workers aged 18 to 34 on the same scale.

Alongside regular internships for students and graduates, returnships offer more experienced people an opportunity to learn something new, bringing with them skills and perspectives from other roles and their personal lives. 

Like any under-represented group, we need to be cognisant of the barriers older workers face and try to overcome them. There are so many reasons why someone might have gaps in their CV, whether it be due to raising a family, living abroad, going through an illness, or another life event. I think rather than seeing that as a negative, we should embrace the fact that these experiences are likely to have made them stronger and more determined individuals.

The government certainly wants to encourage returnships to capitalise on the skills and experience of the over-50s, pledging to increase the number of mid-life MOTs from 8,000 to 40,000 per year

Final thoughts

There is a raft of initiatives from ICAEW and others in the profession, as well as the wider gender pay gap reporting and 30% Club. While some are for larger businesses, every organisation should seek balance and diversity in both the boardroom and across its teams. 

We might question whether DE&I campaigns go far enough and the answer will probably always be ‘no’. But by putting DE&I firmly on the agenda, it enables you to move in the right direction and gives you an opportunity to tackle prejudice. When you aim for 2% improvement each day starting from now, you’ll be surprised what you can achieve when next year rolls around.

Laura Murphy, Chief People Officer at accounting technology specialist, Bright.

Diversity and inclusion at ICAEW

Diversity and inclusion is a key pillar of ICAEW's strategy. Discover relevant content, from topical articles on chartered accountancy to professional resources to help you thrive at work.

D&I hub promo

Discover more from ICAEW Insights

Insights showcases news, opinion, analysis, interviews and features on the profession with a focus on the key issues affecting accountancy and the world of business.

Podcast icon
Insights Podcast

Hear a panel of guests dissect the latest headlines and provide expert analysis on the top stories from across the world of business, finance and accountancy.

Find out more
Daily summaries
Three yellow pins planted into a surface in a row
News in brief

Read ICAEW's daily summary of accountancy news from across the mainstream media and broader financing sector.

See more
A megaphone
Stay up to date

You can receive email update from ICAEW insights either daily, weekly or monthly, subscribe to whichever works for you.

Sign up