Ralph Thomas still remembers walking into meetings when he was at Citbank. He was greeted warmly – but usually with a look.
“When I would go out with our senior bankers, I could just tell that people were thinking, ‘He’s the junior person on the team,’” Thomas said. “And when those bankers said, ‘Ralph’s team,’ you could just see the change in expression.”
Thomas was the head of due diligence. He also was often the only person of color in the room.
“You could tell people thought I was just one of the staff people,” he said. “They didn’t know that I was going to be making the decision on whether we’re going to get a loan from the bank.”
Thomas laughs when he tells the story. And he doesn’t necessarily view it as a moment of racism — but a moment worthy of reflection.
It’s an example of what happens when there is not enough diversity in a room or an organization, he said.
Thomas is hoping to change that — and he’s been trying to since he took over as the head of the New Jersey Society of CPAs more than 20 years ago. And he said he’s trying to bring more people of color into the accounting profession not to change perceptions — but to improve performance.
“When you’re able to have a situation where everybody doesn’t think the same, you come out with better solutions and better recommendations, and more importantly, better results on the bottom line,” he told ROI-NJ.
“That’s what I’ve been pushing for here and in my almost 44 years being in the profession. Those are the things that we need to work on. And organizations need to work on having more inclusive cultures that embrace our differences.”
It’s the reason why, Thomas said, the group issued revised guidelines for diversity and inclusion in the accounting industry. New times call for new rules, he said.
“It used to be a situation where it was tough to get people into an organization,” he said. “Now, the issue is, we get people of color and ethnicity and gender in, but we don’t have a culture that’s welcoming.
“I think that’s where a lot of organizations need to take a step back and say, ‘What do we need to do differently to create an environment where people feel welcome, feel that they can succeed and be successful in their careers?’”
The recommendations offer concrete examples of how accounting and financial firms can act. They need it. (See below for complete list.)
“When you look at the demographics of partners in accounting and finance functions, less than 2% of the partners in accounting firms are African American,” Thomas said.
Blacks are not the only class that lack real representation. Hispanics, Asians, Indians also are lacking. As are women. Though women’s representation has a different twist.
“When you look at accounting programs from a gender perspective, the majority of accounting grads now are women, it’s 51%,” Thomas said. “But when you look at the number of females that have been able to rise to the partnership level, that number is somewhere in the area of about 23%. So, there’s work that has to be done there, too.”
The good news. Accounting and financial firms realize it, Thomas said.
“When we did our statement on the George Floyd incident, we had some feedback from our members that said, ‘I want to get involved in a diversity initiative for the society.’”
Thomas hopes that effort goes beyond promotions and even the hiring of recent graduates.
“One of the major goals is try to get CPAs of color to participate in the high school program that we have, where we have members go out and talk about the profession and talk about the opportunities that exist there,” he said.
The reason? It’s not only good for society, it’s good for business.
“Looking at some data points, the growth in small businesses today is largely the result of minority-owned businesses, women-owned businesses and Latino-owned businesses,” Thomas said.
“Those organizations or individual business owners may want to have service professionals that look like them, that understand their culture. That’s why I look at this from more of a business imperative. This is a great opportunity to get minorities interested in becoming CPAs because there’s an opportunity for them to be successful.”
To do so, however, takes action. Not just words. That’s why the recommendations include actionable items.
“It was purposeful,” Thomas said. “I’ve been involved in many diversity and inclusion initiatives. It isn’t about programs and things of that nature, sure those help, but if you’re going to be serious about diversity and inclusion, you have to make it part of an organization’s DNA. It has to be something that’s built in and baked into the strategic initiative of an organization, because this is not about a destination, it’s about a journey.”
NJCPA’s statement on diversity
Diversity, equity and inclusion are core values at the New Jersey Society of CPAs. We know through experience that different ideas, perspectives and backgrounds create a stronger and more creative work environment that delivers better results.
Diversity and inclusion are the principles guiding how we build teams, cultivate leaders and create a membership organization and profession that’s the right fit for every person inside of it.
In principle and in practice, we are committed to diversifying the accounting profession, because we understand that a workforce that’s reflective of the communities it serves is strongly positioned to succeed in an evolving, global marketplace.
The NJCPA supports diversity in the profession by:
- Raising awareness of the accounting profession and providing programs and financial assistance to students from underrepresented populations
- Educating members about the business case for diversity in the accounting profession and recognizing exceptional CPAs and firms excelling in this area
- Working with members and firms to increase programs designed to recruit, retain and advance diverse talent
- Working with academic institutions to develop pathways for existing professionals of color who seek to work in academia
- Collaborating with community-based organizations to engage in financial literacy, mentor programs and other initiatives aimed at increasing diversity in the accounting profession