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Updated: October 17, 2022 shop talk

Q&A: AAFCPAs' diversity efforts seek to create an inclusive culture

Photo | Courtesy of AAFCPAs Sorie Kaba

As its client base has gotten more diverse, accounting firm AAFCPAs has sought to make its work environment more inclusive to people of different backgrounds, cultures, and religions. Sorie Kaba, a devout Muslim who joined the firm in 1999, has led those efforts for the past three years. 

How did you get involved with AAFCPAs’ DEI efforts?

We launched the diversity, equity, and inclusion committee in 2019, and I became the chair at that time. I was driven to the committee because of the passion I have for DEI. It wasn’t just because I’m a minority, but because I see how important it is for businesses to create a place where all its people can succeed.

The culture we have here is very embracing. I came from a foreign country and didn’t know much about the company, but I had such a unique experience joining AAFCPAs, where I really felt embraced and welcomed. My desire to be involved with DEI really stemmed from that experience.

What do people not know about DEI?

It is more than just bringing on people of color into your organization to meet some quota. You have to make sure you have an inclusive culture where they can succeed.

How does AAFCPAs create such a culture?

In 2011, the Women’s Opportunity Network started working with our now Managing Partner Carla McCall to address gender diversity in the firm. At the time, our employee base was 25% women.

As part of that effort, we looked at the particular challenges women face, such as often being the primary caregiver. So, we came up with flexible schedules where women could fit their responsibilities around their lives. That helped with retention, and now our employee base is closer to 45% women.

How do you expand that work to be inclusive of other groups?

DEI is a much broader picture because you have a broader group of people from much different backgrounds. If you are going to embrace diversity, you have to think about your working environment. It has to be a place where people can come in and thrive. People should be aware of the differences of all these different groups, and you should make sure you are providing the assistance people need to be successful.

How does it manifest itself?

We have practices in place that are part of DEI. Whenever we hire a new staff, they get assigned a coach and go through this professional development program for two years. We have had those structures in place.

With DEI, we realize personal issues related to a person’s background that may impact their work. For someone who doesn’t speak English as their first language, for example, it may be better to communicate in writing, rather than verbally.

We do an annual unconscious bias training, so people understand what is different about each other. We are culturally aware of others and try to understand how that impacts their work. For example, I fast during Ramadan, which is an Islamic holiday. During that time, I have to leave work a little earlier than usual to go home and break my fast, so I start my day a little earlier.

For other people, maybe they don’t work on certain days because it is part of their religion or their culture. So, we let people know there is a thought process on why people are working certain hours and certain days.

How do you communicate these differences?

We have a bimonthly lunch-and-learn initiative to educate each other on DEI issues. This is a one-hour session where we can talk about different topics. It can be about race relations, what are the appropriate topics related LGBTQ, and how you interact with a Muslim. Then, we have follow-up training on topics that may have come up during the lunch and learn.

I led a discussion called “Ask a Muslim.” We had a one-hour chat where Carla McCall asked me all sorts of questions. The topics included abortion, LGBTQ, and how I interact in spaces dominated by white people. We talked about how Muslims have five daily prayers, and how male and female interaction can be different.

Islamic tradition is about being modest when you interact with the opposite sex. Traditionally, you shouldn’t touch a woman who isn’t your wife, your sister, or your very close relative. This is meant to help people understand, if you, for example, are a man interviewing a female Muslim, she may be hesitant to shake your hand.

People were really appreciative of that discussion, and we’ve had other discussions, too, on race, neurodiversity, and religion.

This interview was conducted and edited for length and clarity by WBJ Editor Brad Kane.

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