Supporting Black Employees and Future Leaders in the Workplace
When longtime financial reporting leader Levongia Carrera started exploring the field of accounting, she hoped it could lead to a job right after college. In fact, it led her to a career of firsts, including becoming one of the first Black employees of her accounting firm to do an international rotation when the company sent her to Bogota, Colombia.
“The one thing about being the first is you're isolated,” Levongia said on the Workiva podcast Off the Books, in which she discussed her career, from senior auditor at a Big 4 accounting firm to leading as a founding member of the ESG Professionals Group. “You're kind of alone. You don't quite feel like you fit. You don't know what to expect…That's one of the things that I can say about being the first in certain things. It can be lonely, scary, intimidating, all of those things. But if you persevere through them, you actually become stronger. You become a resource for someone else.”
About 5% of all professional staff in accounting or finance functions of U.S. CPA firms are Black, according to the latest trends report of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). There were 20 Black CFOs within the S&P 500 and Fortune 500 in 2021, according to The Wall Street Journal, up significantly from 2020 but still far below their representation in the U.S. population overall. Many companies have prioritized raising those numbers.
A key may be making the workplace feel more comfortable for Black employees. For professionals to feel like they’re in an environment where they can thrive, they need to feel safe, seen, and supported at work, Frank Cooper III and Ranjay Gulati wrote in Harvard Business Review about research they conducted.
Creating a workplace where employees feel safe, seen, supported
What might a supportive environment look like, and what can leaders do?
1. Free employees from feeling like they can’t fail
The pressure to be perfect can be exhausting, Levongia said. “I know I need to stand or represent not just myself but my community when I go out there, even as the first person, because if I mess it up, that's going to mess it up for the next person coming behind me,” she said.
Cooper and Gulati suggest destigmatizing failure is just one step leaders can take.
2. Create opportunities for employees to learn from each other
“If you are of a race that is the majority, the things that you do, the places you go, the things you see on TV, the systems that you are in already accommodate you,” Levongia said. “Whereas the folks that are from the minority who have to live in an environment that's not structured for them, they're already growing up being coached about all the things about you, right? About how your system works, about how the system doesn't necessarily think of them or incorporate their needs so that this is how they have to maneuver in order to first interact with you.”
Employee resource groups (ERGs) can be an important part of building communities where members feel comfortable. Some companies have opened ERGs or ERG meetings to a wider audience, including allies, to create more chances for employees from different backgrounds to share experiences.
3. Show employees they matter
Company managers who acknowledged that employees may have felt distracted after the deaths of George Floyd and Tyre Nichols, for example, can demonstrate empathy toward their team members. Levongia noted the messages some employers sent pushing back against anti-Asian sentiments during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When a company can do all these different things that's saying, ‘I see you, I value you, I value what you bring,’ you feel a sense of security and safety being yourself in that environment because they see you for who you are,” Levongia said. “You can be who you are. And they back it up by the programs they have in place that help you advance in their organization.”
4. Help employees widen their networks
In a world where business can happen on golf courses, in the box seats of a sporting event, or at happy hour, business connections that are strengthened outside the office can lead to promotions or new job opportunities.
“When you think about success stories, they're built around relationships and relationship building—people understanding and getting and wanting to know who you are and taking an interest in you,” Levongia said. “But if you're in an environment where that's not happening, you tend to miss out on a lot of opportunities for personal growth and sharing of ideas. And so, for me, as an executive, I feel more safe if I feel seen. And I feel seen if I have evidence in the organization and in management where they're actually taking an interest.”
5. Don’t just make statements about diversity goals—show results
Tracking workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts should be part of corporate environmental, social, and governance (ESG) programs and ESG reporting. Modern technology has made it easier for organizations to manage and report ESG data in real time more quickly so that the public can measure the company against what leaders said they do.
Levongia is an advocate of companies creating more educational programs or internships for high school students to expose them to accounting and finance, and find mentors in those fields. “I don't think you need to wait till college. I think you need to get in there while they're in high school and they're already kind of thinking about what do I want to do,” she said.
Listen to the full episode of Off the Books featuring Levongia Carrera: