For most people, recognizing their unconscious tendencies to favor those most like them over others is difficult. In-group-out-group bias is typically based on observable traits that we tend to associate with certain behaviors. Big traits include race or gender, while more trivial traits might include height or sports team affiliation. Sometimes these biases help keep us safe, like the instinct to hide when we see someone brandish a weapon; but sometimes they prejudice our views. In a business context, in-group-out-group bias can create inequality by impacting how we evaluate others or allocate resources.
Although people try to keep the potential negative effects of in-group- out-group bias from impacting their personal and business relationships, they sometimes fail. This is, in part, because it is impossible to walk in someone else’s shoes. A person who has always been rich cannot understand the hurdles faced by someone who grew up poor. Supporting minority causes or having a Black friend doesn’t mean a person understands the perspectives of persons of color or the biases they may face. For example, a white person might view assigning a Black person to lead the company’s diversity committee as an indicator of confidence in the Black person’s ability to solve an important problem. But the Black person may view the assignment as the white person saying, “Diversity is your problem, not mine.” Neither view is completely right nor wrong.
By supplementing data related to common internal audit career milestones — which can be notably different for persons of color — with stories collected from recent interviews of Black internal auditors that touch on these milestones, we hope to illuminate the Black experience in the profession and help mitigate in-group and out-group biases that may exist.
The Career Milestones
While an internal audit career progresses along a path similar to public and managerial accountants, with promotions and increased supervisory responsibilities, it also has milestones. These include interactions with the board of directors that come sooner and more routinely, and other experiences, such as critiquing individuals with more seniority, that are unique to internal audit’s role within an organization. Here we consider experiences unique to Black internal auditors associated with four milestones — getting the job, working with management, working with the board, and getting ahead.
Getting the Job
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Blacks are underrepresented in the accounting profession, representing 9% of 1.9 million accountants and auditors, but 13% of the U.S. population. Based on a report from the Center for American Progress, The Neglected College Race Gap: Racial Disparities Among College Completers, a likely contributor to this disparity is the underrepresentation of Blacks in higher education and in business-related degree programs. In-group–out-group unconscious biases also may contribute.
When a Black chief audit executive (CAE) of a large private organization interviewed for an internal audit position, she perceived the organization doubted her integrity, perhaps because of her race. She felt that her word was not sufficient; even awards and accolades included on her resume required proof.
‘‘The interviewer went to people I knew and asked them questions [about memberships and awards], not knowing that they would come directly to me. She wanted to make sure that I had the experience and that it wasn’t just fluff on a resume.”
A Black senior auditor of a middle-market, publicly traded company shared a similar story about a Black colleague’s hiring.
‘‘We came on board at the same time, so of course we exchanged experiences. He told me the internal audit team did a lot of digging on him after being hired. He said that they checked his LinkedIn account, went digging through his background, and came back asking him questions about his credentials. He felt really weird about that.”
Being Black can be perceived as a disqualifier when a non-Black person with less experience and skill is hired, as the story of a CAE at a large publicly traded corporation suggests.
‘‘They don’t say, ‘We don’t want you because you’re Black.’ They tell you that you don’t qualify and then they hire a white person who is less qualified than you. I’ve had it happen to me three times in my professional career.”
Sometimes race concerns are explicit, as explained by this Black senior auditor at a large governmental entity.
‘‘It was once suggested to me that at the end of any interview you should always ask, ‘Based on everything we discussed, based on my qualifications and experience, do you think I’m fit for this role?’ I once did this and the interviewer paused for a while, then said to me, ‘Your qualifications and experience are exactly what we’re looking for in this role. I don’t know how I’m going to say this without coming across in a certain way, but there are a couple of people that would report to you that I don’t know would accept you.’ He said they are older people from the old school. The implication was that they were older white people who would never feel comfortable reporting to a Black man.”
Regardless of whether these perceptions of inequality are reality, when individuals believe they have to prove they are equally qualified, or be significantly more qualified than non-Blacks, they may turn to careers that demand fewer skills, contributing to the underrepresentation of Blacks in accounting and audit careers.
Working With Management
From time to time, all internal auditors face opposition to their methodologies, findings, and recommendations by managers and others. Differences in background, gender, and race can make the job of an internal auditor more difficult, but even more so when, according to research from New York-based think tank Coqual, Blacks occupy just 3.2% of senior leadership roles at large U.S. companies.
As described by a Black senior audit manager at a large company, it can be difficult to do your job while continuously having to prove that you belong.
‘‘When I started out, I had colleagues who were not people of color who would come to me and say, ‘I don’t understand why you’re treated differently.’ I remember an instance where a manager accidently sent me a message intended for another manager. The message said I had called her to ask a question, but she didn’t want to deal with me. There were times when I would question if it was because of my color. I don’t work with very many people of color. There were times where, in a whole department, I was the only one who was Black.”
This same auditor shared a Black colleague’s story that describes an example of what she felt was discrimination based on race.
‘‘At a conference I remember talking to someone who was not happy with how her supervisor treated her because of her hair. You know, Black women sometimes have big hair. She was told that the way she was wearing her hair was unprofessional. She felt like, well, that’s the way my hair is, so I don’t know what else you want me to do.”
Discrimination isn’t always blatant; it is often in the eye of the beholder. This story was shared by a Black senior auditor.
‘‘There have been times when I’ve asked a controller or manager for a schedule or reconciliation and I felt like I was put through a series of tests to see whether I knew why I was asking for these things. It wasn’t normal resistance. It was more like a test of my knowledge. When my white counterparts ask for the same things or ask follow-up questions, they don’t get the same pushback. I wouldn’t say it’s blatant, but I sometimes feel that I’m treated differently.”
This same auditor also shared that there are times when racism is blatant.
‘‘I sporadically worked with a guy who was not outrightly racist toward me, but was toward a Black woman who reported to him. He treated her so badly that I was embarrassed for her. When she had car trouble or relationship issues, he would say things like, ‘You need to get your life together and stop with those ghetto people that you talk to all the time.’ They finally let her go on some bogus nonsense. When she was leaving, she warned me to be very careful of this guy because I was the only Black person left at the firm. I thought her warning was almost ridiculous, but as soon as she left, the guy began to talk to me a little bit more aggressively, more direct, and sometimes he was very angry.”
Working With the Board
Minorities also are woefully underrepresented on corporate boards. Only 8.6% of the companies comprising the Fortune 500 have Black board members, and that number is even lower below the Fortune 500 according to
Black Enterprise’s annual Power in the Boardroom report.
Gaining a seat at the table can be difficult for any CAE, but it can be even more difficult for a person of color, as described by a Black CAE at a large private organization who attended an audit committee meeting with a newly promoted white employee.
‘‘We walk into the boardroom … and automatically everybody thinks that the older white woman is the CAE, not me. Once I do the introductions, everybody was like, ‘Oh, OK.’ If you could have seen the shock on their faces.”
A Black senior auditor of a middle-market, publicly traded company shared a story where she felt that her suggestions were undermined at a board meeting.
‘‘My counterpart, a white male from [ABC] accounting firm made the same suggestion I did, and it was welcomed with open arms. I don’t know if it was because he was from ABC or because he was a white male that his suggestion, which was initially mine, was accepted.”
Mentoring relationships have many benefits, including increased job satisfaction and reduced turnover. Black accountants report having limited access to these types of informal networks, which hinders their ability to navigate corporate politics and limits or slows career advancement. According to research from Howard University’s Center for Accounting Education, 64% of Blacks report challenges navigating corporate politics.
The Black internal auditors we interviewed had remarkably similar stories and advice for getting ahead. In these examples, most described the need to be more patient, work harder than their white counterparts, and advocate for oneself.
‘‘You have to build your own narrative and create your own story as it may not be easy because of the way you look. If you’re patient and consistent, you will be recognized. It may not come as easy to you as others, but just stick with it.”
‘‘Be your own advocate by, among other things, knowing your own worth. Check the market and be willing to leave a company if you feel like you can’t progress.”
The internal auditors who shared their stories recommend that their Black colleagues ask successful individuals who are in a position to help them achieve their career goals to be a mentor. Given the lack of diversity at the top of most organizations, these individuals are unlikely to be Black.
This Black senior auditor shared a story about a successful Black attorney that confirms the importance and influence of role models.
‘‘Vernon Jordan, a prominent Black attorney who represented Bill Clinton, said, ‘Life is not fair to us,” meaning Black people. Other people can be very average, and they’re OK. We have to be exceptional to be considered average. We have to work twice as hard to not be considered lazy. We have to show up twice as early, and work twice as late just to seem average. I live with that mindset. I know it’s not fair. I know it’s not OK. But what am I going to do?”
Most of the internal auditors we interviewed also reported the need to have tough skin when trying to get ahead, as is evident from this story shared by a Black senior auditor.
‘‘There was a joke being emailed around about Barack Obama “moving on up” from the ghetto, like in “The Jeffersons” sitcom. And then I heard two people whispering about whether I’d be able to handle it before it was forwarded to me. I opened it and didn’t respond. Then I got an email from someone who I thought I was close to of a picture of a guy in a truck with an Obama bumper sticker doing something stupid and the caption was something like, ‘These are the people who vote, these are the people who determine our future.’ She asked me my thoughts on the joke and I said, ‘I have no thoughts on it.’ For a few days it was very uncomfortable and there was a lot of whispering. A couple of days later, a guy comes up to me and asks, ‘Are you an Obama fan?’ I told him I wasn’t a fan of anybody and that I’m a registered Democrat. He said, ‘I find that so strange. You have a master’s degree, you like guns … I just can’t see how you’re a Democrat.’ Sometimes it’s uncomfortable and painful, but you have to just keep plugging away.”
The Way Forward
The first step in creating a community where everyone feels included and equal is by acknowledging that common career milestone experiences can differ in fact and perception dependent on race and other characteristics. Eradicating in-group-out-group biases is difficult and uncomfortable, and it requires work. Non-Blacks can increase their sensitivity to racial bias by reading books and articles that provide historical context and describe current-day injustice. The second step is establishing zero tolerance for intentional and ignorant expressions of racism organizationally and individually.
Eradicating racism is not a one-sided proposition. Blacks may need to let their colleagues or superiors know when they unintentionally say something offensive. Because internal auditors are often required to relay bad news, such as control weaknesses to organizationally senior individuals, they may be better equipped to communicate these types of errors than others.
These same steps can help reduce biases and stereotyping about gender, religion, and other differences. When a concerted effort is made to learn about and work with people who are unlike us, it’s possible to realize that we are more alike than we are different.
Julia L. Higgs, PHD, CPA, professor of accounting at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, contributed to this article.