In this Ask the Experts column, we’re taking a slightly different approach. Instead of asking our experts to answer one question, we posed several questions on the crucial topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). We covered this subject at our Annual Conference in October, and we wanted to continue the discussion with two participants in that session: Katrina Welch, North American director of tax for Gordon Food Service, and Wayne Hamilton, vice president of tax at Walmart Inc. Michael Epstein-Levin, Tax Executive’s senior editor, moderated the discussion in late October 2021.
Michael Levin-Epstein: What are the key issues and problems that you think should be addressed and hopefully solved when it comes to DEI?
Katrina Welch: I think “DEI” is a popular buzzword of the moment, but there’s a lot of meaning behind that. Business studies have shown, and I’ve experienced personally, as I’m sure others have, that having a diverse team, an environment made up of diverse individuals, does provide for greater diversity of thought, greater and richer discussion, more creative ideas, and really just a more interesting and enjoyable workplace. So, how do you achieve that diversity of thought and different perspectives? I think often it’s people that have different backgrounds and different experiences, whether it’s that they’re different genders, they have different racial backgrounds, different ethnic backgrounds. And I feel like that’s still lacking a lot in the tax profession, including in the in-house tax profession. When we feel like we make strides, it’s difficult to attract the key candidates that we want to attract, and it’s difficult to retain them.
Wayne Hamilton: I would add to Katrina’s answer, Michael, that as tax professionals, we are looking for tax solutions for complex business problems. And to solve these problems, we need to have diverse teams, which we could describe as a broad representation of people, which would include ethnicity and gender. As Katrina pointed out, diverse teams tend to end up with better solutions to problems that we have to solve. The industry has recognized that there is a lack of representation of certain groups—gender and ethnicity being the two primary areas. Over the years, the industry has been searching for ways to change that representation. Said differently, the tax industry has said, “We need to fix this problem,” and, as a recent study by Bloomberg indicated, the problem still persists except for a slight increase in the number of women in the industry.
Levin-Epstein: What are your suggestions to corporate tax professionals at TEI to bring about this kind of diverse team?
Hamilton: The changes we need cannot be fixed long-term with putting in place a “policy.” To solve the issue of representation, we have to, one, accept that lack of representation is something we need to change and, two, be deliberate about the plans we put in place to address the lack of representation, as this problem is not going to solve itself by us doing nothing. Said differently, we have to decide what is it that we’re going to do and what are the specific steps that we will take as an organization. There are going to be multiple possible solutions, because one solution will not fit every organization, and in fact organizations may need multiple solutions to tackle and ultimately solve the lack of representation. Whatever the decision reached, the changes or strategy has to be modeled from the top of the organization. For example, if the head of tax or director of tax has no reports that are of a different ethnicity or gender, then it’s harder for diversity to be cascaded throughout the organization.
Welch: Wayne had a good point talking about “modeled at the top,” about tone at the top, right? We can use whatever words we want. We can have a policy or a program, however well-intentioned, but if the leaders aren’t living this, if they’re not modeling this, coaching this, holding themselves and others accountable for it, I don’t think we’ll see a change. Wayne talked about that we’ve had some progress, and I appreciate that, but I feel like we still have so far to go. I think if we’re not intentional, if we keep doing the same things—again, well-intentioned—we’re not going to get a different result.
Levin-Epstein: Whose responsibility is it to bring about these changes and produce this diverse team?
Welch: It’s a shared responsibility. It is all of us. I mean, it’s going to take all of us, right? We’re trying to move mountains. We’re really trying to impact our in-house tax community, and I think it’s going to take all of us working together. I don’t think it’s going to happen in a minute, but I still think we need to work now, because if we’re trying to make things better tomorrow, we need to start today—or yesterday.
Hamilton: Michael, I will continue Katrina’s response by saying it’s going to take a village. It’s going to take everyone in that village to play a role in getting this done. And I’ll also suggest that there are times where you may have to strike out on your own. If we are waiting on my leader, my supervisor, or my peer to get it done, nothing may happen. We have to be willing to ask ourselves if this is a journey that begins with me.
Welch: Yes, I think that’s really good. Exactly. It’s wonderful if all the leaders make it—like I said, it can flow down and everyone joins on the journey and all that. But sometimes people think, “I’m just one person, what can I do?” Well, you can use your sphere of influence, right? If I’m a hiring manager, maybe I don’t hire the whole company, but I at least hire for my team. Even if I’m just a person on a team and I know we have an opening, I can get the word out. Everyone has a role to play.
Hamilton: Just to round that out, Michael, I look at what can I control and what can I influence. If we summed up what Katrina just said, I have direct accountability for hiring on my team, and I can strongly influence hiring practices in the wider tax organization, and then depending on my sphere of influence, I can be an influencer outside my function. It’s understanding the role you play in that particular moment. For example, if Katrina says, “Hey, I’m about diversity,” but she doesn’t take proactive steps to expand her candidate pool to include qualified diverse candidates, she has in a sense not taken control of a process she owns. It would then be disingenuous for her to try and influence me to do something that she’s not modeling.
Welch: Right. If it’s such a great idea and you believe so strongly in it, where are your actions?
Getting the Word Out
Levin-Epstein: I want to follow up on a point that Katrina made—actually the expression that you used, “getting the word out.” How do you go about getting the word out or recruiting to get folks who would then be part of a more diverse workforce?
Welch: My strategy when I’m hiring is usually I tell everyone I know, period [laughter]. So, diverse people are part of everyone. But if you’re trying to hire for jobs that normally have people coming from college or grad school or something like that, you can think about which colleges or grad schools am I going to, right? Am I going to populations that have a more diverse student body? That’s one way. Like Wayne said, there are multiple approaches.
Hamilton: As part of the answer, Michael, you reminded me of something that came up in our panel, Katrina. It’s not an “or”; it’s an “and.” And what I mean by that is, when we look at hiring, we have to determine . . . we all want the best person for the role, because we are in the business of providing tax solutions for complex business problems. The crucial question for me is, Where are you looking for the talent, and how are you going to develop the talent? Getting the word out comes from two things. First, as Katrina said, us taking personal responsibility and, second, building a team where tax professionals know that organization is a place that great talent is respected and developed; it markets itself.
Welch: That’s true.
Levin-Epstein: What are some things that TEI can do as an organization to help their members develop diverse workforces?
Welch: I think TEI can help when we’re talking not only when hiring is involved but also when someone comes on board. To make a workforce diverse, that includes everybody, all of us, coming together, and you want to give them the tools to be successful. So TEI can do that. We can be intentional about when we’re inviting people to be speakers or moderators. Let’s not just invite the person that has thirty years of experience; invite the person that’s a little junior, invite people that may not look like you, invite people that may have a different background, different perspective, to share. When inviting external speakers, too, take the same approach. Have people that will make attendees feel, “wow, that person looks like me” or “that person’s background is similar to mine,” and they can identify. This is just a small way to maybe encourage [attendees].
Hamilton: Two things I would add to Katrina’s points. Where are you networking, and what organizations and institutions are you supporting? If we are candid about our networks, they tend to look like us. This is called affinity bias. We have to be deliberate about “where I will go network next.” If I traditionally network in certain organizations, just because of historically that’s who’s going to belong, you’ve got to go, “All right, change my network.” And then, what organizations do you support? There are a number of affinity-based organizations, for example, the National Association of Black Accountants, the National Bar Association, historically Black colleges and universities, where you’re going to tend to find a larger population of Black [people] and African Americans. There are similar organizations for women, Latinx people, and Asians. These are the type of organizations that you have to tap into. So, Katrina’s spot-on. It’s networking, it’s affiliations. And then the biggest thing is: This work is not transactional. There’s a belief, because Katrina showed up at my school, I liked her, she did a great job representing, that somehow this is over. To recruit takes time. To change mindsets takes time. And one of the challenges we face in corporate America is “my company is a great company to work for; anyone would want to work here.” The reality is not everyone has the same optimistic view of your company. You then have to spend some time nurturing those relationships, and then they begin to pay off. Katrina has nurtured relationships over the years; so have I. It comes down to, Are you willing to make the appropriate investment, realizing you’re not going to get your return in year one?
Levin-Epstein: How can TEI members better share the best practices and successes with others at TEI?
Welch: I think it’s like we talked about, some things we’ve already shared: putting our actions where our thoughts and our words are, carving out time. We just had our Annual Conference. And so we made a panel. Yes, it was a breakout session. We talked about in the midyear, the next one, maybe making it a plenary session, maybe making it a plenary session over lunch—no one wants to miss lunch, especially a free lunch or no-extra-cost lunch. So, I think just creating an awareness and creating the opportunity for additional education for our members can be part of it.
Hamilton: Continuing to add to that thought, I have two things that come to mind, Michael. The first one is, when you’re going to conferences, have you deliberately sought out someone that didn’t look like you just to simply talk to them and learn about their story? We all have one. We need to not only do that at the annual and midyear meetings—this is something that is even more important at chapter meetings. There are far more chapter meetings in any given year than TEI national meetings. I stress this point, because what we see at the annual and the midyear is really a subset of a very large tax organization. It’s the chapters that make the national organization work. What are we doing to attract people in the communities where we are? Second, the biggest thing that I personally believe will solve this problem is the idea of belonging. If we try to get everyone we meet to belong, we solve the problem. We recognize that there is a lack of representation [in] gender and ethnicity. However, if we strive to get all to belong, we solve the problem. It’s about all of us. Just the same way you want X to become a part of the organization, put the same full-court press on me. I’m not asking for anything different.
Levin-Epstein: What advice would you give to people to get everyone to actually feel that they “belong” at their companies?
Hamilton: One thing I discovered, Michael, on this journey is the fear of not knowing and the fear of being embarrassed because you don’t know something. No one is monolithic. Just because you’ve met one person from a specific ethnic group doesn’t mean you’ve met all of them and can use what you’ve learned to apply to all. For me, what that means, then, is you have to be comfortable with being vulnerable to say something that may not resonate and [to be] quick to apologize. I’ve found that sometimes people are just unsure how to start the discussion, and so they don’t start it. It’s just like anyone you meet. First time I met Katrina is an example. We had small chitchat until we figured out what we had in common. After a few minutes we figured it out, and we’ve been friends for many years. We can call each other and talk about any topic. Why? We both made ourselves vulnerable. If we’re having a “sensitive discussion,” she’s quick to say, “Hey, I don’t know how you take this, Wayne,” but we’re now at the point where she does not need to start the discussion that way anymore. She just knows if she said something that doesn’t resonate with me, I will say something. How you open yourself up to have discussions is being vulnerable [enough] to ask questions and admit when you don’t know something, and hope the person has enough grace to say, “You know what? You said something; I wouldn’t say it quite that way next time.”
Welch: Yes, I think that’s great. I couldn’t agree more. I think it’s not just awareness and education. I think it’s having the conversation, being willing to ask questions, engage, spend time with people, get to know them, whether that’s your colleague or whoever. Just come from an attitude of openness and really truly wanting to learn, and I think that’ll be respected. You know, I often say things clumsily, but well-meaning, and I appreciate when people say, “Mmm, I don’t think you meant it like that, but I kind of took this this other way.” I want people to, because I’m trying to learn.
Levin-Epstein: I think that’s a good way to end this Ask the Experts.