Alice Yan, Consultant, shares with WiFA her experience with overcoming bias, how she promotes diversity and gender equality, what gives her hope every day, and much more

Tell us about your background and the journey to your current position and organization.

When I tell people I am a Forensic Accountant, most people have no idea what that means. I actually had no idea what a Forensic Accountant was until I took part in a forensic accounting project. Born and raised in Hong Kong, I started my career as an auditor at KPMG. Working in the auditing industry for 2.5 years, I focused on finance and the key risks associated with the business’ financial business. Knowing that I am a meticulous person, I was invited to assist in a forensic accounting project at KPMG Forensic. Leading financial investigations, employee misconduct investigations, fraud risk assessments, compliance reviews as well as litigation and arbitration projects in the Asia Pacific region, during my 9 years with KPMG Forensic, my strong attention to details turned out to be a perfect match for that role. I continued my career journey as a Senior Investigator at Citibank for 5.5 years with a focus on enhanced due diligence and internal investigation projects. My meticulous character was helpful. 

Being a Forensic Accountant, I pulled bits and pieces together or followed footprints left by fraudsters or misbehaving staff to find out what had happened and what damages these individuals had done to the firms. It sounds interesting while I also dealt with imperfections in internal control systems as well as had tough conversations with fraudsters or misbehaving staff who had been driven by greed. My career to date has involved forensic accounting projects for businesses of any size.

Describe a challenging or difficult time during your career where you overcame bias. 

Sometimes it was great to be a female Forensic Accountant. To avoid overwhelming the suspects who may destroy the evidence, some investigation projects were conducted with the help of cover-up stories. For example, we described one project as an internal control system review rather than a fraud investigation. With the cover-up story, and perhaps as a female who gave people an impression as soft and gentle, employees of the firm, including the suspects, believed in the cover-up story, and were very co-operative during the information collection stage of the investigation project. This facilitated us to collect the evidence/information before it was too late.

I do not have “built-in” bias like being a female I should or should not be doing certain things. In one occasion I handled a heavy workload leading five projects at the same time, with colleagues assisting me in each project. Good planning with proper allocation of work was important under this heavy workload. To discuss progress and issues with my colleagues on a daily basis, I planned ahead and allocated time for them. I trust my colleagues regardless of their gender. Colleagues, regardless of their seniority in job titles, have different skill sets and capabilities they are good at that inspire me. With good team bonding and trust, we worked towards the objective together. Stressful but yet very fruitful, not only what we learnt but we also bonded and developed friendships.

How do you promote diversity and gender equality in your own life and workplace?

I support and promote equal opportunities – the rights of the individual. Working in multinational firms, I treasure the opportunity to collaborate with teams from across different parts of the world to share knowledge, share experience, seek advice, solve problems, and show support or call on others for support. This was proven very valuable to team bonding and to the success of the firms. To make it work, I encouraged every team member to make efforts to remove “built-in” bias such as people with a senior job title always have better solutions to problems, experienced people never make mistakes or misunderstand things, and males are smarter than females. It was not a surprise to see junior team members, regardless of their gender, who spent lots of time with supporting documents, familiar with the details and able to suggest good solutions. I always recognize the value that each team member has contributed. Team members appreciated the feeling of being included which greatly enhanced team bonding and everyone benefits.

What gets you out of bed every day, either professionally or personally? What gives you hope? 

One who is keen to learn and be curious about many things (not only related to work) would appear to be young looking at all times, believe it? Anyway, I do. More importantly, stay curious and keen to learn, including learning from people from all walks of life – it helps me keep pace with our fast-changing and challenging world. I strongly believe that everyone taking a small positive step will bring us to a better future.