Accounting firms have high attrition rates, averaging up to 20 percent annually, according to CPA Journal. That number is higher at the Big 4 firms, and is generally highest among the youngest professional staff, who are often just learning what they got into when they earned their accounting degree, and have yet to find the most appropriate niche for themselves.
If a firm is oblivious to changing social and business norms and doesn’t follow some general guidelines, it may become unattractive to young professionals, and end up a place where careers go to end, instead of flourish. Firms of all sizes are facing many of the same challenges when it comes to hiring the best, according to the International Federation of Accountants. And high turnover causes disruptions to client service and to revenues, along with increased training time and job vacancies, all of which impact the firm’s bottom line. Hiring and retaining the best young professionals, and providing them with your wisdom and experience (and a nice paycheck) is an investment not only in them, but in your firm, as well.
1. Have a Defined Mentoring and Training Program
Many firms talk a good game about how their staff is vital to their success. And similar terms are often in their mission statements. Unfortunately, most fall short when it comes to putting this principle into practice. Firms need to implement training programs that focus not only on firm procedures and workflows, but also on enhancing broader accounting management and leadership skills. Each junior staff member should also be assigned a mid-level mentor who is responsible for guiding staff members through these programs, with tangible benefits to both the mentor and mentee when the junior staff member achieves success and is advanced within the firm.
Although the continuing Covid pandemic has altered workflows and training, most firms have by now become accustomed to video conferencing for group and one-on-one discussions, as well as other business messaging and task tracking apps. Firms should consider training as a defined project that is tracked in their management systems, and includes goals and milestones, such as completion of specific CPE courses, evaluations by senior staff, and sign-off of completed tasking.
2. Be Modern and Flexible
Junior professionals may be a generation (or two) younger than the senior members of the firm. However, in many firms, the senior partners are the ones making decisions about technology and workflow practices, as well as office etiquette and expectations. Firms need to keep pace with the expectations of younger professionals not only when it comes to technology, but also their tendency to be much more mobile and to not want to be sitting at a desk (either in an office or working from home) for 14 hour days, even during busy season. Trust that the staff you have hired will get their jobs done, even if they break their days into checks more manageable to their needs. The firm will, of course, be monitoring staff productivity. Firm flexibility takes serious consideration and planning, as well as careful implementation on the part of management, but developing a practice that adapts to the work preferences of young staff (when it does not adversely affect client service or end-product) will help the firm hire and retain the most skillful professionals who otherwise, might look elsewhere.
Successful practices often create a technology committee with members from all levels of the firm. Similar groups can be tasked with studying best practices when it comes to allowing remote work and flex time. Cloud-based systems are now nearly universal in accounting firms and must continue to be a central component of a firm’s technology, since it allows staff to work remotely, even when Covid is over. Keeping up with modern technologies and work practices can also help the firm retain younger, more tech-savvy clients who will be with the firm for decades to come.
3. Offer Challenging Work
There is tedious work in every accounting firm and, of course, the junior staff will likely perform the vast majority of it. There are many reasons, from most effective use of firm resources to profitability to experience levels. But one reason shouldn’t be just “because we had to do it when we were junior.” Junior staff needs to understand the importance of even the tedious tasks, but don’t shine it on too thick. It is still grunt work. However, if you take the time to also let them participate in client meetings and in higher level projects, they will have a greater understanding of the full scope of client services. This should also be a part of the mentoring program.
4. Make Tax Season Less Tedious
For most full-service accounting firms, the individual tax season is still busy season, and often means very long days. And these are rarely fun days. Instead, they are stressful periods where the staff rarely leave their desks and work into the night. With working remotely still a norm with the continuing pandemic, many will at least be able to still share meals and interact with their children during this time, unlike pre-pandemic days when professionals were often stuck in the office. There is still stress with remote work, however, but there are ways to reduce it and even lift morale during busy season, such as with firm contests, social interest groups on their Slack or other messaging system, and Zoom happy hours. As noted above, flexible work schedules can actually fit into busy season, if client engagements are well-managed. After all, does it really matter what time of day or night the staff member is inputting, reviewing or transferring data, as long as it is done on time?
5. Offer Frequent Feedback
While your firm likely has an annual evaluation system, more frequent feedback is helpful in establishing a good bond with employees. Even the best staff will occasionally need to be corrected, and frequent feedback allows senior management to be constructive without their criticism sounding overly harsh. At the same time, more frequent compliments on positive performance and specific achievements is a great way to build morale and loyalty to the firm.
6. Value Your Staff, And They Will Value You
Young professionals want to be valued for their work and also want to value the firm they work for. Yes, compensation is a top priority, but to truly value them, you must also treat them as adults and the professionals they are, not as annoyances who help handle the grunt work and pad the partners’ profits. For them to value the firm in return, they must see something more than just a job and a paycheck. The firm isn’t a charity, so they aren’t looking to change the world one ledger at a time. However, they do want to be a part of a team that is forward-looking and ethical, and can be fun.