Culture Wars

Firms and companies must project an appealing corporate culture when competing to attract and keep top employees.
BY MAX MESSMER

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
  • CORPORATE CULTURE has gained in importance because employers need to attract talented people and employees want to find increased meaning in their work.
  • FAILURE TO CONSIDER how your CPA firm or business is perceived can increase turnover as well as recruiting and training costs. Understanding and leveraging your culture can create a productive, satisfying workplace.
  • TO IDENTIFY your particular culture, first look at outward signs, such as work schedules, dress code, benefits, leaves of absence and telecommuting. Second, investigate areas such as mentoring, intellectual challenge and learning opportunities. Some CPAs screen job candidates to determine if they are familiar with the firm’s culture.
  • CORPORATE CULTURE CAN CHANGE OVER TIME. The most progressive companies continually evaluate their fundamental styles to keep pace with changing times and worker feedback.
MAX MESSMER is chairman and CEO of Robert Half International, Inc. (RHI), in Menlo Park, California, parent company of RHI Management Resources, which provides senior-level accounting and finance professionals on a project basis. The RHI Management Resources Web site and its online job search services can be found at www.rhimr.com .

he U.S. economy is soaring, turning employee recruitment and retention into major challenges for the nation’s public accounting firms and businesses. As private industry competes with CPA firms for the most qualified candidates, firms must search continually for innovative approaches to identify, attract and keep talented people. One way firms are doing this is by focusing on their culture—an intangible but valuable resource. Nearly every organization, even the smallest, has a style and atmosphere that influence how it conducts business and how employees relate to one another. Its shared values and behavior—in essence, its “personality,” ranging from the highly conservative to the more entrepreneurial, dynamic work environment—define a company’s culture.

From “What Can I Earn?” to “What Can I Learn?”

Executives were asked, “Which one of the following factors do you think is most important in keeping an employee satisfied?”

Increasingly, an entity’s corporate culture is becoming a key factor in an employee’s decision to join an organization and, once on board, whether to stay. In a survey our company commissioned, Fortune 1000 executives said corporate culture now rivals benefits as job applicants’ leading topic of inquiry during interviews. Recruiting, screening and interviewing techniques must take into account this new priority. Failure to pay attention to how your staff and others in the field perceive your firm or company can mean increased turnover and losses in intellectual capital.

WHAT DOES AN ORGANIZATION’S CULTURE REVEAL?

The concept of corporate culture is not new—companies have always exhibited particular values and characteristics that essentially define them and what it feels like to work for them. Even as companies merge, assimilating two cultures is a critical factor in the success of the arrangement. Organizations that clearly define the kind of company they want to be and develop a set of values that frames their goals and the manner in which they pursue them are at an advantage in hiring and retention efforts. For example:

  • North Carolina-based SAS Institute ranks third among Fortune’s 1999 100 Best Companies to Work For. The software developer instills employee loyalty through a combination of benefits, including a free on-site medical clinic, child care at $250 a month, a 35-hour workweek and 12 holidays a year plus a paid week off from Christmas to New Year’s Day.
  • Land’s End, the Wisconsin-based mail-order company, invested $9 million in an employee recreation center that includes a gym, an exercise equipment room, a 25-meter swimming pool and a darkroom for amateur photographers.
  • The corporate headquarters of Merck & Co., Inc., includes a 2,500-square-foot convenience store and a two-tier underground heated garage expressly designed to ensure that no employee has to walk more than 50 yards to the nearest elevator.
  • Silicon Valley’s Oracle Corp. provides on-site services, including a gym and a market selling flowers, greeting cards and dinners to go.

What do your organization’s traits say to the people you try to attract? Your firm’s personnel policies, for one, reveal a lot about your flexibility. Accommodations for telecommuting, flexible hours and child care are increasingly important to workers trying to achieve a satisfying worklife balance, and a growing number of firms now offer the benefit of personalized scheduling. Is your firm seen as a good corporate citizen in the communities where you do business? Accountants at Hoffman, Stewart, Schmidt & McGee, P.C., a Portland, Oregon, CPA firm, have formed teams to pack holiday food boxes for the needy and to raise money for a local charity through a golf fund-raiser. Activities such as supporting employee teams to join walk-a-thons for good causes or assisting local public television stations with membership drives resonate strongly among employees who want to see their firms as active contributors to the community.

The presence—or absence—of intellectual challenge in the work environment also defines corporate culture. Today’s employees are energized by the chance to continue learning. Does your firm provide opportunities for employees to grow and the freedom to move from project to project? Examples of companies featuring lifelong learning environments include Oracle’s “Oracle University” and Cisco Systems high-tech distance learning known as IP/TV. This technology enables audience members of a video-teleconferencing event or training session to watch and listen to TV-quality video delivered across intranets on their own desktop PCs. Our own firm offers more than 500 online training courses to full-time employees and qualified project professionals, providing them with the opportunity and tools to continually improve their skill sets.

Don’t overlook the presence of effective leadership as another important sign of a positive corporate culture. Do your partners make it clear that the opinions of all employees count? By embracing open communication and active listening, outstanding leaders instill in staff members a sense of ownership and pride in the business—a powerful magnet for a talented and loyal workforce.

From Flex-Time to Elvis Week:
Corporate Culture in Action

At Gordon, Odom and Davis, Inc., a Sacramento, California-based CPA firm, an assortment of creative employee activities as well as a solid sense of company direction combine to create a unique style and work environment.

According to the managing shareholder, Kerry Gordon, the firm’s intense client focus and goal of “contributing more than the numbers” set the tone for the entire organization. “By making this priority very clear from the beginning,” he says, “we’re able to solidify our staff around a common vision, which, I believe, has played a large role in helping us retain staff.”

Shifting workloads and pressing employee concerns—such as the needs of working parents—are accommodated by flexible schedules among staff, use of part-time personnel and telecommuting, Gordon says. In fact, a longtime employee was able to telecommute for two years following her husband’s relocation to Colorado before returning to work full-time at a local firm when her children reached school age.

Employee social events develop a sense of community and family. There are afternoon “treat” breaks and an Elvis Week, which features old movies and contests. These activities involve the whole staff and create a sense of belonging.

To find candidates who fit the culture, the firm uses a pre-employment worksheet required for all job applicants that relies on job-related variables management believes help to determine a good match for the work environment. The survey includes a list of activities, such as “working at a consistent and steady pace…solving new or unfamiliar problems” and “delegating authority to subordinates,” and asks candidates to rank the activities they consider to be important aspects of the job for which they are applying.

“The process has proved to be remarkably accurate in terms of matching a job applicant with a position as well as with our corporate culture,” says Gordon. “The worksheet provides objective information about the behavioral attributes of an individual for a specific job and helps to identify a candidate’s interests, abilities and personality ‘fit’ within the firm.”

FINDING THE RIGHT MATCH

Taking a page from the books of the Silicon Valley high-tech companies, a number of CPA firms promote their workplaces as hardworking but “fun” environments. Long hours can be made more palatable if employees enjoy themselves on the job (see sidebar, above). Some firms, for example, sponsor contests or weekday picnics to encourage camaraderie among colleagues. Others emphasize casual dress codes or “flattened” organizational structures.

When recruiting, it’s critical to recognize the importance of an individual’s fit not just with the company but also with the type of work he or she will be doing. Let candidates know whether your firm is team-oriented and whether opportunities exist to directly manage client relationships. In addition, some people thrive in an environment that fosters group interaction, while others prefer to work individually. These are important considerations when evaluating job applicants.

When interviewing candidates, be clear about what your firm stands for and what you expect from the staff. If a particular position requires close supervision, for example, say so up-front. Client demands may require lengthy review and approval processes. While some workers find this confining, others welcome it. The fact that someone being interviewed possesses the skills and background needed to perform a particular job is no guarantee that he or she is the right fit, especially if you have concerns about his or her work style and ability to adapt to the company’s culture.

Identify Your Corporate Culture

It’s critical to maximize your firm’s intrinsic appeal to potential hires and existing staff. But before you can begin to make improvements, you first need to work with your partners to figure out how others perceive your firm.

1. Create a task force, chaired by the managing partner and including other partners and key managers, to gain widespread input and to foster broad support for its recommendations.

2. Take a look at the outward clues to your organization’s culture. Here are some questions for your team to consider:

  • What drives your personnel policies? Can you be flexible about issues such as work schedules, dress code and leaves of absence?
  • Do you instill a team-environment or sense of “community” among employees?
  • How do you describe your office atmosphere? Is it “fun” or “strictly business?”
  • How do you respond to child- and elder-care needs among employees?
  • Are there company-sponsored events outside of work?

3. Some of the most important aspects of a firm’s corporate culture often are not visible or part of a formal program. To further assess your own culture, consider the implicit messages your firm sends to its employees.

  • Do you include a wide sampling of staff members in important discussions? Do you solicit input from everyone, regardless of his or her title or level in the organization?
  • Are the results of new programs and strategic plans carefully analyzed each quarter or annually? Or are plans simply shelved with little or no feedback to those who helped put them together? The answer speaks volumes about the quality of your leadership and the company’s level of commitment to its stated goals.
  • Are mentoring opportunities available throughout the organization or are they restricted to a select few?
  • Are employees recognized both privately and publicly for outstanding performance?
  • Is the work environment intellectually stimulating? Can people move easily from project to project?
  • Does your firm reward new ideas and approaches?
  • Is learning a priority?
  • Are career advancement opportunities plentiful?
  • What values do you promote, both in action and words?

ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS

To better match candidates with your organization’s culture—whether you’re hiring at the entry or management level—ask questions that will convey concrete information about their skills and personality type. Specific job-related questions can reveal the details of what it’s like to work at your firm while simultaneously allowing you to gauge the applicant’s level of enthusiasm for what you describe.

For example, you might tell potential hires: “We have a fairly extensive review process for the corporate tax returns our accountants prepare.” Then ask: “How do you react to other people’s critiques of your work?” Or, “We prefer that our accountants work very closely with clients and adapt to their dress codes at on-site meetings. How do you feel about making presentations before client managers?” Give candidates an accurate picture of your firm while assessing their comfort level with what will be expected of them.

THE EVOLUTION OF CULTURE

An organization’s “personality” can undergo a number of changes over time. Although most retain the characteristics that reflect the essential nature of their business, firms sometimes introduce new ideas, programs and policies that can have an effect on or entirely remake their corporate complexions.

In fact, the most progressive entities continually evaluate and, if necessary, alter their styles to keep pace with changes in the workplace. Employee opinion surveys, open forums and one-on-one discussions with management can keep firms in touch with the realities of a dynamic work environment.

Identifying and leveraging your organization’s special culture is a sound strategy for meeting the dual challenges of finding and keeping good people. In the end, it could well be the deciding factor in creating a successful match and a flourishing relationship between you and your staff.

An essential first step to creating a positive cultural change in your company is to define what you consider the ideal corporate culture. Only then can you formulate values necessary to create such a workplace and examine practices that instill these values into your organization and staff members. Corporate cultures do not evolve overnight—the ultimate goal should be to ensure that the prevailing culture in your organization inspires loyalty and commitment in your employees.

©1999 AICPA

SPONSORED REPORT

Year-end tax planning and what’s new for 2016

Practitioners need to consider several tax planning opportunities to review with their clients before the end of the year. This report offers strategies for individuals and businesses, as well as recent federal tax law changes affecting this year’s tax returns.

QUIZ

News quiz: IRS warning on cyberattacks and a change in pension rules

Once again, the IRS sounds the alarm about a threat from cyberthieves. See how much you know about this and other recent news with this short quiz.

CHECKLIST

Bolster your data defenses

As you weather the dog days of summer, it’s a good time to make sure your cybersecurity structure can stand up to the heat of external and internal threats. Here are six steps to help shore up your systems.