How to increase CPAs’ happiness on the job

Research shows 3 critical factors in job satisfaction.
By Alex Granados

How to increase CPAs’ happiness on the job
Image by lowball-jack/iStock

On Fridays, Carmela Minnie, a CPA in her mid-20s, arrives at Cohen & Co. wearing jeans. The leaders of the firm regularly ask her and her co-workers, most of whom are around her age, to give input on major decisions for the company. And she knows that if she has to work late that Friday night, she can do so remotely, from the comfort of her living room.

These are just some of the ways the Ohio-based firm makes sure its employees are satisfied in their roles. Savvy firms like Cohen & Co. realize that happier employees are more likely to stay with their employers—and retention is essential at a time when firms across the country are engaged in a full-on competition for the best CPAs the country has to offer. As for Minnie, she enjoys working for her firm so much that she has been there for more than six years, ever since she was an intern.

How can firms improve their employees' job satisfaction? Marsha M. Huber, CPA, Ph.D., a happiness researcher and associate professor of accounting at Youngstown State University in Ohio, has some answers. She administered a survey on happiness to 1,200 CPAs in various industries, asking them questions about topics including their satisfaction at work and in life and whether they found meaning in their work.

Combing through the data, Huber discovered three factors that have the most impact on CPAs' well-being: having hope, a calling, and autonomy.


Huber said that possibly the most important ingredient for job satisfaction is hope: the belief in a better professional future based on having concrete goals and multiple paths through which to achieve them. She measured participants' feelings of hope by asking them eight questions about areas such as their feelings of agency at work and their pathways to future success.

"When you have hope," she said, "you actually create a 'memory' of the future that your mind starts working toward."

Huber noted that, in many accounting firms, it can take a decade or more for a CPA to move up to a leadership position. The promise of that reward may be too far off to motivate employees, especially Millennials, she said. She recommended that firms create "points of hope" by creating milestones employees can attain between major promotions.

Leadership coach Amber Setter, CPA, said that another way firms can cultivate hope is by being transparent about the paths to advancement. "Without having that clarity about what's next and where they are going," staff can be at risk for burnout, she said.


A "calling" is a sense of purpose, excitement, and passion about work that makes a worker feel fulfilled. People who believe they have a calling may say they would do their job for free. They talk about their work with other people and think about it when they're not working because they find what they do fun.

People in the survey who reported feeling as if they had a calling, Huber said, were the happiest across the board.

She said firms can help employees develop a calling by matching the employees' interests with their work. If an employee says he or she wants to do consulting, the firm should consider giving him or her a chance to do so, she said.

Huber said she knew a young man who received two job offers—one from a prestigious national firm and one from a smaller company. The major firm wanted him to do work he wasn't interested in, so he rejected its offer and went with the smaller company.

"He was smarter than most," she said. "Most people would just take the more prestigious job, hate it, and quit."

Setter said another way that firms can help CPAs develop a calling is to make sure they're exposed to a wide variety of subject areas so they can figure out what they like to do. For example, a firm could give young associates the chance to work in different departments before deciding on a specialty.

"It's through those experiences that you start to understand what works for you," she said.


Nobody, Huber said, wants to be stuck in a job with no freedom.

"When I look at who's the happiest, it's always the people who have the most autonomy, which is generally the people at the top," she said.

Autonomy means being free to do your job the way you see fit—to make your own decisions and perhaps your own schedule. But most of all, it means not being told every minute of every day what to do, Huber said.

Huber said firms need to find a way to start introducing more freedom into workers' lives earlier in their careers. CPAs shouldn't have to wait to make partner before they start to have some self-determination.

And if CPAs have other things they want to work on—passion projects—firms should give them the freedom to pursue them.

"They can say, 'We hear you. We need you to do X. Hey, listen, if you do X for us for a certain period of time, we'll work with you to be able to do Y,' " she said.

Setter thinks that autonomy may be the most important factor for retention and recruitment. She said Millennials, in particular, are used to having more freedom. They don't like the old-fashioned way of doing work: punching a clock, putting in eight hours, and then going home.

One way firms can give employees more autonomy is by letting them work from home, she said. Firms could allow employees to work from home one day a week after they've spent a year on the job with a good performance review, she said. Or they could allow workers to do overtime from home.

What makes workers happy isn't a mystery. As Huber's research shows, firms can take definite steps to contribute to employee well-being. A few policy changes can make retention and recruitment easier and help firms win the war for CPAs' hearts and minds.

What area within public accounting is the happiest?

In the public accounting sector, accountants in auditing and assurance expressed the highest job satisfaction. Responses are on a 5-point scale, with 5 being the happiest.

Job satisfaction - public accounting

What level in management accounting is the happiest?

When it comes to the management accounting sector, accountants in senior, middle, and top-level management are the happiest. Responses are on a 5-point scale, with 5 being the happiest.

Job satisfaction - Management accounting

About the author

Alex Granados ( is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager, newsletters, at or 919-402-4077.

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