The A to Z of Keeping Staff

Few firm employees leave without a good reason—here’s how not to give them one.

THE AICPA’s ANNUAL SURVEY to learn how the supply of public accounting graduates is meeting firms’ needs for recruits reveals that turnover rates for CPA firms have held steady in a range from 7% to 10% for local firms and 22% to 28% for national firms. Losing staff is always part of doing business, but turnover higher than 20% is unnecessary and wasteful.

EMPLOYEES' PERSONAL REASONS FOR LEAVING are beyond a firm’s control, but it often can do something about work-related issues that cause staff to move on. CPAs cite lack of a career path; a need for accomplishment, job satisfaction, variety and a chance to exercise talents; and absence of a courteous, respectful environment as the most important reasons to find another job.

WHEN AN EMPLOYER IS IN A LIMITED MARKET and can’t provide ideal growth opportunities, the better it treats its people the longer they will stay, sources say.

ONE STUDY OF CPA TURNOVER at six international firms found that employers who developed strong relationships with employees kept them as much as 14 months longer than firms that impersonally focused on work output.

A CULTURE THAT EMPHASIZES TEAMWORK and civility over rigid quotas and systems will hang on to employees (and its training investment) longer, minimize related upheaval and benefit the firm’s bottom line. Good employers do this not only because it’s a “nice” way to conduct business but because it has the practical advantage of serving their financial interests as well.

OF ALL FACTORS A FIRM CAN CONTROL to retain staff longer, the easiest thing for it to change is how it supervises employees. Smart managing partners at first-rate firms treat their employees the way they themselves would like to be treated.

DAVID SATAVA, CPA, is an associate professor of accounting at the University of Houston at Victoria, Texas. He is a member of the AICPA and the American Accounting Association. His e-mail address is .

ow you gonna keep ’em there at the firm, after staff want to go free” could be a new managing partner refrain according to the numbers in the yearly AICPA staffing survey. To cross-check those findings (see “ Here for the Duration? ” below), I asked 439 CPAs what their intentions were with respect to their employers. Results showed that employees of large national firms were more dissatisfied with their jobs than those who worked for local firms. Indeed, small firms lose about a tenth of their workforce every year while large-firm turnover statistically can result in the equivalent of an entirely new staff every four years.

So what can a firm do to stanch high attrition? In this article I describe some common reasons why employees leave and list sensible tips CPA firms of all sizes can use to keep their human resources from walking out the door.

Very few employees leave a job without a good reason—which can be external (personal) or work related (internal). Personal reasons include a spouse’s new job in another city or a wish to have more time for family and friends, for example. Such reasons are beyond an employer’s control, but a firm can do something about internal issues, which provide the main impetus for staff to move on. The CPAs surveyed most often gave these reasons for leaving:

Here for the Duration?

The AICPA annual survey to discover how the number of public accounting graduates meets firms’ needs for recruits has found turnover rates for CPA firms ranged from about 7% to 10% for small local firms and 22% to 28% for large national firms in each of the past four years.

Source: AICPA.

An inadequate career path. They felt there wasn’t enough advancement opportunity.

Lack of accomplishment. Respondents often said their jobs underused their talents and, because there wasn’t enough variety, were unsatisfying. An employee who thinks he or she isn’t being given a chance to grow on the job also is likely to conclude he or she isn’t being realistically trained for future promotion.

Management style. Another complaint concerned how the firm supervised its staff. A management’s relationship with employees significantly influences how long they stay on the job. A brusque, impersonal, quota-driven style can drive people away, sources say.

Lack of fulfillment. They also said they were frustrated in their wish to be of service to others. Accountant trainees and CPAs are idealistic people who want to make a meaningful contribution and will go where they can do so.

It stands to reason a firm that offers a good career path, provides variety and finds ways to use the talents of its people will keep them longer—and get more and better work from them. Nevertheless, when a firm is too small to provide enough growth opportunities or work variety to please everybody—or it is located in a market where it can’t—the better it treats its people the longer they will stay, sources say.

One study of CPA turnover at six international firms found employers who developed strong relationships with staff kept them as much as 14 months longer than impersonal firms that focused only on output. Salary also was important but not as much as how staff members were treated on the job. Teamwork and respect for people counted highest with staff.

The message: A corporate culture that emphasizes teamwork and civility over rigid quotas and systems will hang on to its employees (and its training investment) longer, minimize the upheaval of high turnover and benefit a firm’s bottom line. Good employers do this not only because they believe it’s a “nice” way to conduct business but because it serves their financial interests as well.

Of all the factors a firm can control to retain staff longer, the easiest thing to change is how it supervises employees. Here’s a primer—from A to Z—on what partners and managers can do to improve the workplace culture.

Acknowledgment. Greet each employee you see. Get to know all of them. As time permits—but at least twice a week—try to chat with them about family, sports or something besides work. Be as gracious to them as you would be to your best client.

Balance. Create a work environment that lets employees balance work and family. Be flexible—permit employees to take care of personal needs by coming in early or staying late to complete an assignment, for example. Staff members value employers who make it easier for them to manage important non-job-related responsibilities.

Communication. Discuss with staff what is happening in the accounting world. Use monthly meetings, e-mail, newsletters, Web pages or brown-bag lunches. They encourage employees’ sense of being a part of the team and give them a broader perspective.

Development. Encourage employees to help create an individual professional development plan that reflects their desires and the best use of their talents. It will let you know what they are thinking about tomorrow (and minimize surprise departures).

Education. Teach employees how to do a better job. Send them for special training or show them yourself. Staff members who develop deeper skills feel increased satisfaction; personal instruction will encourage employees to feel more valued.

Family. Nurture your employees as though they’re family. Assign mentors for new staff members; it will help them have confidence about their place in the firm.

Generosity. Be magnanimous with praise and attention. Pay staff a little more than you need to, not just what you can get away with in your market. Good employees appreciate it when their employer takes care of them.

Helpfulness. Reward employees who help one another. Publicly praise such efforts. (At one of my early jobs it greatly helped me when a partner took time to diagram a T account for me so I could visualize the relationship of a debit and credit.) Give a prize such as a gift certificate or sports tickets for helpfulness.

Individuality. Respect your employees’ characteristics and preferences. Let morning people come in early and evening people come in later. Even though staff schedules will overlap less, more gets done when employees work during their most productive hours of the day.

Justice. Be fair. If Superman would get only a 4.5 on your 5.0 evaluation scale, then your system is unfair. Employees who feel their hard work is acknowledged and rewarded will continue to do their best.

Kindness. Be considerate of staff members. There isn’t ever a good reason to be loud or abusive with someone who works with or for you. If you have a serious grievance, express it calmly and firmly to let the person hear and absorb your issues rather than your anger.

Laughter. At a firm that stresses interpersonal relationships, you’re likely to hear the sound of laughter during the day. Encourage it. It helps employees relieve pressure and makes them look forward to coming to work.

Motivation. Great leaders know each individual is different and must be inspired in a unique manner. Look for clues about what makes your staff tick. Some may need to be pushed, others to be led. You can learn how to motivate your employees only by first getting to know them. A personal touch can prompt people to try harder.

Navigation. Employees need clear, dependable directions on how to do their jobs. Each project should provide an overview of a client’s unique way of doing business and say where to find the assignment’s important information. Workers who are given a road map with each new task will not feel overwhelmed.

Opportunity. Most employees want to grow on the job—to learn, assume more responsibility and get credit for their greater contribution. Sensible employers make sure they have such opportunities. Good employees get better when they can grow professionally.

Promotions. Smart firms primarily promote from within and make sure employees’ assignments provide enough variety to prepare them for advancement if a slot opens. As much as possible, firms should increase their client base to create promotion paths (as well as increase revenue). It energizes all employees when someone from the ranks moves up.

Quality. While both work quality and quantity are important, the former matters more. Firms that stress it have employees who don’t cut corners to meet quotas.

Recognition. Find ways to recognize staff members who do good work. Employees work with more enthusiasm for a firm that recognizes their outstanding performance. Take your high achievers to a special lunch once or twice a year.

Supervision. Show your staff by example the professional behavior you want. Employees benefit by having a role model to emulate.

Training. Provide a work environment that encourages employees to stay on top of professional developments, furnishes continuous training and rewards them frequently. It better prepares the staff to handle new tasks. Employees that keep current are ready for the next opening.

Unity. Help employees to understand that their efficient teamwork creates momentum for the firm. A friendly professional environment will encourage staff members to work together as part of a team, not undercut each other.

Validation. Give positive feedback. Praise good work performed in accordance with the firm’s policies—as often as a staff member merits it. It encourages employees to work with confidence. Don’t take an outstanding performer for granted.

Willingness. Be accessible and pleasant in helping employees. Your firm will avoid mistakes if staff members are comfortable asking for assistance when they need it.

X-factor. Use the depth that comes from the talents of all employees. Progressive firms have staff with a wide range of professional abilities. Carefully cultivated diversity helps give a firm the “x-factor” of marketplace versatility.

Yes. Great organizations affirm the excellence of their employees. In turn, staff members will speak highly of their employer. It all helps business.

Zeal. Good employers are zealous about developing their firms and serving clients skillfully. Communicate your enthusiasm for excellence to employees to inspire their best performance.

Whether a firm is small or large, it’s only as good as its staff. Overall, a firm’s employees want fair pay and opportunities to learn, advance and experience a feeling of accomplishment. They want to work for well-managed firms and have their efforts be meaningful to others. Business realities may not let you give them everything on their professional wish list, but if you treat them well and permit them to grow professionally, they’ll perform better and stay with you longer. Not one of the suggestions in this article is difficult to apply, so nurture your staff if you want to do your firm and your profession a favor. Smart managing partners at first-rate firms treat their employees the way they themselves would like to be treated.

Hidden Costs

Losing staff to other opportunities is part of any workplace, but in excess (say, higher than 20% annually), it wastes the resources of firms, individuals trying to carve out a meaningful career and the profession.

Interviewing and training recruits has significant out-of-pocket costs for the employer, and replacing an employee includes expenses for

Separation. This involves an exit interview, related administrative work and severance pay.

Replacement. The firm must advertise for new employees, process applicants, review references, conduct interviews and partner meetings to discuss potential hires.

Training. The cost here is the time and materials needed to acquaint the new hire with the firm’s culture, policies, procedures and client base as well as for him or her to become competent in the working environment.

Costs to individuals starting with a new firm include their investment of time (from months to years) to learn the firm’s way of working before they’re fully productive and on track with their advancement and achievement goals. Another cost, not so easy to quantify, is how CPA career dissatisfaction has contributed to overall erosion of the profession, sources say. Large firms hire candidates from the top of their class, yet their 25% average annual turnover rate indicates that intelligent graduates are not happy with what they encounter on the job.

At one time the most serious recruiting problem seemed to be that the CPA profession was seen as boring. The scandalous events of the past few years may have made it even harder to bring quality people into the field. Old-fashioned values of civility, decorum and—above all—honesty may be one key to reversing our professional drought.

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