Smashing the barriers to employee engagement

Firms may boost productivity and satisfaction by taking actions on 3 fronts.
By Tamera Loerzel

Smashing the barriers to employee engagement
Image by helen_tosh/iStock

There's a disconnect when it comes to what business leaders say about employee engagement and what the employees themselves say they are experiencing.

Consider the following:

On one hand, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, executives from around the world say that enhancing employee engagement is one of their top five global business strategies: "Not only does engagement have the potential to significantly affect employee retention, productivity, and loyalty, it is also a key link to customer satisfaction, company reputation, and overall stakeholder value."

On the other hand, Gallup reports that just 33% of employees in the United States are engaged in their job and more than half have their eyes open for a new job. In the accounting arena, retaining qualified talent continues to be a top issue for CPA firms, according to the 2017 PCPS CPA Firm Top Issues Survey.

So what does it take to break through the barriers and improve employee engagement in firms? And how do we do it sooner rather than later, as most firms don't have the current skilled talent or future leaders they need?

"The one thing leaders cannot do is nothing," Gallup said in its 2017 State of the American Workplace survey report. "They cannot wait for trends to pass them by, and they cannot wait for Millennials to get older and start behaving like Baby Boomers."

This article addresses barriers in three key areas and identifies specific actions, ranging from simple to complex, that leaders can take to improve engagement. It also explores real-life examples from firms that have implemented some of these ideas and the results they experienced.

Most firm leaders likely have heard or read these ideas; however, many are not implementing them fast enough — or at all. Transformation occurs in firms that move from knowing what to do to actually doing what will drive employee engagement. New ideas and new ways of working can transform how business is conducted, serve clients better, and improve processes and methodologies. Firms that embrace these ideas and do what it takes to deploy them are filled with engaged, excited, and productive team members. Consider the following actions to take now in the areas of flexibility, feedback, and purpose to create an atmosphere for employees to feel engaged and actively contribute to firm success.


When team members have clear goals and measures for what they are expected to produce, they typically achieve them more easily when they can choose when and where they work as much as possible. Part of setting expectations is also being clear when certain times and locations for work are required, such as inventory at a client's site on a Saturday morning or on the last day of the month. Giving team members control over when and where they work means shifting leadership's view of "time and place."

Wilkin & Guttenplan PC, a midsized accounting and consulting firm based in New Jersey, offers flexible programs such as alternative-hour options, the ability to work from home on occasion or permanently, and simply the ability to take care of commitments outside of work. The goal is to allow team members to be fully productive when they are working. "We are proud of the strides we have made in creating a truly flexible work environment that supports our employees, while delivering on our commitment to exceptional client value," said Ed Guttenplan, CPA, CGMA, managing shareholder of Wilkin & Guttenplan. "It's not always easy, but we're committed to everyone having a life outside of work. It requires responsiveness, planning, and communication — which makes us all better managers and employees. And it enables us to emphasize client services is what drives our business, so if you're meeting your client expectations (and other nonbillable goals), the rest is up to you to manage. It's a change of mindset — and it's worth it." The effort has paid off with Wilkin & Guttenplan listed on the NJBIZ Best Places to Work in New Jersey list for the past seven years, including in the No. 1 spot in the medium firm category for 2018.

Overcome these common barriers by taking actions to further a flexible culture (see the chart "Creating a Flexible Culture").

Creating a flexible culture

Creating a flexible culture


Many people (especially Millennials and members of Generation Z) prefer feedback to be immediate and in a variety of media. Feedback has the most impact when it is provided as close to the performance as possible, and it should include both positive reinforcement of desired behaviors and suggestions of ways to improve. Enhanced staff development and true engagement are possible when firms invest in training and coaching to help partners, managers, and supervisors gain the skills and confidence to provide feedback faster.

Delivering feedback is not easy. It can be even more challenging if people aren't open to receiving it. That is why New York-based accounting and consulting firm Mazars USA incorporated an entire module on receiving feedback into its six-session feedback learning series for partners and senior managers. The firm now includes the module as part of its leadership programs for managers and seniors, too, promoting a culture of open communication and collaboration.

"The tone starts at the top, and if we want our people to be open and receptive to feedback, leaders must embrace and be open to receiving feedback, too," said James Blake, CPA, the COO at Mazars USA. "We hire bright, smart staff who are used to having a voice, providing suggestions for new ideas, and sharing their views for how to get better. That means we have to learn to really listen to their feedback and, as much as possible, implement their feedback, too — just like we expect them to do."

Birmingham, Ala.-based Barfield, Murphy, Shank & Smith LLC (BMSS) has developed a mechanism for delivering feedback in frequent sound bites using a method called "Keep, Stop, Start," or KSS. BMSS homeroom leaders (the BMSS term for career advisers) are expected to deliver weekly KSS feedback for each person in their assigned homeroom. The KSS method provides specific actionable feedback for what each individual should keep doing that they are doing well; what they should stop doing, such as something they should delegate; and what they should start doing to develop a new skill or improve in some area. Because KSS feedback can be based on frequency rather than by job or engagement, this approach even works well for tax departments where the preponderance of smaller, high-volume tax engagements such as preparing Forms 1040 can make it more difficult to provide feedback.

"We've experienced a tremendous response from both our homeroom leaders and staff because they feel more in sync about performance," said Don Murphy, CPA, CGMA, managing member at BMSS. "Initially, there were concerns that more frequent feedback would take too much time, but we've found it reduces time in churn, rework, and follow-up. Now there is accountability for providing feedback so team members can apply it in a timelier fashion. And the staff feel appreciated because of the investment we're making to help them thrive in their careers."

Overcome these common barriers by taking actions to move to a culture that values feedback (see the chart "Creating a Culture That Values Feedback").

Creating a culture that values feedback

Creating a culture that values feedback


Go beyond a typical vision and values exercise to develop an inspiring purpose for why your firm exists. A firm vision becomes a rallying point for all team members to find their unique contribution, enabling them to be engaged more meaningfully.

Through an ongoing visioning process that includes regularly meeting to advance its goals, Los Angeles-based Green Hasson Janks LLP has increased its market presence in key industries and specialty service areas, such as entertainment and media, and food and beverage. It has also developed a growing advisory and consulting practice. Focus in these markets and other vision initiatives fulfills Green Hasson Janks's #bemore philosophy and the firm's commitment to helping team members be the best they can be.

"Our vision is more than a destination [where] our firm is headed," said Tom Barry, CPA, the firm's managing partner. "Our vision provides a road map for our people to see how they can most meaningfully contribute to the firm's success and therefore experience success themselves."

Overcome these common barriers by taking actions to develop a compelling vision all team members feel engaged in fulfilling (see the chart "Creating a Compelling Vision").

Creating a compelling vision

Creating a compelling vision


The time to make change is now. It doesn't have to be perfect, but it must be swift. Pick one barrier and an action to overcome it. Applying these employee engagement strategies will create a team of happy, productive team members who drive increased efficiencies and profits, expanded service opportunities, and growth. Who wouldn't be engaged and working toward that future?

About the author

Tamera Loerzel is a partner with ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and management consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. Learn more about the company and its services at

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, a JofA senior editor, at or 919-402-4056.

AICPA resources


CPE self-study

  • Employee Motivation and Engagement: Driving Results Without Driving Your Team Crazy (#BLI162100, online access; #GT-BLIEME, group pricing)
  • Finally Fixing Turnover and Employee Engagement (#BLI162110, online access; #GT-BLIFFT, group pricing)
  • MBAexpress: Teamwork and High Performance Teams (#BLIMBA29, online access; #GT-MBATHPT, group pricing)

Online resources

  • AICPA Private Companies Practice Section Firm inMotion e-Toolkit,
  • PCPS 10 Initiatives for Employee Engagement,
  • PCPS YOU Are the Value Workshop, (PCPS member login required)


  • Practitioners Symposium and Tech+ Conference at AICPA Engage, June 9—13, Las Vegas

For more information or to make a purchase or register, go to or call the Institute at 888-777-7077.

Private Companies Practice Section and Succession Planning Resource Center

The Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) is a voluntary firm membership section for CPAs that provides member firms with targeted practice management tools and resources, including the Succession Planning Resource Center, as well as a strong, collective voice within the CPA profession. Visit the PCPS Firm Practice Center at Visit the Succession Planning Resource Center at

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