Amid the phenomenon dubbed the Great Resignation or the Great Reshuffling, many accounting firms are putting more money on the table to retain employees.
On top of flexible work hours, remote working, and opportunities for career progression, which firms have used as retention strategies in past months, they are now beginning to raise starting salaries and add benefits.
Throughout 2021, millions of people across the country put in their notice, with a record 10.9 million job openings by the end of July 2021. For the financial activities sector more specifically, unemployment rates dropped, while job openings spiked, creating a historic employee-driven market.
"People today have rethought their priorities, purpose, and what fulfills them, and as companies look to stand out and recruit and retain top talent, they need to support their people holistically, to care for them both personally and professionally," said Ginnie Carlier, CPA, EY Americas Vice Chair of Talent.
UPPING RETENTION STRATEGIES
Accounting firms have begun to dig deeper to ensure that they provide staff with a fulfilling place to work. Here are three strategies top firms are using to retain employees:
Raise starting salaries
Before you start thinking about what perks you can woo your employees with, make sure you're offering competitive compensation and benefits.
"You have to pay people fairly, so that's not even a strategic decision," said Jim Proppe, CPA, managing partner at Plante Moran, based in Southfield, Mich. "Yes, salaries are increasing, which I actually think is good for us, because it's going to attract more people into the profession. Salaries really hadn't moved much at the entry level on the assurance and tax side for a number of years, so this will be good in the long run."
According to the Finance & Accounting 2022 Salary Guide from Robert Half, more than half of employers (55%) are increasing starting salaries, which barely budged over the past several years, and 44% are providing signing bonuses.
The largest four accounting firms, along with some midsize and small firms, have doled out multiple wage increases since 2020 to keep pace with inflation and attract talent. For example, EY has incrementally invested $2 billion in total rewards for employees since the start of 2020, including compensation, bonus programs, and well-being benefits, according to Carlier.
If you haven't already, take some time to evaluate current staff salaries and benefits to make sure they're in line with competitors and rising with inflation rates.
"Money is oftentimes not a motivator, but it sure can be a demotivator, so you have to be at the right level," said Victor Ramsauer, CPA, the CEO, shareholder, and president of LevitZacks Certified Public Accountants, based in San Diego.
In addition to offering competitive salaries and benefits, Proppe said Plante Moran makes sure employees reap the benefits of the firm's success. When the firm does well, they pass those profits on to the staff.
"We call it our 'Wheel of Progress,' " he said. "We go out and do good work for good clients, they pay us good fees, which allows us to pay good wages to our staff, which then allows us to hire more talented people, which allows us to go out and get more clients."
Firms should raise salaries and expand benefits where possible, although this might be more of a challenge for those in lower-cost parts of the country.
"A partner at a large accounting firm based in the Midwest told me how he's losing staff to other firms," said Susan Stutzel, CPA, leadership coach, PartnersCoach, based in Tipton, Iowa. "His people aren't moving away, but they're starting to work for firms on the coasts who are offering staff significantly higher wages and the option to work fully remote."
Stutzel added that while money often talks, she believes salary is just one of many motivating factors, and firms also need to offer employees autonomy, flexibility, social connection, purpose, and a sense of mastery over work.
"If firms feed into those key motivational drivers, I think they'll find people will stay," she said.
Invest in employee well-being
In addition to the standard benefits package, top firms are investing in employee wellness by offering perks such as no-cost counseling and mental health coaching, additional child care support, fitness and wellness funds, and team parties and retreats.
Of course, firms can provide all the wellness resources in the world, but employees won't take advantage unless leaders demonstrate that they can and should.
"We encourage our leaders to demonstrate well-being with their actions, by doing more than just encouraging their teams to consider their personal well-being," Carlier said. "This means showing their people that it is OK to sign off at a certain time, take an hour away in the middle of the day for a walk, or give back to our communities by participating in one of our many corporate responsibility programs."
At Plante Moran, firm leaders asked employees what they needed most during the pandemic and then rolled out "Work From Home Remedies," which provided additional support for child care, money for home office setups, reduced work hours when necessary, and recharge days for employees to step away from the virtual world.
In addition to personal wellness, another key aspect of employee well-being is the social connection that work can provide.
LevitZacks has established a fun committee that plans and funds regular team lunches, parties, and unexpected surprises, like pumpkins sent out to every employee for a company carving contest around Halloween. And now that some of their employees are based in other states, they have flown everyone out to San Diego for team parties so employees can meet and bond in person.
"The fun committee is not just for fun, because we know mental health is an issue," said Sue Watson, LevitZacks's executive vice president/COO. "Doing a lunch once a week where they shoot the breeze and talk about whatever they feel like talking about makes it so they don't feel like they're on an island."
Automate to increase higher-level work
Automation has the potential to free up employee time and allow employees to do more purposeful work. Many firms are implementing tools to take care of simple, repetitive tasks and increasing the amount of time employees spend with clients.
"Engaging with the client and talking to them about their business helps bring it to life for them," Proppe said.
Tasks related to data entry, invoicing, pulling bank statements, cash collections, and tax returns are all good places to start experimenting with automation, according to Proppe. He added that if your firm is undergoing a digital transformation and implementing new software, make sure employees are properly trained to use the technology.
Once implementation is complete, consider using any excess time to entrench employees into the firm and help them improve their "human skills," such as consulting, insight generation, and client relations.
At LevitZacks, Ramsauer said they make a point of bringing new employees along to client meetings so they can observe and learn from more experienced team members.
"Just because someone is a staff or in-charge doesn't preclude them from being able to connect with a client," he said. "That's the only way people are going to learn to get comfortable dealing with individuals and fielding questions on the go."
In addition to automation, firms are increasingly outsourcing entry-level tasks and bringing in candidates with varied educational backgrounds.
For example, as EY continues to centralize repeatable and lower-risk activities within the audit, Carlier said they are thinking differently about the skills and degrees required and have been hiring associates with two-year degrees to accomplish some of that work.
"By matching the skill sets to the tasks performed, we're enabling our staff auditors to focus their time in areas that allow them to apply their higher-level analytic skills and accounting knowledge, while delivering improved career experiences all around," she said.
About the author
Hannah Pitstick is a content writer for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, representing AICPA & CIM A.To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.
"Companies Say They Will Pay More to Recruit and Retain Staff," JofA, March 30, 2022
"How to Retain Staff Amid Surging Turnover," JofA, Aug. 16, 2021
"Why People Leave Their Jobs and How to Retain Staff," CPA Insider, Sept. 28, 2020
Next Steps Series — Motivating the Next Workforce
Good performers can become bad performers, and bad performers get comfortable and stay. This presentation is a fast-paced look at some clever and aggressive new engagement and retention processes that are both effective and legally compliant, mixing fresh case studies with psychological theory.
For more information or to make a purchase, go to aicpa.org/cpe-learning or call the Institute at 888-777-7077.