How to retain staff amid surging turnover

By Megan Hart

Hiring and retaining staff are perennial concerns for CPA firms. This year, some employers may be finding it especially difficult to keep staff on board.

Almost 4 million Americans quit their jobs in April, and that number wasn’t much lower in May, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Society for Human Resource Management has predicted an impending turnover “tsunami” poised to affect American businesses. It cites a report indicating that more than half of North American employees plan to look for new jobs this year.

It’s hard to say how much this phenomenon will affect the accounting profession. There is not yet good data to show how different industries are being affected, said Anthony Klotz, Ph.D., a management professor at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Anecdotally, however, turnover does appear to be high in white-collar professions, Klotz said. “Based on the conversations I've had with workers and organizational leaders over the past several months, the resignation backlog, burnout, epiphanies, and remote work” are causing employees to leave jobs “across all industries, including the professional fields,” he said.

Byron Patrick, CPA/CITP, CGMA, general manager for accounting software provider Botkeeper, said turnover is affecting some of his clients.

“We work with a lot of accounting firms, and in working with these firms, we’ve seen a lot of stress and a lot of pressure as they try to keep and hire staff,” he said.

Some of the turnover happening this year may simply be the result of pent-up desire for change. Many employees put off leaving their jobs during the pandemic, and now feel safer doing so. Some 6 million fewer nonfarm employees left their jobs in 2020 than in 2019, Klotz pointed out in an article for NBC News.

But employers should also keep in mind that turnover is also driven by dissatisfaction. While in many sectors, such as leisure and hospitality, employees are leaving jobs in search of higher wages, in other areas, such as accounting, they have different motivations for leaving, said Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM US LLP.

“The change that I’m observing is not linked to pricing. It’s not linked to compensation. It’s more about employee satisfaction, viability, and interest,” said Brusuelas, who is based in Austin, Texas.

Klotz observed that “broadly speaking, some employees only stay in their jobs because they cannot afford to leave.” That’s not true for most accountants, who earn good wages and thus have more freedom when it comes to making career changes, he said.

Experts shared these tips for how firms can retain staff, given the current competitive labor market:

Embrace flexibility. The pandemic has lasted so long that “patterns have changed, and habits have been established,” said Tom Broderick, CPA, regional managing partner for Moss Adams LLP in Albuquerque, N.M. Based on his conversations, remaining flexible as offices reopen seems to be what employees are valuing most right now, he said.

Broderick believes firms must find ways to successfully blend the benefits of collaborative and flexible work environments moving forward. “I think the workplace is forever changed, hopefully for the better,” he said.

Rod Adams, U.S. and Mexico talent acquisition and onboarding leader for PwC, said his firm has also doubled down on flexibility — a factor that can be important when it comes to retaining employees. The firm has long encouraged a culture of flexibility, and it has introduced no-video Fridays, as well as Fridays Your Way, where employees are encouraged to block off “protected time” on their calendars and use it however best suits them, said Adams, who is based in Chicago.

Offer balance. According to the SHRM, burnout is one factor contributing to the high rate of turnover at American workplaces, and it’s something Patrick has seen firsthand. CPAs really care about helping people, he said, and some made personal sacrifices to benefit their clients over the last year and a half. When the pandemic dissipates, some CPAs may seek out jobs that offer more work/life balance. For instance, Botkeeper instituted an unlimited PTO policy just before the pandemic that has been positive for retention, Patrick said.

Ensure staff see a future with your organization. While employees are placing more value on flexibility, they still want opportunities to grow and progress in their careers. It’ll be important to blend the two moving forward, Broderick said.

The accounting industry is undergoing massive change as firms invest in technology. Looking ahead, it’ll be critical for firms to provide their workforce with the latest technology and the knowledge to use it, Brusuelas said. Potential employees can intuitively tell whether firms will be able to successfully navigate the profession’s changing landscape, he explained.

“Core decisions made by leadership on how to train and equip the workforce will drive recruitment and retention,” he said, noting that training on technology is especially important.

Make sure your workplace reflects core values. Making investments in the area of diversity and inclusion can help set firms apart when it comes to recruiting and retaining employees, Adams said. “It’s the right thing to do from a business perspective, and it’s definitely a factor in what talent is thinking about and looking for when they’re considering job opportunities and employers,” he said.

Creating a culture where your employees see value and meaning in their work can also play a role in retaining employees — that’s where strong leadership comes in, Klotz said.

Consider how you treat departing employees. With the high rate of resignations taking place, it’s a good time for employers to consider whether they can improve the exit process for employees who resign. Some leading companies are taking extra steps to ensure employees feel valued, even as they depart, Klotz said.

For example, he said, “some firms extend a leave of absence to departing employees so that employees can easily boomerang back if they would like to do so within six months or a year of quitting.” It’s also important that organizations hold celebrations for departing employees as a way of recognizing their contributions, he added.

These practices are “not only the right thing to do from a human standpoint,” Klotz said, but they can also help enhance an organization’s reputation, improving its chances of attracting other strong candidates or recruiting back past employees.

While experts acknowledge that turnover can be costly and disruptive at times, recognize that it also presents opportunities. High turnover may mean that you lose personnel, but it also means “there are other talented people in the marketplace” looking for new jobs, Broderick said.

Churn in the labor market played an important role in the U.S. economy even before the pandemic — millions of jobs were eliminated every month and even more were created, Brusuelas said.

“That churn bestows upon companies the opportunity, and the responsibility, to identify workers who can meet changing demands,” he said.

Megan Hart is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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