How to get—and keep—the best administrative staff

Start by polishing the job description and doing your due diligence.
By Cheryl Meyer

Effective administrative professionals are vital to smooth functioning at public accounting firms of all sizes. These employees bill, scan documents, set up meetings, assemble tax returns, interact with clients, create PowerPoint presentations, and even manage their firms' social media accounts. Quality support staff also have strong connections throughout the firm, helping with tasks such as scheduling interviews, onboarding activities, and marketing.

"The role of the administrative professional and the influence they have is growing tremendously in the workforce," said Melinda Alison, regional president for OfficeTeam, a Robert Half company that helps place temporary administrative support staff. According to a 2015 study by OfficeTeam and the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP), 60% of senior managers surveyed said support employees are more valued now by their organizations than they were 10 years ago, largely because these employees have expanded their functions to assist with tasks such as budgeting and IT.

"We have administrative professionals and client service professionals—all are equally important to the success of the organization," said Lori Niederlehner, CPA, shareholder and COO, Strategic Operations and Advisory Resources, at BeachFleischman PC. Thus it's essential that public accounting firms hire quality administrative employees and then try hard to retain them. Support staff experts offer tips on finding and hiring excellent administrative personnel and keeping them happy once hired:

  • Polish the job description. Before launching the process for a new administrative hire, ensure that all individuals involved—partners, executives, and managers—agree on the responsibilities of the position and the qualities desired in a new employee. "Creating that finely tuned job description ... can really save you time at the end," Alison said.
  • Tap various sources for candidates. Competition is stiff for potential hires who are qualified to handle an accounting firm's demands. Speak with current employees or others in the profession to gain referrals, and use sites such as CPAFMA, LinkedIn, Indeed, or CareerBuilder to find applicants. Also, use professional organizations such as the IAAP or the American Society of Administrative Professionals, Alison added. If necessary, use recruiting firms or staffing agencies.
  • Do your due diligence. Every hire can be risky, so screen employees thoroughly. Make sure they are proficient in your firm's software programs and have a general knowledge of bookkeeping and financial terms. Also, stakeholders involved in the hiring process should collaborate and develop a list of questions to ensure the new employee will meet the firm's needs. "Through the interview process, we like to ask for writing samples and examples of initiatives or projects they have been in charge of in the past," said Michael Feeley, CPA, and HR director with consulting firm StoneTurn Group. After the interview, check references as a final step.
  • Ask the experts. Your own administrative staff may give some of the best input about potential job candidates. The OfficeTeam survey found that administrative professionals are assisting their companies in hiring personnel by interviewing job candidates, updating job descriptions, screening résumés, and posting employment ads, Alison said. "With exposure to many different project groups and departments, administrative professionals are the 'eyes and ears' of the organization," she said. "They have a good sense of what type of person will fit into the work environment."
  • Ascertain attitude. While skills are important, a candidate's can-do approach is equally vital. "That is the most important thing above all, to roll up your sleeves and have a ready-to-pitch-in-type attitude," Feeley said.
  • Offer good pay. First-rate administrative help can be tough to find and even harder to hire, so be competitive in your compensation. Check out OfficeTeam's 2017 Administrative Salary Guide or similar research to help you develop salary guidelines. "We compensate them at market," Feeley said. "If the firm does well and 'admins' accomplish individual initiatives, we share the success with them." His firm gives spot and/or year-end bonuses to his administrative staff if the firm does well, and recognizes employees who have done good work via email blasts or other means.
  • Hire for retention. Ensure the candidate is flexible and a good match for your firm's culture, and is savvy enough to interact with CPAs. "You want to hire an administrative professional who views this position as a career move, not just a job to pay the bills," Niederlehner said.
  • Don't dwell on mistakes. Everyone makes blunders, and they are usually fixable. If an administrative staff member errs, keep it in perspective. "The administrative professional's self-esteem is more important than a typo that didn't get caught," Niederlehner added.
  • Keep them engaged. Jobs can become mundane, and not all administrative jobs lead to promotion. So keep your support staff engaged. Allow them to embrace projects outside the norm. Meet with them regularly to gauge their feelings about the job and to give constructive feedback. Find out what motivates them. "Know everything they are capable of and tap into those strengths," Alison said. And, added Paul McGee, director, human resources at E. Cohen and Company CPAs, "Teach them creativity by being willing to listen to their opinions and suggestions ... and implement some of them when appropriate."
  • Treat administrative staff equally. It's easy and not uncommon to have disconnect between higher-level staff and administrative professionals. But, McGee said, "It takes everybody in your firm working together to make it the best it can be." So, treat administrative staff as you treat all employees. "Include them in firm meetings, not just to take notes but to contribute," adds Niederlehner. "If you give the client service professional a bonus, give the administrative professional a bonus. If they need training, send them to a computer class."           

And, treat every employee in your firm with respect and value their contributions. For instance, StoneTurn has semiannual meetings, and the firm's administrative staff sits in to find out what is happening with the business. This not only makes the employees feel included, but it benefits the firm, too, because, Feeley said, "Everyone in the firm, regardless of their role, should be able to give an elevator pitch of what their firm does."

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this story, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

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