CPA INSIDER

Why people leave their jobs and how to retain staff

Here is what some accounting firms are doing to stop talent from walking out the door.
By Taylor Knopf

A firm's greatest assets are often its people. A committed and talented staff is often the reason clients stay on, and it's what keeps operations running smoothly.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, 43% of workers were thinking about finding a new job in the next year, according to recent research by global staffing firm Robert Half.

A follow-up survey in July of 2,800 employed office workers found the numbers of those looking for new employment dropped, but 32% still indicated they'd be looking for a new job within a year.

That means firm owners and managers shouldn't rest easy, as ambitious and talented CPAs will have career opportunities, even during difficult times. 

The reasons people leave a job are not always simple: Some people want more money, better benefits, or more time off. Others leave because of bad bosses or because they feel underappreciated and overworked.

Robert Half 2019 surveys of 2,800 U.S. senior managers and 2,800 office workers found 81% of senior managers were concerned then about losing talent. Companies that wanted to retain their best people were working to improve communication (46%); improve recognition programs and offer professional development (41% each); and boost benefits and pay (40%), according to the research.

The research also found that employees on the job hunt could be convinced to stay for more money (43%), followed by more time off and benefits (20%).

"Business is continuing to move faster than ever, while many teams are working lean and doing more with less in light of current events," said Mike Steinitz, global executive director for Accountemps, a division of Robert Half. "Stress and burnout aren't impending; they are likely taking place at this very moment. Managers must have a watchful eye on their staff for signs of low morale and its residual impacts."

We asked CPA firm leaders what retention strategies are working for them.

Beware of burnout. Some people leave an employer because they've worked too many overtime hours and grown weary of the job. That can be the case even during the pandemic, with the shift to working from home and with some also having children learning from home. This has made many workers realize they need to reconfigure their work/life balances.

Employee burnout also can be an issue for the accounting profession during tax season, according to Dennis Sherrin, CPA/CFF, CGMA, the CEO of Avizo Group Inc., a public accounting firm of about 45 people based in Alabama.

"There are seasons of compressed work with many ups and downs," Sherrin said. "For some individuals, they say that the seasonality of this business can influence why people leave."

His firm closes its offices midday on Fridays from after the April tax deadline through the end of the calendar year, allowing employees to get an early start on their weekends.

Another Robert Half survey found that 96% of senior managers reported that their employees are experiencing some level of burnout. The staffing firm advises managers to consistently check in and reassess the roles and responsibilities of employees so they don't get frustrated with tasks they're not suited for.

To stave off burnout, managers should also make sure that employees feel appreciated, both through verbal praise and financial compensation, according to Robert Half.

Offer flexibility. Having options to work outside the office, and outside of typical business hours, can help boost employee morale. That may be especially important during the pandemic, with many in need of flexibility at this time.

Alan Long, CPA/CITP, CGMA, managing member of Baldwin CPAs, a Kentucky-based firm of about 70 people, said his firm tries to be more flexible with people's time, also giving them half-day Fridays.

Long's firm eliminated mandatory Saturday hours during the busy tax season 15 years ago.

Pre-COVID-19, he also allowed employees to work from home sometimes, which helped prevent burnout and keep people at the firm.

Reduce overtime hours. Sherrin's firm made a commitment a few years ago to eliminate overtime hours during tax season with an initiative called "Project 40," which has a goal of getting everyone down to a 40-hour workweek year-round.

Before the initiative, people were working between 70 and 80 hours a week during tax season. With Project 40, the firm reduced overtime by 70%, he said.

Project 40 allowed the firm to spread out the workload effectively across the workforce throughout the year, not just during tax season. They also found inefficiencies in their workflow and used technology to save time and eliminate time-consuming tasks, such as manual data entry.

"It's given a lot of people their lives back," Sherrin said.

Train your managers. Nearly half (49%) of the workers surveyed by Robert Half said they have quit a job because of a bad boss.

In order to increase retention, Accountemps's Steinitz suggests that companies "boost staff leadership skills by offering training and regularly gathering feedback on supervisors."

Good leaders are trained to assess their staff to understand each person's needs, Steinitz said. Some people need higher pay, but others may just need more time off or a path to grow their career. It's important to check in on employees to find out what their needs are. It's not always about money, Steinitz advised.

"Sometimes people take a high-paying job only to find they put in too many hours, are not getting support or recognition from the boss, have too much office politics to deal with, or otherwise don't like the culture," he said.

Both Sherrin and Long emphasize leadership and "soft skills" training at their respective firms.

Sherrin said his firm enrolls people in a three-year leadership training program, and the firm is also developing its own in-house program.

Lead by example. Leadership training and conferences, even if attended virtually, are important not just for managers but for the firm partners as well. Firm partners set the tone for everyone else.

"Personally, I get about 100-plus hours of training of myself, and I have a trusted mentor I can talk to at any time," Sherrin said.

Sometimes partners will ask the staff to do something that they themselves don't do, Long said, which may not go over well with others. One common example is if there's a requirement to work weekend hours during the busy season, but partners excuse themselves from that.

"Sometimes I think, as partners, we tend to have an entitlement attitude because we are partners," Long said. "We're the owners of the business, and I think we have to be very careful. And we have to train partners also with regard to these type of things."

A positive example from the top creates better office morale, which means more people are likely to be content with their work environment.

Coach employees up or send them out. Not all turnover is a bad thing, according to Long. In fact, some turnover is necessary to retain valued employees.

Every three months, everyone at the firm gets a coaching session to talk about three things they're doing well and three ways they can improve. Long said this is helpful because if someone is not performing well, they get the opportunity to do better. And special coaching is available if an employee is having an issue, he said.

"We can coach them up or coach them out," Long said. "We would prefer to coach them up, but some people are not coachable."

Keeping a low-performing worker on staff brings down the morale of the whole company and burdens others with their work.

"We've learned that the hard way a time or two that when you got a bad person, you got to get rid of them," Long said. "You lose your good people over not taking care of the bad ones."

Learn from others. Long looks to other firms to learn from their retention strategies and improve his own. He went to conferences before the global pandemic to listen to what others have to say about retention strategies that have worked in their firms. Now, there are ways to connect virtually with cohorts, whether through professional networks or by connecting with those you've encountered previously and have come to respect.

There will never be a perfect strategy in place, he said. What works now may not always work in the future.

"It's sort of like an evergreen deal," Long said. "You have to continually look at it and make changes and tweak it."

Taylor Knopf is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. Freelance writer Sarah Ovaska, who is based in North Carolina, also contributed to this report. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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