The Retention Riddle: What Does It Take to Keep Your People?
BY NATALIE ROONEY
Summer 2022 | www.cocpa.org 31
How can the accounting profession encourage
its best and brightest talent to stay when so many other options exist today?
Since April 2021, more than 19 million U.S. workers have quit
their jobs – a record pace. According to a September 2021
global study by McKinsey & Company, 53 percent of employers
say they’re experiencing greater voluntary turnover than in previous
years, and 64 percent expect the problem to continue or worsen over
the next six months. In fact, 40 percent of employees say they’re at
least somewhat likely to quit in the next three to six months.
Why should you care about employee retention instead of just letting
them go? First and foremost, it’s expensive. According to the Society
for Human Resource Management (SHRM), it costs an average of six
to nine months’ salary to replace a worker.
COCPA Chair Angela Roberts, CPA, managing director of Aclivity,
sees firsthand how much money employee departures cost employers.
First, there’s the time it takes for a new hire to get up to speed
and produce at the same level as current employees. Additionally,
employers also likely are overworking their other people during a
job search. Clients may not have anyone to contact. “That burden
costs reputation, time, and money,” she says. “There is an additional
risk when the other people start to think about leaving.”
WHAT DO THEY REALLY WANT?
It’s not always about the money. “Money is enticing, but when you
ask young professionals why they’re leaving, it’s about their time,”
Roberts says. “This newest generation is plugged in all day, and they
don’t want to work overtime or around the clock because they don’t
see the benefit or value in it. They have hobbies. They have side hustles.
They don’t believe their career is the only way to make money.
They are smart and can do different things.”
So, beyond money, what do today’s young professionals want? A
remote work option. “No one wants to work 10 to 15 hour days; they
don’t even want to come into the office two days a week,” Roberts
says. “They want the flexibility to live in different cities or even
countries. People want to enjoy their jobs and their hobbies.”
According to Upwork’s Future Workforce Report 2021, nearly 28 percent
of respondents are expected to be fully remote in the next five years.
That increased from 22.9 percent in November 2020.
Roberts says she still hears that people want to believe in a company’s
mission. “They want to know what you are doing, how you are
doing it, and that yours is a company they can stand behind,” she
HOW ORGANIZATIONS ARE FLEXING
To address employees’ interest in working in a flexible workstyle,
BDO introduced BDO Flex more than a decade ago. Partner Erin
Breit, CPA, says the program has formally evolved through discussions
from the national level down through the local offices. “The
workstyle and strategy encompass everything,” she explains.
BDO Flex addresses not only part-time employees who have different
hours but also where employees want to work. “We trust
our employees to get all our work finished. We prioritize outcomes
rather than where or when they’re working,” Breit says. “We train
our teams to communicate to let everybody do what they need to do
to have a good work + life fit.”
Local offices can make changes as needed, as can individual teams
like audit and tax. “They just have to communicate their needs,
when and where they’ll be working, and put a plan together,” Breit
says. “We encourage robust, open communication. It allows team
members to prioritize their work outcomes over the hours they’re
putting in and where they’re working. It leads to a less stressful work
environment. Being able to do everything in your life that you enjoy
outside of work while still having a career is important.”
CREATING A SUSTAINABLE EXPERIENCE
Doug Slaybaugh, CPA, CGMA, PCC, CPCC, founder of The CPA Coach,
says evening out what he calls the pendulum of public accounting is
key to attracting and retaining good people. “Firms swing hard in the
direction of the moment,” he explains. “You have an opportunity to
create sustainability in the middle. What can you proactively do for
the good of your people to create a place that lands the pendulum in
a viable and intentional state?”
Last September, Slaybaugh wrote a LinkedIn blog post: A public
accounting experience to stay for. It was actually written for a mentor and
public accounting firm partner to offer ideas to help create a better
experience for firms and their people.
One idea came from the automotive industry: Toyota is famously
known for asking “why” five times to uncover the cause and effect
of a concern. Slaybaugh recommends asking your team five “what”
questions to better understand their circumstances and the roots of
their concerns. He provided some examples: What is on your mind?
What would be better? What more can you tell me? What else?
“‘Why’ creates a position of defensiveness,” Slaybaugh explains. “Why
did you do that? Why did you think that? So much more is possible
with ‘what.’ It doesn’t imply judgment and allows your team to do
the thinking. It leaves a wide berth to be curious. By asking those
‘what’ questions and really digging in, you can move from general
and conversational to specific and impactful.”
JOB CRAFTING FOR RETENTION
Slaybaugh says people often leave jobs without ever asking for what
they really want or knowing what they could have had from the
current employer. Job crafting can help prevent that from happening.
It involves three components:
Task Crafting: Changing up responsibilities. Changing the nature of certain
responsibilities or dedicating different amounts of time to what
you currently do.
Relationship Crafting: Changing up interactions. Changing up who we
work with on different tasks, who we communicate and engage with
Cognitive Crafting: Changing up your mindset. By changing perspective on
what we’re doing, we can find or create more meaning about what
might otherwise be seen as ‘busy work.’ Sweeping floors at a hospital
might sound like it isn’t fun and is just dirty work, but someone
sweeping the floors might also love the job because it helps save lives
by keeping a clean room and environment for patients to recover.
“You can job craft a better reason to be doing what you’re doing,”
Slaybaugh says. “It’s a process to go through these retention steps, and
it’s usually skipped. You find out in an exit interview when you hear
things like: ‘If only you’d given me more challenging tasks, a different
team, or a different manager, or if I understood the impact of my
work.’ But by then, it’s too late.”
People often leave jobs without
ever asking for what they
really want or knowing what
they could have had.
Slaybaugh recommends conducting stay interviews with your team.
A stay interview is an exit interview designed to happen before someone
quits. “Ask the tough questions. Ask what would make the job
better? What would make you leave? Have you thought about leaving?
What can we do to improve? Find out what’s going on and then
use job crafting to better align with the employee’s expectations.”
Roberts says stay interviews also can be helpful to determine if a
potential move is simply about money. “If it is about money, pay
it,” she asserts. “If you don’t, you’ll just end up paying a recruiter a
percentage of the new base salary to find someone else. If you think
someone is at risk of looking for a new position, have the conversation
and make the investment.”
THE THREE BIGGEST THINGS
Slaybaugh says firms are reacting to these circumstances in three
- Cash remains king. Whether it’s end of season bonuses, bigger
raises or spot bonuses, money usually talks.
- More time off. This could be PTO, an extra day off, or just more
time off in general.
- Some form of hybrid flexible working arrangement in some or all
He believes what really can have an impact on the profession and its
people is better conversations, especially around the public accounting
experience and well-being. Slaybaugh says accounting leaders
know how to be mentors, but the soft skills needed to get in touch
with what’s important to their teams might not be in their playbook.
He suggests training to build those skills. “Because of our problem-
solving reflex as CPAs, we don’t go deep enough,” he observes.
“What we really need to do is listen, create situations for people to
be heard, and ask the right questions so we can gain a better understanding
of what’s going on.”
Ultimately, Slaybaugh suggests opening your mind to all possibilities
for retention. “Don’t be so worried about finding the right answer,”
he encourages. “Be creative! Seek options that are original, personal,
or aren’t typically offered. Do something that grabs the attention of
your people or that you hadn’t thought possible.”
THE EMPLOYEE WISH LIST
Every time Roberts works with a candidate, she asks what he or she
would like from the next job or employer. These direct quotes from
candidates are enlightening:
- Work life balance is very important to me. I would love to work
at a company that doesn’t just parrot that it promotes/encourages
work life balance. I would like to work where people at all levels
of the company live it. I understand that accounting/tax is deadline
driven, and there will be weeks throughout the year where I
will be required to work more hours than usual. However, I don’t
want to work somewhere if this is the case all year. I don’t want
to feel I constantly have to put out fires.
- I want an employer who invests resources in employees and
wants to see them grow within the company. Ideally, I will be at
the next company for years. I am not interested in job hopping.
Good/healthy company culture where management/higher ups
want to see employees grow with the company and help to facilitate
that. I would like my employer to support my efforts to learn
and improve by offering in depth training/training opportunities,
goal setting, regular feedback, and skill building.
- I see myself working in a mid-size to large company. I am not
interested in working in public accounting. Any industry is fine if
it is stable and has good long-term potential. I want to work at a
company that has a sustainable business and can provide growth
for its employees.
I am not picky about my job title as long as the company I work
for, and the job, meet the other items on my list.
- With the world being so volatile (which I don’t anticipate changing
anytime soon), I would like to work for a company that is
financially healthy/stable and in an industry that has long-term
potential. I want to feel confident that the company I work for –
and my role – is secure and that I have job security (assuming that
I am a dedicated, hard worker and high performer in my role,
which I am confident I will be no matter where I work).
- I am open to working in office, hybrid, and/or remotely. I would
prefer that if the job requires employees to be in office it will
be within walking distance from where I live or conveniently
accessible via public transit. I am open to job opportunities that
are outside of Denver and Colorado if they are remote and/or if
they only require in-office work (i.e., travel to their office/headquarters
for big meetings and/or projects) sporadically throughout
the entire year.
- A company that has systems, processes in place, and provides to
its employees the resources to do the job. I don’t want to be putting
out fires every day.
“This generation is telling us, ‘I’m here, and I’m smart enough,’ so let’s
figure out ways to do things better,” Roberts says. “Telling them we’ve
always done something a certain way won’t fly. They have ideas for
new ways of doing things and can contribute. We gave this generation
a seat at the table when they were being reared, so they’ve always had
a voice. Now, they expect it when they go to work. If you don’t listen,
they feel disrespected and walk away.”
WHAT’S AT RISK?
What’s at risk if organizations don’t change how they think about
“The profession as a whole is at risk,” Slaybaugh cautions. He points
to an English study that revealed people consider accounting the
second most boring profession. The most recent AICPA Trends report
shows accounting firms continue to hire more non-accounting graduates
as work continues to be realigned, outsourced, or replaced by
technology. “That’s all fine unless we’re not creating other opportunities
for accountants,” he says. “Think of it like a movie. How do we
get people in seats? We put out something people want to see. If we’re
not going to do that, we’ll lose them. The experience itself is where
it’s at – creating the best experience for accountants.”
TRUST YOUR PEOPLE
Above all, Breit says trust your employees to do their work. “Most
organizations can have some version of a flex work environment
where the priority is completing quality work by the deadline,” she
says. “If you’re in management, it boils down to trust. Without it, the
flex work arrangements won’t go well because you’ll always question
what people are doing.”
Breit says she cannot emphasize enough the importance of communication
between team members and establishing clear guidelines
and expectations. To that end, several years ago, BDO’s Denver office
hired an outside consultant to provide communication training. “That
served as our foundation,” Breit says. “Trusting your employees helps
with motivation and achieving the outcomes you want. Management,
trust your people!”