• Colin Doyle CFO

Keeping talent in the firm: Top firms reveal their retention strategies

By Sean McCabe

By now, accounting firm leaders are well aware that recruiting candidates can be difficult in today’s competitive hiring environment, but they’re also finding that retaining staff is just as critical a task, and it’s one that’s only grown more complex in recent years. Because effective recruiting efforts should go hand in hand with strong retention strategies, Accounting Today sought the feedback of innovative firms on how exactly they’re holding on to staff in a turbulent time.

Perhaps the foundation of retention in accounting firms relies on building an inclusive environment that candidates feel comfortable joining and growing with. According to the CFP Board Center for Financial Planning’s report, “Financial Planning Career Paths: Building More Sustainable and Successful Businesses,” a diverse workplace environment is as much a business decision as an HR one.

“Better talent development practices and more inclusive career choices will allow … firms to attract a more diverse group of professionals,” the report noted. “Increasing diversity will in turn create better organizations and … also better serve its diverse body of clients.”

Female representation and the path to partnerships within accounting firms is another significant issue. According to the American Institute of CPAs’ Women’s Initiatives Executive Committee’s “2017 CPA Firm Gender Survey,” just 22 percent of firm partners are female. Furthermore, only 47 percent of firms surveyed have a formal succession plan process, with only 2 percent of those including a “formal gender component” in those plans.

Bland Garvey, an Accounting Today 2018 Best Firm to Work For in Richardson, Texas, is composed of 69 percent female staffers, and women make up 50 percent of the firm’s partners. These numbers have helped the firm’s retention rate greatly, as staff tenure is an average of 14 years, with a turnover rate 23 percent below the average for professional services firms.

“[We’ve] had a predominately female staff since [our] inception 50 years ago,” according to COO Susan Medlock. “We initially attributed this situation to our suburban location when most CPA firms were located in downtown Dallas. Over the years, we have added other benefits such as a four-day work week and flexible work hours which have also contributed to our retention of female employees.”

Top 100 Firm Citrin Cooperman, based in New York, echoes this need for female representation and retention with its women’s initiative. “As a firm, we understand that diversity and inclusion is a business imperative,” according to Patricia Cummings, co-managing partner of the firm’s New York City office. “Diversity will continue to improve our culture, attract better talent, [and] foster more satisfied, valued employees who will, in turn, deliver superior client service.”

Not all steps toward building an inclusive workplace need to be grand gestures. Fellow Best Firm to Work For Kaufman Rossin and its Empowering Women diversity committee helped celebrate female leadership with screenings of “Wonder Woman.” As part of Bernston, Porter & Co.’s women’s leadership initiative, a group of women in the firm regularly participate in a golf clinic.

Investing in people

Another key factor in retention is investing in staff members’ well-being. In recent years, perks such as flexible or remote work practices, longer paternal leave and more paid time-off have modern professionals expecting more from their employers. Remote work practices have also gained steam over the last decade.

Lincoln, Nebraska-based Best Firm to Work For HBE anticipates these changing needs: “We recognize that our industry is changing at the speed of light, and we’ve taken proactive steps to ensure that we’re changing right along with it. From unlimited PTO and anytime-anywhere remote work access … we take the satisfaction of our employees seriously.”

“Given our multi-generational workplace, we feel that these [remote work] programs are very important,” added Citrin Cooperman’s Cummings. “With our firm’s ability to leverage technology, we can work from virtually anywhere in the world.” Citrin Cooperman takes flexible work a step further with its sabbatical program, wherein staff members who have worked at the firm full-time for at least six years can take a one-time, paid sabbatical of four consecutive weeks of paid time off. While on break, staff members are asked to prepare two whitepapers: one focused on suggestions for improving any aspect of the firm’s operations, and another on their career aspirations.

“Supporting the family spirit has always been one of our core values,” said Bland Garvey CEO John Garvey. “One way we have always lived that core value was to move to a 36-hour work week Monday [through] Thursday and close the office on Fridays for the majority of the year.”

Be creative!

Sometimes, just showing an inspired commitment to staff members can motivate them to stay onboard.

San Jose, California-based Best Firm to Work For Johanson & Yau has, for instance, done away with traditional performance reviews in lieu of a more forward-facing process, and said: “Our staff appreciates this modern approach to performance management.”

Wichita, Kansas-based Best Firm to Work For Allen, Gibbs & Houlik has a “Friday fadeaway” policy — if staff members’ charge hours and work commitments are completed by Friday at noon, they’re free (in most departments) to start their weekend early.

Savannah, Georgia-based Best Firm to Work For Hancock Askew & Co. makes professional development a key part of the firm’s strategy. “Everything we do is dedicated to providing an enriching environment to help staff reach their full potential,” the firm stated. “The better ‘you’ become, the stronger our firm becomes. We provide a comprehensive training ground [and] offer hands-on opportunities to expand employee knowledge and do more activities with a diverse base of clients.”

Investment in staff members can also be literal — Best Firm to Work For Global Tax Management, in Wayne, Pennsylvania, “ensures the financial future for employees” with 3 percent of a staff member’s compensation contributed by the firm to their 401(k); 7 to 12 percent of employee compensation contributed by the firm in the form of ESOP shares; and another 10 to 40 percent of annual bonus distributed. Davidson, Holland, Whitesell & Co., a Best Firm to Work For in Hickory, North Carolina, offers an incentive bonus plan for staff members whose billings are more than two and a half times their base salary. And Houston-based PKF Texas’ “pay for performance plan” gives bonuses to top performers.

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