Im a partner at a large firm with a location in the San Francisco Bay area. This year - because of tight economic conditions - we didnt extend partnership to a 38-year-old female (lets call her Suze) whom wed previously agreed would become a partner this year.
We thought we handled it well; when we decided not to offer Suze partnership, we met with her privately, explained the situation, talked things through, gave her a really generous compensation package, and we thought everything was okay.
She recently left our firm and now, six more women - half of them high potentials - are also gone.
My partner group (most of us male) feel like we really screwed this up somehow, and want to prevent other high potential women from leaving the firm.
Whats your best advice?
Youre right. You screwed up. But admitting it is the first step.
Promising someone something - and then taking it away - is a huge blow, especially to someone whos achievement-oriented, which most CPAs are. When Suze saw that you wouldnt keep your word, she (likely) found a firm that she could believe in.
And - as in many things in life - it wasnt about the money, honey. It was about that seat at the table.
Unfortunately, you underestimated the collateral damage - when you didnt promote Suze you were unknowingly sending a message to other women in the firm. The message was, Even if youre told youll be partner, dont count on it.
I cant speak for all minorities, but generally we keep a close eye on how people like ourselves are treated in firms. And if theres not a record of fairness, everyone notices.
You wont get Suze back, but you can salvage some of your firms honor as a good place to work for women. Heres what Id do:
Schedule coffee or lunch with each of the high potential women whove left. Its only three people; you can make time.
At each meeting, admit that you screwed up. Be humble and whole-hearted. Women can smell a scoundrel from 100 paces.
Tell each one that you know you cant undo whats done, but you are serious about being a place where women can succeed.
Ask them if theyre willing to stay in touch, so that if they find out theyre unhappy at their new firm(s), you can at least have a chance at winning them back.
And thats it.
Remember that women make up more accounting grads than men do, so its smart to be tuned into ways to develop and keep them in your firm.
Rebecca Ryan is a consultant who helps firms develop and keep their top talent. http://nextgenerationconsulting.com/.