Within half an hour of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, every single U.S. employee at Deloitte & Touche LLP received a voicemail telling them to go home and be with their families.This was the moment that Paul Silverglate, a partner in strategic client services in Deloitte's San Jose, Calif., office, realized that he wanted to stay with the Big Four firm for the rest of his career.
"This place cares," Silverglate said. "They make you feel like your voice is heard and you have control over your career. I've had many opportunities here in Silicon Valley to jump ship, but you have to be careful where you jump ship: They might not care as much about you as this place does."
Retaining non-entry-level CPAs - those with five or more years of experience - goes beyond money. A caring, open environment with opportunities for growth, a heavy amount of client interaction and flexible work hours are all keys to having a successful retention strategy, said Michael Assaad, vice president of permanent placement at staffing service Ajilon Finance.
Meanwhile, small firms may not have the money for big programs or parties to show their appreciation for their employees, but they can demonstrate their appreciation in many other ways.
"There is always someone willing to throw more money at them," said Jim Metzler, vice president of small firm interests at the American Institute of CPAs. "If you try to compete with money, you'll never win. It's other things that motivate people."
Those other things could include creating a mentor program or encouraging younger CPAs to pair themselves with a partner.
However, in a paper from the AICPA released last year, 93 percent of 500 accounting firms studied nationwide had no leadership programs, and 89 percent had no partner-in-training programs in place.
Opening these lines of communication can be a "check-up from the neck up," said Assaad.
"You can't just throw a couple hundred dollars at them. You have to give them something on [both] a short- and a long-term basis," said Jeffrey Garrison, president of California-based regional firm Stonefield Josephson Inc.
After the busy season, Stonefield Josephson gave out an iPod to each of its employees as a tangible "thank you." However, Garrison said, the firm also has long-term strategies in place through mentoring and coaching programs, as well as generous vacation packages.
Flexible work hours and time off are a huge advantage for smaller firms that do not have to go through a number of approval channels in order to give their CPAs some needed family time or time to work from home.
Even when smaller CPA firms are paying top dollar for those entering the profession, more pay is rarely a factor in why a CPA leaves a firm, said Chason Hecht, president and co-founder of Retensa LLC, an employee-retention strategy consulting firm based in New York. Money rarely makes the top five reasons that someone leaves a firm, said Hecht. Many times, the issues stem from differences of opinion between the manager or partner and the departing CPA.
Perqs big and small
Big Four firms such as Deloitte can offer big packaged programs that provide a lot of flexibility as well.
"Just because you have a child doesn't mean you lose half your brain," said Silverglate. "Your career here is like a pair of air conditioning knobs in a car. Sometimes you have to put your work life on at full pace, and sometimes you have to adjust it down."
Deloitte offers its employees such programs as a woman's initiative program, to help retain more women within the firm; a senior manager advisor program, where a more senior CPA at the firm is assigned to an entry-level CPA to give development tips and address any issues the younger accountant may have with more senior management; and a "personal pursuits" program that allows employees who have worked at the firm for five or more years to take six months off to pursue some life goal - such as raising a baby, climbing a mountain in Tibet, or taking classes at a local university.
Programs like these, however, are costly, and smaller firms may not have the resources to provide services like a six-month sabbatical. However, the institute found in a recent study that just keeping current with technology could make a big difference.
In a study with 472 respondents, the second-most motivating factor in recruiting and retaining CPAs was having up-to-date technology and software. Portable technologies like BlackBerries and software like paperless document management systems that allow accountants to review and file their work from home are some of the most sought-after pieces of technology for CPAs, said the AICPA's Metzler.
"We pride ourselves on being on the cutting edge," said Jennifer King, human resources manager at the Toronto-based firm of Fuller Landau LLP. "We've been doing paperless software for three years, and while most of our technology is in-house, everyone still has access from home."
Technology, innovative programs and mentors can all entice CPAs into staying, but the firm's environment is what keeps them excited about their place of business, said David Mayer, partner at Burr, Pilger & Mayer, a regional CPA firm in Northern California.
Mayer explained that BPM has adopted two K-8 schools in poor neighborhoods, and before each school day, members of the firm go in and read to the children. They also hold essay contests and donate money to the schools. The firm also provides other services to the community, like raising money to help build the San Francisco Food Bank building.
"We are committed to our community," said Mayer. "Our people get great exposure to clients. Then they see how active we are in the community and they respect that, they are proud to work here. We all do something because people matter. That's our tag line."
Ajilon's Assaad said that CPAs looking for work usually list these features regarding potential employer firms:
An opportunity for growth;
* superior management team;
* firm that is both progressive and cutting edge; and,
* firm that is growing.
Learn from your losses
Of course, there will always be times when someone leaves for a life choice, like moving to another state or country, or a career switch. But even a loss in personnel can help CPA firms grow, as exit interviews help firms gain insight into what areas they need to work on.
Retensa's Hecht warned, however, that performing your own exit interviews could result in distorted answers.
"You should never do your own exit interviews. Why would any one tell you the truth? They would burn that bridge," said Hecht. "They usually want to say something else. But they can't because they are scared if they do, they will lose that reference."
Deloitte does perform its own exit interviews, but it follows up with those who have left using a third-party company to see if their answers change over time. Fuller also does its own exit interviews, but it has a third party do an annual, anonymous questionnaire on what staff members think of their partners and managers.
Silverglate of Deloitte said that keeping in contact with those who have left can sometimes prove worthwhile, if they are one day interested in coming back.
"There are not that many people in accounting with five or six years' experience available to hire," said BP&M's Mayer. "That is why you have to treat everyone really, really well. The reason why [some] firms are experiencing low retention rates is because they don't treat their CPAs the way they want to be treated."
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