Accounting firms are going back to basics in their retention efforts, with renewed focus on establishing and building a quality culture.

"Firms forgot about retention the last couple years," said Mark Koziel, vice president of firm services and global alliances at the American Institute of CPAs. "Things are shaking up again and they are back to the [retention] policies they had before."

Within firms with high retention rates, these policies are less formal and more part of a wider culture, which is immediately communicated to new hires on day one.

But what if a firm has yet to define this great intangible?

"One of the best ways is to create a team, an advisory board internally," recommended Koziel. "Sit people down and ask them, 'What makes you crazy enough to stay?' Find out the reasons people want to stay at the firm, what has kept them there, and emulate those systems and communicate them to who you want to bring in."

Chances are good that an involved mentorship program will place high on that list.

"Mentorship is an ongoing work product - making a concerted effort to work with people on career plans is helpful," said Monica Doshi Becker, human resources manager at California accounting firm Hemming Morse, which with 99 employees, recorded a scant 4 percent turnover in its last fiscal year. "You take their career more seriously, and they feel like someone is invested in them. It also helps the firm; when people are invested in their careers they are excited about working and are going to do a good job for you - and stay."

Virginia-based CPA firm Kearney & Co. placed third in the large firm category of Accounting Today's Best Firms to Work For 2011 in part due to its comprehensive mentoring program, which pairs every new employee in its 420-person staff with a level-appropriate mentor when they walk through the door.

The firm, which to date has roughly a 95 percent voluntary retention rate, recently bolstered these efforts by rolling out a mid-level program six months ago in response to an employee's recommendation. A focus group was assembled to discover how to best meet the needs of this demographic of people who had been with the firm for four or five years and were out of the junior program but not yet in the senior phase.

This level of employee is a vital target for retention efforts, according to Janette Marx, senior vice president of staffing company Accounting Principals.

"Nowadays, we're talking to a number of different companies and if they have an opening, they are struggling to find people with the right skill set and talent," she shared. "There is a demand in the three- to seven-year experience range."

Tailored attention to this group should then go beyond mentorship.

"Everybody is different and everybody's circumstances are different," explained Brian Kearney, Kearney & Co.'s partner and senior director of operations. "If you put the cookie-cutter mold to everyone, you're creating a scenario where you're cutting out top performers that don't fit that cookie-cutter mold."

 

HIGH INTEREST RATE

This individualized attention, however, should walk the "fine line between micromanaging and coaching," said Marx, citing Accounting Principals' recently released workplace insights survey. The survey found micromanaging to be the biggest pet peeve on the job, with 29 percent of the 274 finance employees (out of 504 total respondents) expressing their annoyance at this management style.

Being cut out of staffing decisions also tracked high on the employee irritation scale.

"As managers make staffing decisions, employees want to be involved," said Marx. "They want to do some shaping in that strategy of where things are going and why."

Overall, employees value an open dialogue.

"One of the most important things is communicating plans, whether they be succession plans or business plans in general to all levels of the organization," said Becker. "I think we're dealing with an environment where even the most junior people are interested in what the company is doing as a whole and in the future. The more transparent you can be out there the better, even if it's not all good news, because you get more loyalty the more up front and honest you can be."

Though important to communicate both the good and bad, management feedback in particular should strike a balance, advised Koziel.

"You should be setting goals up front and managing against those goals," he said. "It's not just a performance evaluation of telling people what they did wrong; that's anti-retention."

 

GOODWILL

A desire to both see and be part of the bigger picture ranks especially high with Generation Y and Millennial employees, and transcends office walls according to Accounting Principals.

"Their generation is built on having a greater purpose, and how to help the overall economy and the world," said Marx. "They want to have a greater purpose, and be tied into something more meaningful across the board."

Fulfilling this need is critical, when members of this generation typically stay at a job for only a year and a half, according to Marx.

Generation Y "sees companies that give to their communities and have some sort of social responsibility," explained Becker. "Whether it's volunteerism or participation in industry societies, it's important to them to work for companies that give back."

Since the Baby Boomer generation is a typically loyal group that wants to be retained, said Marx, firms should work to fulfill some of these younger-generation priorities, which include work/life balance.

Some firms have catered to these concerns by updating their technologies, but, overall "not enough" are embracing a virtual workforce, said Koziel. "It's a tremendous opportunity for our profession. It's where everything is going. Your boundaries for employees within city limits can be anywhere, but trust is a huge part of that."

While Hemming Morse has no formal telecommuting policy, said Becker, the firm cultivates an "ownership-driven" environment of flexibility in working from home.

"We have a general respect for personal lives- that they are more important than work."

 

VALUE-ADD

Firms will find comfort in the fact that finance employees feel more valued at work than they did five years ago, according to the Accounting Principals' workplace survey.

That sense of appreciation should only increase as firms, taking advantage of a recovering economy, break up job responsibilities that were consolidated to a single person after recent downsizings.

"It's time to take a holistic view of overall departments," advised Marx. "You can take different skill sets and create next jobs around items that one employee doesn't need to do. You're adding more satisfaction for more employees."

A slowly rebounding economy also gives firms that had yet to set that all-important culture in place a second chance.

"[Firms] are at that place where they have the flexibility to shape departments to the way they want it to be, because they are able to hire once again," Marx continued. "Firms that have been operating off skeleton crews for so long want to be very careful that they don't lose [talent] to a competitor for a couple thousand dollars."

Investment in retention programs and technology is critical, as is top-down support.

"You need everyone on team to buy into that culture; it needs to come from the top," said Kearney. "If it's just an HR initiative, it's not successful. It's not going to be the least expensive way to go today, but focusing on the cost side is, in some ways, shortsighted."

Truly empowering employees brings a high return on investment.

"When you increase productivity and decrease the cost of filling seats - with a lower retention rate - you indirectly create a workplace that becomes the biggest advocate of the organization and sells the company on a daily basis," Kearney continued. "That indirect sale helps further build revenues. It's not a day-of thing, but a long-term investment."

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