More firms are allowing tailored career programs

On April 16 this year, David Parlato boarded an early morning plane to Mexico for some deep-sea fishing. Considering that many CPAs skip town after busy season, this may not be much of a surprise.

Yet for Parlato, the situation was different - he would be gone for three weeks and thus virtually inaccessible to his clients and colleagues at Moss Adams in Bellingham, Wash.

This is possible because Parlato - who has been with the firm for eight years and is currently a senior tax manager - negotiated an alternative work schedule that defines him as an "80 percent employee." That allows him to have more than the allotted five-week vacation time offered by the firm, yet still stay at full-time status for administrative purposes.

"I was really maximizing the amount of time I could spend on those types of trips," Parlato said of his fishing excursions. "Moss Adams had started the alternative work schedule program a few years ago and I think it was mainly designed for parents. But I had a different view of it."

Aside from working an 80 percent schedule and accepting a 20 percent pay cut, Parlato - who is single with no children - approached the partners in his office about working around the firm's busy times. He proposed taking his three-week trip in April, and an additional three-week trip in late December.

When he returns in January, he works a full-time schedule, six days a week. During slower times, he'll work four days, keeping his time flexible, based on client project loads.

"Basically I'm just using that 20 percent reduction in my overall hours to take that six weeks a year in Mexico and still have a normal amount of three-day weekends and shorter vacations that you would usually use," he said. "I still get four weeks of vacation time because I get 80 percent of the standard five weeks."

Since creating the new schedule last year, Parlato was promoted to his current position and his evaluations have improved.

"The main benefit is obviously the additional time, but I think it's actually helped me perform better at work," he explained. "Overall, I'm happier, and because they were willing to work with me on a schedule like this, it increased my commitment level."

MAKING IT WORK

A year ago, if you had asked Sandra Wiley, chief operating officer and senior consultant with Boomer Consulting Inc. in Manhattan, Kan., the two areas that are the biggest draw for flexible scheduling, she would have pointed to two demographics: the gifted female manager who is about to start a family or who wants more time with them, and the retiring Baby Boomer male partner who holds a lot of firm knowledge and isn't quite ready to let go of his career just yet.

Wiley (pictured) predicted that those retiring partners would remain a hot commodity, given the current faltering economy. "Now more than ever, their savings are not what they used to be," she said. "They got to the end of their cycle thinking they are going to have all this money, and then all of a sudden they don't. And the firm doesn't want to let go of the expertise and the relationships they have."

Aside from that specific group, given the larger applicant pool and the possibility of less work outside of tax season, Wiley said that she isn't sure if part-time positions will keep growing in popularity.

"I wonder if [firms] are going to feel as obliging to those managers or women partners who want to work less hours right now," she said.

Wendy Stevens, partner-in-charge of the Quality Assurance Team at Weiser, a regional firm based in New York, agreed. She added that she wouldn't anticipate many men asking for part-time status in this economy.

"I think with a high performer requesting [an alternative schedule], there should be no change," Stevens said. "In the past, because of the shortage of people, we did allow professionals to enter into some sort of alternative work program, where in today's economy we probably may consider the applications using a more performance-based methodology."

Still, those who do work flexible work arrangements or alternative schedules say that two elements are crucial in making the situation work: constant communication with the firm and clients regarding their whereabouts; and strong organizational skills.

Kathryn Habluetzel, tax partner for private wealth services at Grant Thornton in Charlotte, N.C., said that she spent upwards of nine months getting ready to go to a 90 percent schedule so she could be home with her school-aged children. Previously, she had worked full-time and employed a nanny.

"When I go home, with wireless technology, I can dial in and it's basically like I'm in the office; nothing is slowing me down," Habluetzel said. "[What's important is] setting the schedule, telling the firm what your plan is, when you plan to be in the office versus not, and then sticking to it so there are no questions in people's minds. You have to stick to the plan and you have to be flexible to address the clients' needs."

Ken Copans, CPA and senior vice president of tax and accounting services for tax planning and financial services concern Gilman Ciocia in Newburgh, N.Y., understands this. So when he leaves every summer for Hilton Head, S.C., for eight weeks, he keeps in contact with his office and clients.

"I do return clients' calls every day, so while I am away I just don't abandon the office," he said. He explained that his clients also have access to his cell phone number, though they hesitate to use it. "Every four weeks I come back for four days for moral support and for any clients who need to see me face to face. The work in the office is not affected by me not being here."

Copans is the son of a CPA and he grew up acutely aware of the certain times of year that his father wasn't available. As a result, he made a promise to himself, should he enter the profession as well, that he wouldn't miss a Little League game or a show - a promise that took on more importance when his oldest son was tragically killed in an accident. "There is a real value and quality in having a period of time where you could really devote 100 percent of your efforts to your children," he said.

It was a similar situation for Ann Joda, an audit partner with Clifton Gunderson in Milwaukee. "I managed [the schedule] differently through the different stages of my kids," said Joda, who started working part-time 15 years ago when her first son was born. When she returned to work after her maternity leave, she worked 40 hours a week during busy season, or four 10-hour days with more reduced hours in the summer. "I had to keep it flexible. Working on a flexible work arrangement, you need to be better at planning ahead and being organized. I could tell in advance if I was going to have a bad week and could make arrangements."

Joda, who worked at Clifton Gunderson right out of college and then went on to a Big Four firm, said that she felt it would have been more difficult to make partner at the Big Four firm because of her preference for working with privately held, entrepreneurial-type companies versus high-profile Securities and Exchange Commission clients.

She also wanted to keep a flexible schedule. So she met with partners from Clifton Gunderson and told them about her goal of making partner without changing her part-time hours. They knew her skills and abilities from her previous work, hired her back and five years later, she earned the new title.

OVERCOMING RESISTANCE

At O'Sullivan Creel LLP CPAs in Pensacola, Fla., where Cyndi Dawson is a tax partner on a flexible schedule, the staff block out time on her Outlook calendar so her availability is easily accessible when planning meetings. Dawson also revolves her work hours around her son's schedule. When he was in kindergarten, her desire was to take him to school and be there when he arrived home, and it was on this schedule that she made partner. She now works full-time.

"Most of my challenges were self-imposed because I was very career-oriented and had definite career goals," Dawson said. "I wanted to make sure I didn't fall behind my peers. I was the first part-time partner in the firm and I know there was a lot of discussion when they promoted me. But I was a high performer, I had the skill set, I was doing all the things the full-time partners were doing. I was just doing it in less hours and my compensation was adjusted for it. The feedback I've gotten since is that people don't even realize I'm part-time."

Dawson isn't alone in her experience.

Many part-timers have encountered resistance in bringing partners on board with the idea, although more firms are open to the change and each individual's scenario is usually different. In Parlato's case, though the partners were on board, he faced some initial resistance from human resources regarding the administrative tasks involved.

"The conversation is getting a lot easier because most partners have heard of it," said Rita Keller, president and founder of Keller Advisors in Dayton, Ohio. Keller, who is a consultant on the management of CPA firms, said that in talking with many women, she found that as soon as they express interest in going part-time, they are immediately seen as less serious or less committed than their full-time counterparts.

"The biggest challenge is compensation," she said, "because a lot of firms have fantastic females who are good technicians and they have the skill and the knowledge to become a partner, but if they go part-time there has to be a difference in pay. I think both sides have realized that, but it's hard to get them to talk about it. It's figuring out how to structure the compensation package to make it a win-win for everybody."

An enhanced performance evaluation system was created at Weiser that sets out attributes by level, according to Stevens. For example, she said, a manager will have certain attributes and specific skills in seven competency areas, and that's how they will be measured.

"So if you need to get to manager, if it takes you two years or five years or one year, it's about obtaining the skills, not about the time and grade," Stevens explained. "Which is a very difficult mindset - not related to part-time professionals - to change from an evaluation system that says 'doesn't meet expectations,' 'meets expectations,' and 'exceeds expectations,' with no real definition around the competencies."

"Somebody who is not a high-level performer and goes from full-time to part-time isn't suddenly going to have increased skills or competencies on a reduced schedule," she continued. "We are trying to make it a privilege, not a forgone conclusion."

(c) 2009 Accounting Today and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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