In the second annual Best Firms to Work For survey - a joint effort between Accounting Today and the Best Companies Group in Harrisburg, Pa. - we set out to find which firms are doing their best at keeping their workforce productive and content, even in these tumultuous times. The winning firms were divided into three categories for ranking: small firms with between 15 and 24 employees, midsized firms with between 25 and 249 employees, and large firms with more than 250 employees. Mark Bailey & Co. in Reno, Nev., Braver Schimler Pierce Jenkins in Atlanta, and BlumShapiro in West Hartford, Conn., garnered the first-place rankings in the small, midsized and large categories, respectively.

In all, 20 small firms, 65 midsized firms and 15 large firms were honored this year as Best Firms to Work For.

WHAT MAKES THEM SO GOOD

The program was open to accounting firms with at least 15 employees working in the U.S. Participating firms submitted an Employer Benefits and Policies Questionnaire to disclose company policies, practices and demographics, which made up one quarter of the firm's score. Then staff members completed a confidential Employee Engagement and Satisfaction Survey to evaluate the employees' workplace experience and company culture, which accounted for the remaining three quarters of each firm's score. The results were analyzed and categorized in eight areas: leadership and planning, corporate culture and communications, role satisfaction, work environment, relationship with supervisor, training and development, pay and benefits, and overall engagement.

Once those scores were tallied, employees' write-in comments were evaluated for the final ranking, according to Susan Springer, director of workplace assessments at Best Companies Group, which conducted the analysis.

And the results were telling.

Across all industries, the first quarter of 2009 was the worst with regards to employee satisfaction in the workplace, according to Springer. She noted, however, that accounting firms stand out in a good way.

"The accounting firms are doing really great things," she said. "They've got the right people in the right place; their employees are not only glad to be working there, but they are engaged. When they come in in the morning, they are ready to go and they stay on task until they leave, and that has a lot to do with how the employer is treating them."

Health insurance is still a popular and necessary perk for small and midsized firms, according to the survey results, especially if they want to retain their best and brightest employees. Fourteen out of the 20 best small firms pay all of their employees' health care costs, while 34 of the 65 midsized firms offer that benefit. But in this category larger firms make employees share the cost, as only two firms out of 15 pay the whole way for their employees' health care.

Springer added that everybody that made the list does something to recognize their employees during tax season.

That said, there is still room for improvement. Small and midsized firms are lagging in rolling out succession plans, with only seven out of 20 small firms reporting that they had one in place. Forty-eight out of 65 midsized firms reported the same, while it seems large firms are preparing for the future better, with 12 out of the 15 large firms reporting a succession plan in place.

But what does it take to be at the top of the list, especially during a turbulent time when downsizing staff becomes the norm?

"It's obvious that, even though they may be having to do some creative things as far as cutting costs, their ability to communicate why those cuts have to be made and their ability to communicate the bad news along with the good news and not just blow smoke, that seems to be what is really setting aside those best places to work," Springer said. "Employee satisfaction is down, but at least the employees feel that they can still trust their company to tell them like it is."

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