Art of Accounting: Communication and transparency with staff

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We just got through a most unusual “tax season,” with taxes pushed aside at the beginning of April to be consumed with the Small Business Administration and its Paycheck Protection Program. This year’s April 15 was the first in my entire career where it was a non-event.

Along with the hubbub of what was going on and the lockdown, some client closings or downsizing, and many staff people working at home, along with a lessening of the socialization within firms, many staffers developed insecurities about their positions, salaries, bonuses, raises, vacations, paid time off and continuation of some benefits.

My firm, Withum, had a trifecta that I feel removed much of the staff insecurity and actually propped them up. Here is what was done:

1. Bill Hagaman, our CEO and managing partner, has been holding biweekly, firmwide Town Halls on Microsoft Teams, where he updates us on Withum’s reaction to the coronavirus situation and how it would affect everyone at our firm. He gives us point-by-point rundowns on how we, our clients, the partners and staff are doing, and what we could expect working with clients and interacting with each other. We have been virtual for over 15 years, so working from home has not caused any changes in the way we do things. Everyone has a laptop as well as a smartphone, and those who previously requested equipment for their homes have second and third monitors, docking stations and high speed scanners. Those that now want them could get them by making a request to our IT department. He reassured us about the job situation: No one will be laid off because of the pandemic, the May and June graduates we hired will have jobs and will start on schedule, the interns we have already hired will start as soon as it is safe for them to work in the office they were hired for, and the firm is pretty much fully operational. He implored everyone to work from home as much as possible and to stay away from their offices, although most offices have remained open and those that have closed were because of conditions in the buildings they were in and not because of anything to do with our firm. He also said that raises and bonuses will be scheduled and paid on time. Bill’s talks were very reassuring and well received, and I know that they calmed a lot of people. He started this early on and allayed many fears about the uncertainty. He also continues to send his Monday morning messages and new client updates, which maintain feelings of normalcy.

2. John Mortenson, the partner in charge of my East Brunswick, New Jersey office, has been sending pretty regular updates about the status of staffing, office conditions and workload in our office. He also offered tips on how to schedule work and interact with other staff and clients, and to make sure we are safe. Our client services were on track without many hitches, except for clients who were forced to close.

3. Victoria Beirne, our office manager, sends admin updates every two or three days letting us know what’s going on, including the status of financial statements, tax return processing, office projects such as our support of injured koala bears in Australia, and other things that maintain our sense of routine and sanity. Financial statement and bill processing is done by firmwide central groups with staffing throughout the offices. While it is not an office concern per se, some of that staff is housed in our office, and Vickie gives us progress updates. The marketing people in our office also carry on with their support and typical culture-building activities.

I find this trifecta of updates informative, reassuring and comforting. Under Bill’s leadership, our status is fully transparent. I am not sure how many other firms are doing something like this, but everyone appreciates it. These updates require an effort, but do not appear to be a burden to put together and I recommend them for every size firm, not just ones our size.

I suggest that if you haven’t done anything similar, you do something now. It can’t hurt and might help a lot.

Do not hesitate to contact me at emendlowitz@withum.com with your practice management questions.

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is partner at WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPAs. He is on the Accounting Today Top 100 Influential People List. He is the author of 24 books, including “How to Review Tax Returns,” co-written with Andrew D. Mendlowitz, and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition.” Ed also writes a twice-a-week blog addressing issues that clients have at www.partners-network.com along with the Pay-Less-Tax Man blog for Bottom Line. Ed is an adjunct professor in the MBA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University teaching end user applications of financial statements. Art of Accounting is a continuing series where Ed shares autobiographical experiences with tips that he hopes can be adopted by his colleagues. Ed welcomes practice management questions and can be reached at (732) 743-4582 or emendlowitz@withum.com.

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Practice management WithumSmith+Brown Ed Mendlowitz Tax season Coronavirus Tax practice