Art of Accounting: The day my top two staff people quit

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Last month an accountant called me with a serious problem he had with his staff. It seems his two top staff people were not keeping him informed of what they were doing and the status of their work.

One of the reasons this situation filled him with trepidation was because he was afraid to lose them. He had five other accountants (at lower levels) working for him and they were keeping him updated the way he required.

Before I responded, I told him how I dealt with it, or rather did not deal with it. At the time we had eight accountants working for us. Each staff person prepared their own schedule for the month. I reviewed and discussed it with them, and we agreed on a final schedule -- of course, subject to changes as the month developed. At some point we were losing control over what was being done. The way it worked was that a partner, depending upon the client, would speak to a staff person daily to be updated. If anything was off track, it would then be related to the other partners (there were three partners). This became unwieldy because it either tied up a partner or the partner wasn’t able to speak with the staff person, so we instituted a new process.

In our case the plan was quite simple. Our administrative assistant was provided with each person’s schedule and what was to be accomplished each day. Most of the visits to regular clients were fairly routinized, but occasionally the schedule changed or something new developed or a visit was cut short. The reason didn’t matter. What mattered was the work that was supposed to be done that month was done either during that visit or at another time in the month. We wanted to make sure that we did not fall behind on the regular work and were kept informed of additional services, special work or new situations. As to larger projects, a budget was decided upon and approved, and a daily progress report was provided to the admin person. The updates took place before 10:00 every morning. My partners and I were given a memo listing what clients were on target or off schedule, the makeup dates, and anything extra that was done. Time sheets were entered daily, and we were also told if anyone did not enter the previous day’s time.

It worked very well for us. We were spending much less time talking to the staff and they to us, the staff became more empowered and responsible for the work, the clients were being serviced at a slightly higher level, and we were on top of what was going on. Of course we still spoke to and interacted with the staff as part of our continual reviews and updates, but much of the daily grind was eliminated.

As with any new procedure, not everyone followed it. Well, our top two staff people weren’t following this procedure. Also, as it went, these two were working on our larger clients so effective communications were important. This went on for a while, along with daily calls from me to remind them to update the admin person, which they weren’t doing.

At some point I decided to speak to each of them to tell them they had to conform to our procedure unless they presented suitable reasons why it wasn’t a good policy. It happened that my conversations were with each one separately the same afternoon. I told them that if they weren’t willing to follow these procedures, they would not be permitted to continue working for us. Well, they both told me they were going to quit! Thus, we lost our top two staff on the same day. They did give reasonable notice and they did not leave on bad terms.

It was rough for a short period, but we got through it. Our client servicing procedures were very systematized (we walked the talk), we worked a little harder for a while, but at some point everything normalized, and we had the control we wanted and needed to have.

Now, how does this relate to my caller friend? His work patterns were not as organized as they should have been, and he was also the sole owner, so he had no partner to share the work load. Because of this I suggested that if there was continued noncompliance after clearly explaining the situation, he should let go of the lesser experienced or lesser liked of the two, step up a lower-level staff person for that client, and he would need to work a little harder for a while. I also suggested he hire an entry-level person and move everyone up a notch to fill in the gap created by that person leaving. I further suggested he tell the other non-complier that he had to start following the system or he would also have to leave.

Whether you believe it or not, everyone working for you today will leave at some point, unless you make them a partner or they are a legacy employee that you cannot or would never fire, and who would never quit -- but let's leave legacy employees for another column. Employees leaving is a reality and there are two ways to deal with it: 1) Set up systems and training so that newer people can easily step up to the task; or 2) each time you hire a new person, be prepared to spend your time training and introducing them to work they have to do on each client based on the separate procedures set up for that client. It would seem no. 1 would make more sense.

While it is bothersome and disruptive when an experienced person leaves, the new hire will be at a lower salary, so there will be some financial benefit -- although admittedly, most of us would rather forgo that “benefit.”

It you are not the boss, then there will be no boss.

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) 964-9329 or emendlowitz@withum.com.

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Practice structure Practice management Workforce management Ed Mendlowitz