[IMGCAP(1)] Dear Rebecca,

I’m a partner at a large firm with a location in the San Francisco Bay area. This year - because of tight economic conditions - we didn’t extend partnership to a 38-year-old female (let’s call her Suze) whom we’d previously agreed would become a partner this year.

We thought we handled it well; when we decided not to offer Suze partnership, we met with her privately, explained the situation, talked things through, gave her a really generous compensation package, and we thought everything was okay.

She recently left our firm and now, six more women - half of them high potentials - are also gone.

My partner group (most of us male) feel like we really screwed this up somehow, and want to prevent other high potential women from leaving the firm.

What’s your best advice?

Signed,
Screwed-up

Dear Screwed-up,

You’re right. You screwed up. But admitting it is the first step.

Promising someone something - and then taking it away - is a huge blow, especially to someone who’s achievement-oriented, which most CPAs are. When Suze saw that you wouldn’t keep your word, she (likely) found a firm that she could believe in.

And - as in many things in life - it wasn’t about the money, honey. It was about that seat at the table.

Unfortunately, you underestimated the collateral damage - when you didn’t promote Suze you were unknowingly sending a message to other women in the firm. The message was, “Even if you’re told you’ll be partner, don’t count on it.”

I can’t speak for all minorities, but generally we keep a close eye on how people like ourselves are treated in firms. And if there’s not a record of fairness, everyone notices.

You won’t get Suze back, but you can salvage some of your firm’s honor as a good place to work for women. Here’s what I’d do:

•    Schedule coffee or lunch with each of the high potential women who’ve left. It’s only three people; you can make time.
•    At each meeting, admit that you screwed up. Be humble and whole-hearted. Women can smell a scoundrel from 100 paces.
•    Tell each one that you know you can’t undo what’s done, but you are serious about being a place where women can succeed.
•    Ask them if they’re willing to stay in touch, so that if they find out they’re unhappy at their new firm(s), you can at least have a chance at winning them back.
•    And that’s it.

Remember that women make up more accounting grads than men do, so it’s smart to be tuned into ways to develop and keep them in your firm.

Rebecca Ryan is a consultant who helps firms develop and keep their top talent. http://nextgenerationconsulting.com/.