Staff retention: small accounting practices have scale on their side

There’s more to keeping the best talent than remuneration, and smaller practices are well placed to offer what the new generation wants.

By Zilla Efrat

Smaller accounting practices are generally better able to tailor and personalise career development, work-life balance issues and other opportunities to individuals, compared to bigger firms, and they should use this to their advantage says Hays Accounting & Finance senior regional director Susan Drew.

Recruitment experts agree that Millennials – sometimes known as Generation Y – usually look for more than just money and perks; for them quality trumps quantity almost every time.

As such, small- to medium-sized practices (SMPs) looking  to keep high-performing staff should respond “by offering a better work-life balance as well as broader roles across tax, audit and corporate finance compared to pigeonholing in one area,” says Michael Page Australia director Simon Faircloth.

“They should also be given closer access to high-calibre partners and potentially business development.”

Consolid8 managing director Tanya Titman FCPA agrees, adding that it is not enough to just offer a generous salary, desk and computer.

“Accountants will be looking for certainty around their career path, an internal and external staff training program, continuous performance review and feedback program, flexibility in the workplace, a great mentor to work alongside and a great team culture,” Titman says.

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CPA Australia general manager of public practice Peter Docherty goes further, stating that the traditional hierarchical approach to supervision no longer works.

“Rather than being directive, you need to be more collaborative,” Docherty says.

“Staff members want leaders that are honest, competent, inspiring and who have credibility. It’s all about looking at the preferred communications models for your team, providing opportunities for feedback and reducing any traditional fear factors.

“It’s also important to encourage older, more experienced practitioners in the firm to share their experiences in an open and honest way.”

He acknowledges that younger accountants are not necessarily driven by the money they make.

“They are much more focused on job satisfaction and how they contribute to the community, society and ethics.”

Salary still matters in recruitment

Even so, Robert Half director Nicole Gorton believes salaries are still a critical part of any retention strategy.

“By offering more than the average salary bracket, companies can retain their top-performing staff rather than see them tempted by other job opportunities,” she insists.

“Salaries need to be re-evaluated at least annually and employers should read the latest salary guides and check government statistics to ensure they’re paying staff competitively and within the industry standard benchmark.”

As for Millennials, Titman observes: “They often want to be a part of something that has significant meaning to them. They want to make an impact or work for a business that is making an impact. They don’t want to be fenced in – they want freedom.

"Flexibility is important and they are generally very tech savvy. Most importantly, their communication style is quite different. They prefer to communicate in text rather than face-to-face, which creates challenges for practitioners in a service-based industry.”

Adjusting communication styles for both clients and staff

In response, Consolid8 has developed a communications guidebook for its team.

“It essentially tells them when it’s appropriate to use a particular [form of] communication,” Titman explains.

“For example, when you should pick up the phone and talk to a client versus emailing them. In many cases, we find email very inefficient. Our team uses a combination [of different mediums] for internal communication, client portals for secure delivery of client documents and face-to-face communication or Zoom [cloud-based remote meetings] for external communication.”

According to Gorton, to attract and retain top Millennial talent SMPs need, in addition to a proactive approach to work-life balance initiatives, to reassess their incentive programs.

“Millennials tend to be forward-looking, so providing clear opportunities for career advancement and professional development can hold just as much appeal as an annual bonus,” she says.

But despite the changing demands of the workforce, Titman sticks by some recruitment mantras.

“First, I don’t tolerate mediocrity,” she reveals. “If a candidate is not the right fit, we would prefer to wait rather than employ the wrong person.

“Second, we have learnt to hire slow and fire fast. We take our time through a rigid recruitment process to ensure we get the right person. If along the way someone is not performing or becomes disengaged, our performance review process will identify it early and through KPIs and management we either get the person on track, or move them off the team.”

Above all, Titman says understanding and taking an interest in staff is critical.

“Your team is the frontline. If they are highly engaged and happy at work, it will extend to the way they service your clients.”

Read next: How to attract talent to your accounting practice


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