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Staffing the accounting firm in the new millennium.

Public accounting has been and always will be a people business; a firm's human resources are its most valuable resource. Yet, universally, it is difficult for firms to hire and keep skilled people. Many would suggest that accounting firms and other industries that rely on skilled labor are in the midst of a labor-shortage crisis that will only get worse as the new millennium begins.

When resources are scarce, companies have to find better ways to use their resources and consider nontraditional solutions to meet their needs (as well as those of their clients). Every firm's situation is different; some approaches may be better suited to some firms than to others. Nevertheless, every firm that needs skilled people (or that will need them in the future), but is unable to hire them using traditional approaches, should consider other solutions.

Recruiting

While historically low unemployment rates may be good for job hunting, they make hiring more difficult. At the same time, many firms' policies and procedures do not satisfy employees' needs. As a result, factors such as stress, mergers and family issues contribute to rapid turnover. In response to these issues, employers must improve in recruiting skilled employees, using effective techniques and becoming more adept at retaining valuable employees.

The process starts with hiring the right employees; otherwise, firms will never succeed. Accounting firms must do a better job selecting and screening candidates. Many firms have had a great deal of success encouraging employee referrals, often with bonuses if a candidate is hired and remains for a specified period of time. Generally, employees will introduce only individuals in which they have confidence, because their performance will be a reflection on their judgment.

When considering potential applicants' skills, former employees may be aware of qualified people, or may themselves be interested in coming back. Frequently, what appeared to be greener grass when an employee resigned may not be so attractive, and the ex-employee may show an interest in returning to the firm.

Another effective recruitment technique is establishing good relationships with accounting faculty, as well as the placement offices, of local colleges and universities. These can be a good source of experienced personnel, as well as recent graduates. Bulletin board postings (including electronic ones) often produce good candidates, while employees' involvement in alunmi programs can result in introductions to qualified staff.

In these times, no one can afford to overlook the opportunities that Websites offer. The mere existence of a Website can favorably impress a potential candidate's evaluation of a firm. A Website with employment announcements can also enhance a search for skilled employees.

Recruiters frequently find top-quality people and help an employer select candidates by carrying out initial screenings. Traditionally, most firms use contingency recruiters (i.e., they get paid only if the firm hires a recommended candidate). However, firms wishing to fill specific needs should consider retaining an executive recruitment firm to find qualified individuals. These firms frequently require higher professional fees; however, the results are often worth the cost.

Interviewing and Hiring

Today's interviews tend to focus more on accomplishments and attitudes, rather than on the specific skills listed on resumes. Generally, an interviewer can gain a good understanding of a candidate's capabilities based on this information and how comfortable the candidate appears when discussing his skills and experiences. An interview can also reveal details not apparent or resumes, such as an inconsistency between an applicant's priorities or aspirations and a firm's priorities. In any case, employers should verify resume specifics and all references. Generally, individuals with whom an applicant would be working should be involved in the screening process.

When firms make offers in a tight labor market, it is essential that an applicant perceive the offer as superior to others received. Many firms have incentive programs under which employees receive awards based on specific achievements. Obviously, these incentives only work when an employee has some control over the factors used to determine the achievement's criteria. These factors could include billable hours, WIP management, realization rates or new business obtained.

A new incentive, unheard of 10 years ago but fairly common now, is the signing bonus. All things being equal, a candidate will probably choose an employment offer that includes a signing bonus, even when it is relatively small in relation to a total compensation package. Accountants, like everyone else, feel good when their talents are recognized; offering a signing bonus is an excellent way to show confidence in new employees.

Despite the downsizing trend of the 90s, firms must employ enough people. Without adequate staff, employees will have to put in too much overtime to keep pace, making them less effective and possibly leading to higher staff turnover.

Orientation

Hiring the right individuals is just the first step in assuring that a firm has the personnel it needs to serve clients adequately. Making sure that new employees start off on the right foot is an important follow-up step. Many firms now offer formal mentoring programs, immediately assigning a new employee to someone on staff who is not a direct report, but who can talk to the employee objectively and help the new employee assimilate into the firm's culture. When properly implemented, a mentoring program helps employees deal with problems or issues that are crucial to their retainment. A mentoring program is not something that a firm should undertake lightly; a poor mentoring program is worse than none at all.

Orientation and training are also key elements in getting new employees off to a good start. Many firms have formal orientation and training programs that provide new hires with all of the information necessary to make them productive and successful. Orientation and training goals should be established and agreed on and each employee must understand how they are measured. Goals should attract and reward valuable employees, while incentives should help them to focus on developing the skills necessary to meet their goals. Firms should consider spot rewards when immediate recognition is appropriate.

Firms are giving training a lot of attention. It is an investment that will provide a significant future return. Because the accounting profession is changing at an accelerated pace, training beyond the minimum number of hours required by state or professional standards is becoming the norm and will continue in the future.

Evaluations

The evaluation process plays an extremely important role in retaining qualified staff. Good staff want to hear how they are doing and what they should be doing to advance. In addition to semi-annual (or more frequent) formal evaluations, continuous feedback minimizes the likelihood of a large difference between an employee's and an employer's perception of the employee's contribution. How can an employee be expected to change if there is no clear understanding of the firm's expectations and how the firm evaluates the employee's efforts? Often, it is this gap between the employee's and the employer's perceptions of performance that results in an employee's departure.

Compensation and Benefits

While employers like to think that skilled employees are not overly concerned with salary, benefits, etc., in reality, this could not be further from the truth. Accordingly, an employer's compensation package should be not only competitive, but more attractive than packages offered by other firms. Thus, a firm's benefit program, such as medical, retirement, tuition reimbursement, etc., should be at least as good as (and hopefully superior to) those offered by the competition.

A firm's policies should build camaraderie among staff. Recreational outings may be helpful; some firms are even encouraging in-house exercise programs. Anything that can bring staff together and make them feel like a team will result in happier employees and improved retention rates.

Other Creative Strategies

Probably one of the most promising areas for attracting valuable employees who have been traditionally unavailable is telecommuting. Telecommuting has been made possible by the technological advances that have taken place over the past 10 years. It is now possible for staff to work away from the office (typically, at home) and have access to the same data and programs as in the office itself. Employees can access all the resources necessary to do a complete and technically proficient research assignment, for example, from home or even a hotel room halfway around the world. Complex tax return preparation software can be made available to staff via modems.

Firms must consider many issues in determining if telecommuting would be effective. These include employee supervision and reporting, working conditions, privacy, liability and insurance, as well as nexus issues. Many firms have established strict criteria for work conditions and provide equipment for employees to use from home. To better meet the needs of its workers, firms should consider other innovative staffing approaches such as work-sharing--hiring two or more part-time employees to fill the needs of one full-time position. Flex-time programs are also becoming popular. Most traditional firms would not have considered these options several years ago; however, they are attractive strategies today.

Recruiting qualified individuals for the "busy season" to prepare tax returns and help with other accounting matters (e.g., write-up) is another strategy. The key is to encourage the same people to come back year after year, because they will become familiar with client and firm requirements, and take some of the pressure off regular staff. If a firm finds qualified people and gets them to come back, everyone will be happy. Retirees (particularly those who retired early) and people who do not want to commit to a full-time position (because they are raising children, for instance) are good candidates. Generally, there is less competition for these candidates, so the likelihood of hiring and keeping them is better.

Innovations in finding, hiring, training and retaining skilled employees will equip firms for the new millennium. There are resources available to practitioners looking for guidance in this area. The AICPA has an excellent publication on telecommuting and other work arrangements, called "Flexible Work Arrangements for CPA Firms" (Product No. 090425JK), which may be purchased through the AICPA Order Department, at 1-888-777-7077.

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Author:Holub, Steven F.
Publication:The Tax Adviser
Date:Sep 1, 1998
Words:1861
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