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The view from the bottom of the ladder: firms that understand their staff's concerns will have fewer turnover problems.

PA firms are under increasing pressure to cut costs and provide the best quality services. Staff management takes on greater importance as a result, since firms must find the best possible staff and hold on to them in order to avoid training and recruitment expenses. If firms are to attract and retain competent, dedicated employees, they have to understand how their new staff members perceive the firm and how some simple changes in operations and attitude can greatly enhance morale. This article discusses five of the issues most important to new staff members and offers advice on steps firms can take to build a stable, efficient staff. The suggestions are based on my experiences as a senior accountant.


A successful firm is built not only on technical competence but also on professional relationships. The key to successful relationships is communication. Accounting firms, like other organizations, have levels of hierarchy and information does not flow freely among the different levels. Staff accountants often are too intimidated to speak frankly with a partner or have too little confidence in themselves to raise an issue with a superior.

Firms must address this problem because lack of communication can create a host of difficulties. Consider the case of a staff member who realizes he or she has made an error on the job. The more comfortable this person feels admitting the mistake, the sooner the problem will be resolved. A partner who is perceived as unapproachable or unforgiving likely will not hear about errors until it's too late to correct them easily.

Although both partners and staff contribute to the problem, it is partners who must build a more open relationship. In one firm, a senior was unhappy with the area in which he was living and decided to look for a job in another part of the country. Because he was reluctant to tell the partner that he planned to move, he found a j ob with a different firm. When he tried to resign, the partner made arrangements for him to interview at their own firm's office in the new city and the senior ultimately accepted a job there, turning down the first job. The partner then gathered the staff together and encouraged them to give him the opportunity to help with their career plans. This kind of interest in employees' careers builds a loyal and more productive staff.

In contrast, in another instance, a topnotch staff person resigned because the partner clearly did not perceive her as someone who was dedicated to the firm. Ironically, she was highly respected among her peers and by her immediate superiors, but the partner never asked their opinions and they didn't feel comfortable offering them. The firm lost a good employee because of the partner's failure to learn more about his staff.

One way to bridge the communication gap is through a staff committee. Representatives from different levels meet regularly to discuss their concerns and those of their colleagues. The information is then passed on to partners, who receive an excellent idea of what's on employees' minds. These committees build camaraderie among staff members, offer leadership experience and help build dedication to a firm that shows an interest in employee ideas.


New staff people, particularly those just out of college, usually are full of questions about the firm and their roles in it. They frequently must be taught everything from how to prepare a workpaper to how to dress.

Most larger firms have formal training programs for new employees, but some smaller firms often offer no orientation at all. A staff person completes some paperwork, learns how to fill out a timesheet and is given a pile of papers to work on. This approach is frustrating for everyone involved: The new employee has no idea what is expected of him or her and the supervisor doesn't understand why the work isn't done as quickly as expected.

There are time and budget constraints on how much introductory training a firm can offer, but firms can waste a great deal of money and effort when they ignore the need for basic orientation. Supervisors should find out what a new staff member does or does not know-what kind of experience he has-so that work can be assigned accordingly. They should be prepared for and encourage questions about the firm and its operations. More experienced firm members should be sensitive to how overwhelming beginning work in a new firm can be and try to help the employee feel more comfortable. Bringing on a new staff person can be a time-consuming endeavor, but an investment of time up front will benefit the firm later.

Staff training must extend beyond orientation, with continuing professional education and opportunities to work on the kinds of engagements that broaden the new employee's expertise. Firms should take advantage of staff members' eagerness for new challenges.

One simple way to expand a new employee's understanding of the profession is through a shadow program. The young accountant follows an experienced CPA on a variety of activities, from client luncheons to department meetings. The staff member receives invaluable insights, and the supervisor needn't interrupt his or her regular schedule. Given this opportunity, a promising employee will develop faster and feel greater confidence and responsibility.


A performance evaluation is tremendously helpful to a staff member because it explains what he has done well and where improvements are needed. Young employees are used to receiving grades for their efforts and may have no idea how well they're doing without these benchmarks.' However, long before evaluations are given, staff members should receive a concrete idea of what's expected of them. By establishing clear guidelines and goals, partners can virtually guarantee improvement on engagements because the staff can focus on meeting standards they understand, rather than attempting to puzzle through what's expected of them.

Performance evaluations are most helpful if given after every engagement or significant project. If a staff member's work is below par, it's unlikely he'll change his performance unless he's told what he's done wrong and given guidelines for improvement in that area.

Evaluations should summarize the staff member's strengths and weaknesses. A generally positive evaluation will keep the staff member motivated to try harder next time. Giving recognition for a job well done boosts morale and helps raise confidence in an inexperienced or insecure person.

Unfortunately, there are times when a negative review is necessary. In these instances, supervisors should not hesitate to state the problem clearly. Sugarcoating a review only prolongs the difficulty. However, criticism should never be given without suggestions for improvement.

Another part of the evaluation process should be an annual overall review with a partner. This review is worthwhile only if it's based on appraisals from various partners and managers with whom the staff member has worked. It should focus on broad issues rather than the kind of technical problems that might be covered in an engagement performance evaluation. The partner can explain how the firm can help the employee overcome weaknesses and what the person must do himself, as well as discuss what will be expected in the next year and offer guidance in setting worthwhile goals.


It is important that firms tell prospective employees how much travel is involved in any job they're considering. To prevent bad feelings later, interviewers should be completely frank and encourage those seeking jobs to be honest about their attitudes.

Staff members know careers in public accounting involve travel, but firms should try to understand what extended travel means to them. Some have moved to new cities to join the firm and probably need time to meet people or settle in before they begin frequent out-of-town trips. Others may have little experience traveling without family or friends. Some staff members will make extraordinary sacrifices in order to please new employers. One young woman on an extended trip asked for one weekend off during the engagement. She explained she was planning to get married that weekend but had arranged for a stand-in for the wedding in case the firm couldn't let her go. Firms obviously can't change their operating procedures or know everything about an employee's personal life, but they can lower turnover and increase productivity if they ask about possible conflicts before giving assignments and understand some of the effects that travel can have on young staff people.

Some firms offer bonuses for out-of-town work, which definitely makes it more appealing. Firms also should be prepared to build into overhead the cost of an employee's travel time.


People generally like a certain amount of order in their lives and staff accountants are no exception. Frequently, staff members are sure of their near-term schedules only during tax season.

New employees accept that there can be no guarantees on scheduling, but it's a different matter when they are made to feel disloyal for asking for a few days off. Supervisors must understand taking a vacation or long weekend isn't a sign of lack of dedication but of the employee's recognition that he needs a break before he can be at his best again.

The long hours typical in the profession usually are seasonal and thus easy to live with, but some firms with consulting practices demand overtime year-round. Employees are happy to be part of a successful firm, but they do appreciate being given a day off occasionally in return for their hard work. Overtime money is welcome, but it can't compare with spending time with loved ones.

Staff members generally will work harder if they feel their dedication is recognized. Firms profit a great deal from partners or managers who are sensitive to staff performance and who demonstrate their appreciation of it. Firms also can improve morale by understanding the importance of giving time off to prepare for the Uniform CPA Examination. Passing the exam is one of the most important goals in a young staff member's life and firms that support this effort definitely will enjoy greater staff loyalty.


New staff members are eager to learn about and make a contribution to the profession, but they will stay with a job longer and be more productive if firms understand and address their most important concerns. A few changes in operations and attitude will benefit both firms and their staffs. n
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Institute of CPA's
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Larson, Joseph W.
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Feb 1, 1991
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