Attracting and Motivating Seasonal Staff

By Robert M. Caplan, CPA

Co-Editors: Steven F. Holub, CPA, MBA, and T. Charles Parr III, CPA, CGMA

Due to the seasonal nature of certain work, many CPAs rely on temporary personnel during key times of the year, particularly tax season. To successfully attract and maintain seasonal staff, a practice needs a different approach than the one it takes with traditional full-time employees. Determining which benefits a firm should offer its seasonal workers can be confusing since the firm will have some flexibility when deciding what benefits to offer. Seasonal or part-time workers typically do not receive the same benefits as full-time permanent workers.

Understand What Attracts Seasonal Staff

Those seeking seasonal positions have distinct, individual reasons for working for a CPA. They are typically not interested in promotion or becoming a firm owner. If firms take time to understand what motivates seasonal workers, they can use this insight to create a firm culture that increases loyalty and productivity.

Some seasonal workers are motivated by the opportunity to make some extra money, coupled with the allure of not having to work year-round. Some may be parents or retirees who do not want the commitment of a regular job but enjoy the interaction with colleagues and clients. Others may be less drawn to human interaction and more to the intellectual challenge of tax or accounting work. Ask questions to find out what each person likes best about the job, and then look for ways to offer rewarding opportunities.

Flexibility of work hours is a high priority for many accounting professionals who choose seasonal work. If this is important to the seasonal help a firm hires, it should set up a system that takes this into account. Ask those who work on-site to commit to a certain range of hours each week. Then let them set the days and hours worked, in conjunction with the availability of office space and equipment. Many CPAs also hire staff who work out of their homes and prepare tax returns or do accounting using cloud services. If staff are permitted to work from home, be mindful of the many potential issues involved (e.g., tax, liability, etc.) (see "How to Open New Doors by Closing Your Office," Journal of Accountancy (July 2013)).

Do not impose time commitments without discussion and assent. Requiring a seasonal staff member to work extra hours that he or she did not agree to can sour the relationship and spread dissent to others. In general, the firm should be as flexible as possible when it comes to personal schedules. For example, a parent may want to have Presidents Day off to spend a long weekend with family or friends, but be willing to work the rest of tax season.

While time for training is limited during busy season, staff who have an opportunity to learn will be not only more effective but also more motivated. When delegating, ask about the staff person's experience with the task. Take a few minutes to explain how things are done and why. Client issues can be shared with staff in a way that offers a case study to learn from. For example, make a point in talking with seasonal staff of relating conversations with clients regarding the new repair regulations as a way of exposing them to this subject and client interactions concerning these complicated regulations.

Such practices can evolve to the mentoring and problem-focused learning that appeals to many temporary workers who want to improve their efficiencies and skill sets. Consider inviting seasonal workers to firm-sponsored CPE throughout the year. Also consider holding more formal training sessions for seasonal staff during the off-season. This type of training may be particularly advantageous for a firm with a special emphasis such as fiduciary income tax returns as such training may not be readily available from other sources.

Establish and Maintain an Encouraging Office Atmosphere

CPAs who aspire to ownership or other high levels in a practice are generally dedicated enough to overlook or accept the extreme pressures that can plague many CPA offices during its busiest times. Seasonal staff, on the other hand, may have a different work ethic. They are typically not on a career track and are less willing to tolerate these extremes. In many cases they sign on to simply come in and do the work and have no desire to deal with the responsibility of running a business. Thus, they may be put off by last-minute demands, emotional outbursts, constantly changing priorities, and other manifestations of disorganization. For these individuals, the firm should avoid expressing its doubts or concerns about getting through tax season and getting it all done. CPAs should try to use humor whenever possible to dispel the pressures of the season and never lose their temper with a staff person.

In the same way that having guests can encourage people to be on their best behavior, the presence of temporary staff can remind practitioners to implement best practices in the field. Ideally, a CPA office is busy but not overwhelmed. Plan to get as much work as possible done early. Working ahead on items that can be completed early mitigates the feelings of being out of control brought on by external circumstances, such as late receipt of Forms 1099.

Make sure seasonal staff have access to up-to-date and well-maintained equipment as well as a comfortable workspace designed to enhance productivity. Although these resources might be used only a few months of the year, providing inadequate equipment or space tells workers that their efforts are less valued than those of other staff.

Reward Seasonal Staff With Perks

To let them know they are important and to acknowledge their hard work, make a point of rewarding seasonal staff with a variety of perks, both during busy season and after April 15. The following list contains some ideas that staff members in the author's firm have appreciated. A few examples of these types of perks, which generally cost very little, recognize the efforts of the seasonal staff, and build a positive work atmosphere, include:

  • Provide an in-house chair massage several times during busy season;
  • Once a week, bring in local takeout food, with staff members rotating the choice of restaurants;
  • Instead of hosting the traditional April 15 firm dinner, offer options that seasonal staff may prefer, such as a spa day, a baseball game, or a gift card;
  • If the firm gives a tax season bonus to seasonal staff, consider giving some of that bonus before April 15; a bonus in March can go a long way toward providing motivation during the end-of-tax-season crunch;
  • Allow them to file their own and, perhaps, close family members' personal income tax returns using the firm's tax software;
  • If flu shots are offered to full-time employees, offer them to seasonal workers, too; and
  • Invite seasonal staff to the office holiday party and any post-busy-season outings.

By finding out the reasons the seasonal staff signs on with the CPA firm, accommodating those reasons, creating a positive and organized work atmosphere, and offering practical and tangible thanks and recognition, a CPA firm can nurture a group of loyal seasonal staff who will return year after year and make an important contribution to the firm's success.   

 

Contributors

Steven Holub is a National Director in the Professional Practice Department of Cherry Bekaert LLP in Tampa, Fla., and is a former chairman of the AICPA Tax Division Tax Practice Management Committee. Charles Parr is the managing shareholder of Parr & Associates in San Antonio. Robert Caplan is a sole practitioner in Foster City, Calif. Mr. Parr is chairman and Mr. Caplan is a member of the AICPA Tax Practice Management Committee. For more information about this column, contact Mr. Caplan at bob@robertcaplancpa.com.

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