Having the right team in place makes a world of difference, especially at tax time with seasonal staff. The key to developing a working training program for seasonal staff is to start early.
As tax season approaches, a firm should think about the ultimate goal for its seasonal staff. Does the firm want them to focus on one aspect of the process or to have a working knowledge of the whole tax return? Will they be entering data for individual returns? Will they need to know their way around a Schedule C, Profit or Loss From Business, or a corporate return? Perhaps they will work directly with clients contacting them about the information needed to complete their return and meet with them when they drop off their tax information. What will they need to know if they are handing out a completed return or sending an electronic copy of a return to a client portal? Once the firm has its objectives in mind, it can work to achieve an effective training plan.
The first step in managing seasonal staff is to find the right candidates. Firms can choose from many types of employees who may not have traditional accounting experience or are not on the CPA track. Good candidates may come from a large variety of sources, including the following:
- Banking professionals: Bank tellers and back-office banking staff have comprehensive knowledge of financial transactions. These individuals are often a perfect fit for many steps in the tax season process, including scanning, data entry, and customer service.
- Staffing agencies: Several national and regional staffing agencies specialize in meeting the needs of accounting firms. With a staffing agency, a firm has the advantage of receiving prescreened qualified candidates. Also, a staffing agency can fill a short-term need such as assisting on one project, working through tax season, or filling the spot of an employee on medical leave. Often, employees who join a firm through a temporary service stay on as full-time employees.
- Veterans: Veterans bring a unique skill set to the job because of their real-world training. They are often good candidates for supervisory positions.
- Local colleges and universities: A local college or university is an obvious source for qualified accounting candidates. Students in majors other than accounting should not be overlooked. A dedicated student who is not an accounting major may be perfect to fill a short-term need.
The next step in finding the right candidates is to create an advertisement that will attract them to the firm. When advertising for available positions, the firm should pay careful attention to how it words job titles and descriptions. The variety and quality of job applicants could vary greatly for the same position based on how the advertisement is perceived by potential candidates. Those applying for seasonal or part-time positions may consider how the job will enhance their résumé. Interning with a CPA firm during tax season looks much better than spending three months as a part-time data-entry clerk.
Colleges and universities can help a firm upgrade its part-time position to an internship. Sometimes the requirements are minimal and could be a matter of completing some paperwork and providing a few hours of training.
Whether the firm chooses to offer an internship or a part-time position, candidates should be well-informed on the firm's expectations. After the firm has developed a training program, the program can be used to attract the desired candidates. Explain upfront what skills applicants need to have and what they will be taught. Provide an outline of what the training will consist of and how it sets the firm apart from other seasonal employers. If the firm plans to attract younger candidates (i.e., those in their first or second year of college), it should keep in mind that they are less refined in a professional sense and will require some additional training. That training will pay off if they return for multiple tax seasons.
Create a Procedural Document
Forecasting staffing issues far in advance is difficult without a comprehensive plan. The firm should assign someone to prepare this plan, preferably over the summer and fall months. One of the first things to develop is an outline of the firm's work flow. This basic outline can then be used as the basis for a procedural document. The procedural document will be the "go-to" document for introductory questions. All staff should stay up to date and follow the processes outlined in the procedural document.
The procedural document should include screenshots and detailed explanations of the various software applications the firm uses. The document needs to cover all aspects of tax season, including a walk-through of how to handle an average tax return from start to finish. Every tax situation is different, but the firm should have a uniform procedure for handling the intake and input. The same goes for setting client appointments. The firm should have a clear plan regarding who sets appointments and where to find the community calendar or scheduling software. The document should also cover how to handle a new client and how to assemble a tax return or make it available in a portal when it is completed.
The time a firm invests in developing a training program is well-spent, as it will help produce successful employees. The firm's brand is at stake. Seasonal employees will need to know how much the firm values its end product and that they are part of a team that produces results. Structured training will boost their confidence and effectiveness.
It is a good idea to give new employees a complete tour of the office. They need to be aware of what everyone does and what equipment is used, even if they will not use it in their assigned responsibilities. They should never feel excluded or isolated from the team.
A company policy handbook should be implemented. New employees should be expected to read the handbook and know the company's hours of operation, dress code, and standards of conduct. Seasonal staff should be aware that they must comply with these policies along with everyone else at the firm.
Assign a Project
The knowledge that a seasonal staff person brings to the position will vary. However, each person should leave his or her position at the firm with a greater knowledge of the industry. Managers and firm owners should list the hot issues that their firm may face in the coming tax season, review the list with seasonal staff, and assign each member a topic based on that person's interests. Although a seasonal employee may not develop a highly technical understanding of the topic, he or she can help educate staff members on the broad details of the issue. Make this person a knowledgeable go-to resource on this topic. For example, a seasonal staff person could study the requirements of Form 1095-A, Health Insurance Marketplace Statement, which many taxpayers now need to file to comply with the requirements of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, P.L. 111-148. Ask this person to review the form and its instructions and to keep up to date on any developments relating to this subject. He or she should know how this form is used in preparing a tax return, as well as how to complete Form 8962, Premium Tax Credit. This individual should also know how to calculate the premium tax credit and when a taxpayer may not be required to pay the penalty.
Do not be afraid to assign a project to seasonal staff. This is a great way to include them as part of the team and to make them feel that they are making an important contribution. Ask them to give updates at weekly staff meetings. They can also compile questions from other staff members on the topic and research answers to those questions. Although some seasonal staff may be unable to tackle the new health care filing requirements, they could be assigned less-technical tasks. For example, tax software packages often have weekly and sometimes daily updates. A seasonal staff member could be assigned to update the firm on important enhancements to the software or critical calculation changes.
Resources for Training
If the firm's tax software offers an annual training session, make room for the seasonal staff to attend, or create an annual refresher course that all staff, including the new hires, can attend. It might be overwhelming for the newcomers, especially if they are new to tax season, but it will give them an idea of the big picture. Once they understand that they are part of the big picture, they can create a vision of themselves as part of the team rather than as an add-on. These types of training sessions show that even the most experienced preparers need to stay updated.
Before the season begins, the firm should establish some training sessions. Take advantage of any incorporated training guides or training returns in the firm's tax software. During scheduled training sessions, the firm will be able to determine whether a new employee has enough knowledge to complete a self-training course or if another team member should work one-on-one with him or her through a training return. Establishing a step-by-step guide for entering documents will help organize the material that the new employee will be entering into tax returns. These training sessions will give the firm a good sense of how well the new employee understands and functions in the job. Use this knowledge to decide whom to assign as his or her mentor.
Many live and online options for firm training can be geared to seasonal staff. In-firm training is also an option. Some continuing education companies can provide in-firm training. When this would be cost-prohibitive for a small firm, the firm could ask other firms in the region to share the costs of a training session. This type of training will allow the firm to customize the training to subjects that its staff are most interested in that also fit its clients' needs. In-firm training also allows the firm's permanent and seasonal staff to learn in an environment in which they may be more comfortable asking questions and to gain valuable working knowledge in specific areas.
Assign a Mentor
The right mentor is essential to a productive workforce. Since seasonal employees do not need to know all aspects of the firm, mentors can help keep them focused on their responsibilities. Mentors will be their main source for training and then later for answering questions. Establish a policy about questions: Does the firm want the work to stop for every question or to set aside a specific time for questions? The firm may need to train new employees to put aside anything they are unsure of and ask all of their questions at once.
Schedule weekly meetings for the mentors to review any areas they are concerned about, especially early on. Take time to give feedback and address any issues as they arise instead of putting them on the back burner. The sooner an issue is addressed, the less time it has to grow. New hires need to know that no question is too small and that their concerns are important.
Mentors should be made aware of their responsibility for training new employees. This road map of expectations should be established before the seasonal help is hired. Among other things, mentors will be the liaisons between the seasonal staff and management.
Finally, seasonal staff may also be more likely to give constructive feedback regarding the firm and its policies and procedures than the firm's current employees. Firm managers and owners should establish consistent follow-up with seasonal staff. Permanent employees may not be entirely comfortable giving their honest opinion; however, seasonal employees may not be so reluctant to speak up. Firms should have a process that allows seasonal employees to give feedback for the benefit of management. Also, a formal exit interview should be held to find out what did and didn't work for seasonal employees during their tenure. The feedback can be valuable in assessing future needs of the training program as well as the firm in general.
It would be ideal to hire seasonal staff who will return to the firm year after year. As the years go on, they will become comfortable with the office's procedures and work flow—no more starting from scratch. Training will become a refresher and include any new systems put into place. Perfecting a seasonal training program may take a couple of years, but once implemented, it will bring order and structure to an otherwise haphazard situation that many firms face.
Charles Parr is the managing shareholder of Parr & Associates in San Antonio. 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. Daniel Moore is the CEO and founder of D.T. Moore & Co. in Salem, Ohio. Mr. Parr is chairman and Mr. Moore is a member of the AICPA Tax Practice Management Committee. For more information about this column, contact Mr. Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org.