Stellar tax professionals: How to recruit, retain, and develop them

By Scott Cheslowitz, CPA; Amy V. Hollander, CPA; and Stephen Valenti, CPA

Editor: Michael W. Crisler, CPA

The CPA profession is in a transformational period. Impacted by the regulatory changes that have been introduced by numerous bodies and the pressures of liability exposure, small CPA firms have been forced to reevaluate the types of services they perform and their clientele. Tax services have been especially affected by new technologies that have enhanced the quality of services that can be rendered from both compliance and research perspectives.

Over the years, the challenges of attracting and retaining a quality team of professionals have intensified the day-to-day management of practices. The profession has embraced numerous projects to evaluate and enhance the undergraduate- and graduate-level tax curricula, with the goal to prepare staff for service in the field. When those students look to then enter the workforce, the competition is intense among the applicants and those doing the hiring. Many students are dismayed if they are not recruited by the larger firms. Yet, such perceptions are extremely unfortunate, particularly in the tax area. How does the profession change that mindset?

Promoting your firm to bring in a stellar candidate

First, cultivating a different mindset begins with recruitment. Small firms — much like their large firm counterparts — need to have a game plan for recruitment, one that must be in effect well before the interview process. In this phase, much information is gathered — both by the firm and by the candidate seeking employment with it.

A firm needs to consider how to differentiate itself from comparable firms. For example, a firm's marketing should, where appropriate, reinforce the following concepts:

  • Staff will receive a diverse on-the-job experience;
  • Staff will have the opportunity to foster relationships with clients;
  • Staff will be offered adequate (and perhaps paid) time to complete the CPA Exam;
  • Staff will be encouraged to participate in networking and growth opportunities, such as the AICPA, state societies, and other professional organizations; and
  • The firm is committed to the latest technology practices.

The conversation continues in the candidate interview, which is a vital part of the recruitment process. With the interview, a small firm must establish that its environment will create a gateway for future growth and success. It must demonstrate that the opportunities it provides will serve as steppingstones for the candidate to many different paths in the future. Ultimately, the interview is a firm's moment to shine — to share with the candidate what the firm can offer and to listen to what the candidate is looking for during this next adventure of his or her career. And keep in mind that the next adventure will be different for each candidate. For some, it will be their first real job out of college; for others, it may be a career change.

Retaining the new employee

Once a firm has brought a candidate on board, the retention of that employee takes center stage. Many firms provide interesting and challenging learning experiences in an employee's early years in the profession. Employees are often eager to be given a broad spectrum of work assignments and responsibilities, which often forces them to take on challenges and exercise judgment much earlier in their careers.

Candidates are pursuing many professional goals in today's environment, but one aim is constant — they are looking beyond the money. The firm bears responsibility to provide new hires with more than just dollars to deposit into their bank account — it must provide them with the abilities and accomplishments they need to deposit into their careers. Supporting staff with opportunities for technical training and professional development reminds them that the firm values their development into well-rounded, thoughtful individuals who can represent the firm in a positive light. Providing staff with practical experience demonstrates that the firm's support of their learning experience — e.g., learning the client base, learning how to work with particular supervisors, etc. — goes well beyond drilling them on the textbook aspects of debits and credits. The on-the-job experiences a firm provides to its staff will make them want to remain a part of the firm's team.

Energizing and engaging staff is a critical component of retaining them. That may be difficult during the demanding seasons that firms often experience. Below are a few strategies the authors' firms have used to retain staff:

  • Communicate — early, directly, and often: Do not wait until evaluation time to let an employee know that he or she is performing satisfactorily (or unsatisfactorily). Constant communication can make for a positive environment in which the employee feels comfortable.
  • Provide appropriate training and education: In the ever-changing tax world, it is imperative to keep staff educated. Small firms should especially evaluate how well their training curriculum reinforces skills of decision-making, communication, and deductive reasoning.
  • Be flexible: In today's environment, firms must be flexible. Yes, clients' demands must be met, and firm owners are responsible for ensuring their staff are appropriately scheduled to meet those duties. However, they must also be able to bend a bit if need be. Technology allows for greater mobility in today's workforce.
  • Provide the perks: Yes, the perks! Provide them for your staff. This could be a commitment to a partial workday every Friday — not just during holidays or the summer, and irrespective of tax season. It could mean treating staff to lunch on busy weekends and actually sitting down with them to have a conversation about something other than the stress of the season at hand. Or maybe it means giving staff members a paid coupon to get their car washed in the height of busy season. The little things matter; seek to make a difference in the lives of your staff, as they are making a difference in yours.

Development for the employee can better your firm

Through employers' recruitment and retention efforts, employees will find their way to a firm. So, for the long term, what do firms need to do to develop that employee (and the firm) to be the best professional (and workplace) possible? Many buzzwords ring true when it comes to staff development — "mentoring," "empowering," or "succession planning" — all of which are vital concepts to a firm's growth.

Looking at an employee's development in light of a firm's development is key. Is the firm providing the necessary means for its employees to want to remain with it? It is unfortunate when a firm invests resources — both money and time — in an employee, only to have him or her seek opportunities elsewhere. Below are a few ideas that can help firms avoid this outcome:

  • Provide employees with ongoing opportunities to engage with senior partners and/or the firm's clients. This will develop employees' confidence, allow them to build upon and structure their own communication style, and, most importantly, let them see how the firm's partners/owners lead, creating and fostering their own leadership style.
  • Evaluate the academic curricula of local universities to ensure the firm is empowering employees with current learning.
  • Mentor employees. Teach them what the firm's leaders know from both positive experiences and, even more so, from the ones that may have been more challenging. Ask yourself: "How did I learn it all?"

Of note, the AICPA, with its This Way to CPA campaign has created numerous resources to assist small firms in outlining these important elements of a recruitment process (see ThisWaytoCPA.com/resources).

The stellar tax professional is well-rounded and supported by peers and supervisors. Keeping these concepts in mind can help nurture a firm's growth and ensure that it becomes the home ofstellar tax professionals.

 

Contributors

Scott Cheslowitz, CPA, is a partner with Rothenberg & Peters PLLC in Great Neck, N.Y. Amy V. Hollander, CPA, is the owner of Amy V. Hollander, CPA in Clarks Summit, Pa. Stephen Valenti, CPA,is a recently retired clinical professor of accounting at New York University in New York City and owner of Stephen P. Valenti CPA in Plainview, N.Y. Michael W. Crisler, CPA, is a member and the chief manager of Crisler CPA PLLC in Hendersonville, Tenn. Mr. Crisler is the immediate past chair, Mr. Cheslowitz is a past member, and Mrs. Hollander and Mr. Valenti are members of the AICPA Tax Practice Management Committee. For more information about this column, contact thetaxadviser@aicpa.org.

 

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