Art of Accounting: 13 best practices for better hiring, training and retention


I recently wrote a column about employee unionization with some suggestions on ways to retain staff. I received quite a few emails with comments. Some suggested why unionization would not work in an accounting firm, so I decided to post this follow up.

I was not suggesting that staff unionize. I suggested that if many firms did not change some of their processes and work conditions, then employees would leave and some would likely leave public accounting. Put unionization out of your minds, but put more reasonable tax season hours and work conditions at the forefront of your attention.

Public accounting is a great way to spend a career. For many it represents a wonderfully satisfying profession. For some it offers a partnership opportunity. Further, there are many new trends developing that will make public accounting even more rewarding. This includes the early, quick adoption of new forms of technology to ease our work and provide much more usable data to advise clients with; the entry of private equity that provides a possibility of added capital to grow infrastructure and reward partners and senior staff and more professional methods of managing our practices; the addition of many new types of exciting advisory services that have not traditionally been performed by public accounting firms; and the potential of becoming intricately involved in the attestation of claims of sustainability, environmental, social and governance and similar issues by a rapidly growing number of clients.

Retention is a major issue, but so is more effective hiring and training. There is an argument that a certain amount of turnover is necessary to open up opportunities for younger staff to move up. I do not know of any firm that plans on laying off people who are performing well. While a lot of people are hired to start a pipeline of staff, the desire is that they will all work out and remain with the firm. There is no planned obsolescence or disengagement, but this can occur for many reasons since not everyone fulfills the expectations hoped for them when they were hired, but not because of a preconceived plan. 

Onboarding new staff represents a substantial financial, time and training investment. Further, each new employee has access to the financial records of many of the firms’ clients, and preprogrammed turnover can lead to a breach of confidentiality of client information. Firms do need a method of moving people up to fill the spots of retiring partners and staff. They also need to create the opportunities to grow, and that takes effort. Those that want to grow seem to be doing it quite well. Also, proof of not “over hiring” is borne out by the excessive overtime current staff need to work. If anything, there might be an underhiring or perhaps unplanned staff attrition because of inattention to retention and managing the careers of staff.   

I find many (though certainly not all) efforts to retain and grow staff inadequate and ineffective. That is what I wrote about in my previous column. Here is a short checklist of some methods or best practices to better hire, train or retain staff:

  1. The more effort you put into hiring, the better your result should be.
  2. If at some point you realize you made a mistake in hiring, correct it ASAP!
  3. Everyone you hire needs training, but the training should be tailored to the level of the person you are training.
  4. You can develop your own training or outsource it, or a combination of the two.
  5. Do not assume a level of capability until you are assured of it.
  6. Settling retards growth.
  7. The alternative to getting what you want is reduced expectations, and possibly more of the same of what you are trying to improve.
  8. Secret message: Training takes time and effort and has costs.
  9. Consider the opposite: You do not spend the time, effort or cost.
  10. You should view the cost as an investment that will increase the value of your business and not as a partially obligatory deductible expense that will reduce your profits.
  11. Assume you fired someone (or let them leave) who wasn’t performing well. What is their potential for success at the next firm that will hire them because they seemed great at the interview … or because they had experience with you?
  12. Now consider the opposite — you are hiring the person they fired (or let leave)! What is your chance of success with them? 
  13. Review your past staffing successes and failures. Grow the successes and eliminate the methods that led to the failures.

Staff retention is difficult to manage, but essential for your future success and profitability. It’s much less costly to train, grow and retain someone than to bring in a new person. Figure it out and do the right thing the right way.
Do not hesitate to contact me at with your practice management questions or about engagements you might not be able to perform.

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