Beginner’s Guide: Employee Retention: How to Keep the Talent You Have

people around a table smiling

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a war for talent going on out there. Accountants are in high demand. I probably hear once a week: “We don’t need more clients. We need more people to do the work.” The number of students choosing accounting as a career is declining, and with many firms offering remote work options or accountants choosing private accounting over public accounting (or even leaving the industry as a whole!), it’s becoming harder and harder to keep the talent you have. All these things combined make employee retention a critical concern for accounting firms.

High turnover not only impacts productivity and morale, but also incurs significant costs associated with recruitment and training. A study published by the Harvard Business Review found that replacing a highly skilled employee can cost up to 213% of their annual salary in recruiting, hiring and training expenses as well as lost productivity during the transition period. Take, for example, a mid-level manager position that’s paid $115,000 a year. That’s nearly a quarter of a million dollars to replace them! So, what can marketers and their firms do to retain their staff? Here are seven strategies aimed at fostering a positive work environment and enhancing employee satisfaction.

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate. And then communicate some more.

First, I want to talk about the importance of internal communication. Before I came to the accounting marketing world, I worked in internal communication for a decade. It’s a topic I’m very passionate about because I believe it is incredibly important. Without good communication, employees can feel like they don’t have a purpose, or they don’t understand how they fit into the big picture. And that can make for some unengaged employees – and unengaged employees cost your firm (and the whole American economy) a LOT. Research by Gallup suggests that actively disengaged employees cost U.S. businesses between $483 billion and $605 billion each year in lost productivity. Clear and transparent communication helps employees understand their roles, stay informed about the firm and feel valued and appreciated. When employees feel connected, they are more likely to remain committed, satisfied and engaged. Here are some ideas for better internal communication:

  • Regular in-person or virtual meetings: I know, I know…billable time and more meetings. But it’s important. Whether these are firm-wide or department/service line meetings, regular meetings provide opportunities for information sharing, aligning goals and team bonding. My firm started a 15-minute weekly Friday “tea” (as the young kids say) this year. It has helped our team to feel more connected and more empowered, and it’s a great way to share news, kudos, big projects, new clients landed, upcoming events and sponsorships, dad jokes, bald jokes (as my MP is very fond of) …whatever your people want to know! To make it short, create a standing agenda of what to cover and move through it quickly. But don’t forget to allow employees to share and ask questions, too.
  • Leverage digital communication tools: Things like internal newsletters (both print and digital), intranets, Teams or Slack channels, digital signage, short videos and private social media groups are powerful tools for keeping everyone in the loop.
  • Peer recognition programs: Implementing peer recognition programs encourages employees to acknowledge and appreciate their colleagues’ contributions and achievements. Whether through a dedicated platform or informal shout-outs during team meetings, peer recognition fosters a positive culture of appreciation and teamwork. I’ll happily take ALL the suggestions on how to get your staff to share recognition for others!
  • Employee surveys: Conducting regular employee surveys allows organizations to gather feedback on various aspects of the workplace, including communication effectiveness, employee satisfaction and areas for improvement. Analyzing survey results and implementing actionable changes demonstrates a commitment to employee engagement and continuous improvement.
  • Knowledge sharing sessions: Hosting knowledge sharing sessions or lunch-and-learn events provides opportunities for employees to share expertise, best practices and lessons learned with their peers. These sessions can cover a wide range of topics, from industry trends to technical skills. We recently started a “Breakfast with the Executive” series where I interview a partner each month about their career and advice for young professionals plus some fun facts about them. It’s broadcast live on Teams, but each of our office locations has an in-person breakfast with their team and watches live. We’ve gotten some great feedback from employees. If you need ideas for this, I’m happy to share my list of questions I ask.
  1. Employee Onboarding – Make them feel welcome from the start.

Effective onboarding sets the tone for an employee’s career with a firm. It’s crucial to make new hires feel welcome and equipped to succeed from day one. Implementing a structured onboarding process involves:

  • Provide a comprehensive orientation: In addition to technical training, offer a detailed overview of the firm’s culture, values and expectations. At my firm, I have an hour with each new hire to talk about the firm, its people, our culture and other marketing-related items as well as get to know new hires individually. If you aren’t already on the new hire onboarding schedule, ask for a spot! It’s worth it.
  • Clear role expectations: Clearly outline job responsibilities, performance metrics and goals to ensure alignment between employee and employer expectations.
  • Training and support: Offer training sessions and resources to help new hires acclimate to their roles and become productive quickly. Assign a mentor or buddy to guide new hires through their first days and months.
  • Follow up: New employees are drinking from a fire hose, and for some of them, it might be their first job ever. Ask them how it’s going after a few weeks or months to ensure they are getting what they need and have a good experience.
  • Ask for feedback: Establish channels for new employees to provide feedback on their onboarding experience and address any concerns promptly.
  1. Mentoring Program – Mentor them so they can see a path to success.

I once got a fortune in a fortune cookie that read: “Mentorship is using someone else’s hindsight as your foresight.” I don’t think there’s a more accurate way to describe a mentoring relationship!

A mentoring program pairs experienced employees with newer hires to facilitate knowledge transfer, skill development and professional growth. If you’re starting a brand-new program, don’t forget to also assign mid-level people a mentor like a partner or director. Here are some tips for an effective mentoring program:

  • Identify mentors: Select experienced employees who demonstrate strong leadership skills, industry knowledge and a commitment to supporting others.
  • Define goals: Establish clear objectives for the mentoring program, such as skill development, career advancement or cultural assimilation.
  • Have structured meetings: Schedule regular one-on-one meetings between mentors and mentees to discuss progress, address challenges and set goals.
  • Encourage feedback: Foster open communication between mentors and mentees, encouraging constructive feedback and mutual learning. In addition, ask for feedback about the program as a whole.

We just implemented a mentoring program at my firm at the end of last year. I talked to several other firms for guidance on how to develop the program as well as got some ideas from AAM’s Mentorship Program (if you don’t know about it, check it out here!).

  1. Employee Resource Groups – Give them a place to feel welcome.

Employee resource groups (ERGs) provide a platform for employees to connect, share experiences and support each other based on common interests, backgrounds or identities. Check out Erica Reagle’s article about ERGs in this issue here.

  1. Professional Development – Outline a path for success and how to get there.

Investing in staff development shows a commitment to their long-term success, fosters loyalty and helps employees develop both technical and soft skills. Implementing a robust professional development program involves:

  • Accessible training: Provide access to online courses, workshops and certifications relevant to employees’ roles and career aspirations. There are many existing programs specific to the accounting industry. Some of these programs even offer their own Learning Management System.
  • Individualized development plans: Work with employees to create personalized development plans that align with their goals and the firm’s needs. This can be housed in a Learning Management System (LMS).
  • Career pathway planning: Career pathway planning refers to the process of mapping out a structured and intentional route for an individual’s career advancement within a firm. It involves identifying potential career goals, assessing current skills and competencies and developing a specific plan to acquire the necessary knowledge, experience and qualifications to progress along their unique career path.
  • Recognition and rewards: Recognize employees’ achievements and milestones in their professional development journey through awards, promotions or special opportunities. Celebrate everything you can and make them feel special. A little praise can go a long way.
  1. Celebrations and Events – Who doesn’t love a party?

Celebrating achievements and milestones helps foster a positive work culture and strengthens team morale. Implementing celebrations and events involves:

  • Recognizing achievements: Acknowledge individual and team accomplishments through regular recognition ceremonies, shout-outs or awards. Do this on social media, internal communication channels and during staff meetings.
  • Social gatherings: Organize team-building activities, outings or social events to encourage camaraderie and foster relationships outside of work. Many firms have community service days that allow staff to volunteer to help a local cause.
  • Milestone celebrations: Celebrate work anniversaries, project completions or significant achievements with special events or tokens of appreciation. My firm recently implemented a program to recognize employees when they are promoted. The employee receives a gift that varies based on level of promotion. And I’ve proposed the same thing for employee milestone anniversaries.
  • Random gifts and swag: Who doesn’t like a gift? Surprise your people occasionally with random gifts or swag. Its winter? Send them a super nice blanket and a mug with cocoa. Its busy season? Give them a firm-branded tee with a funny accounting saying. Our firm’s tee this season says “Relax! I have a spreadsheet for that.” But make it the really nice tri-blend kind, otherwise they aren’t going to wear it. Don’t skimp on quality if you are giving branded gear. You want them to wear/use it proudly.
  1. Benefits and Perks – Be competitive (accountants naturally love a little bit of competition).

Competitive benefits and perks can differentiate an accounting firm as an employer of choice and contribute to employee satisfaction and retention. Implementing attractive benefits and perks involves:

  • Comprehensive benefits package: Offer a range of benefits such as health insurance, retirement plans, flexible work arrangements and wellness programs to meet employees’ diverse needs. Every firm has benefits, but how can you stand out?
  • Unique perks: Provide additional perks such as personal development budgets, employee assistance programs (like mental health resources), volunteer time off, sabbaticals, pet-friendly workplaces, wellness stipends, on-site amenities or employee discounts to enhance work-life balance and job satisfaction.
  • Communication and transparency: Clearly communicate the value of benefits and perks to employees, highlighting how they support their well-being and career growth.
  • Regular reviews: Conduct periodic reviews of benefits and perks to ensure they remain competitive and aligned with employees’ evolving needs and preferences.

In today’s competitive landscape, accounting firms must prioritize employee retention to sustain success and growth. By implementing a holistic approach using all (or some!) of the strategies above, accounting marketers can help create a supportive and engaging work environment that attracts and retains top talent.

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About Rachael McGrew

Rachael McGrew is the Business Development Director for Landmark CPAs, one of Arkansas’ largest accounting firms. In her role, she wears many hats, including overseeing the firm’s marketing and business development strategy, managing internal and external communications, maintaining the firm’s social media and web presence, planning and executing firm events and community outreach programs, assisting with M&A, coordinating recruiting campaigns, and serving on industry association committees. Within AAM, Rachael leads an AAM Circle focused on HubSpot. She is a graduate of the Leadership Fort Smith program and a 40 Under 40 honoree by both the Arkansas Business Journal and the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. She is also a member of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Arkansas’ Western Council. Rachael holds a Bachelors of Business Administration in Marketing with a minor in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Central Arkansas and a Technical Certificate in Graphic Design from the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith. She is married to an outgoing entrepreneur she’s known since junior high, and they have a witty teenager they follow around to volleyball practice and tournaments.

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