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How firms use stay interviews to boost retention

Job interviews have long been an essential part of the hiring process.

But now, some public accounting firms are turning the lens on themselves. They’re conducting “stay” or “retention” interviews with existing employees. The goal is to understand how they can be a more attractive workplace and reduce employee turnover — a top issue for many public accounting firms.

The 2022 AICPA Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) CPA Firm Top Issues Survey found that retaining qualified staff was the fifth most important issue for firms with 11–20 professionals and the No. 2 issue for firms larger than that. Finding qualified staff was the No. 1 issue for firms that size and the No. 2 issue for firms with 6–10 professionals.

“There’s a war for talent,” said Phil Whitman, CPA, CEO and president of Whitman Transition Advisors LLC, a consultancy that provides recruiting, M&A advising, and other services for accounting firms. Anything firms can do to retain employees is typically less expensive and less disruptive than hiring someone new, he said.

Responding to labor market shifts

Bonnie Ross, director of client services and operations at Fiske & Company, a South Florida public accounting firm employing 18 CPAs, said hiring accountants who are a good fit for the firm is challenging. That makes retention even more important, so about a year ago the firm started doing stay interviews.

“We want to know where [employees] feel [they] stand in the company, what things we could do better for [them], maybe any pain points they have,” she said. “We want them to be just as happy with us as we are with them.”

When hiring, Ross said, she’s encountering more accountants willing to work as independent contractors and forgo employer-provided benefits, such as health insurance and retirement plans.

The stay interviews provide valuable intelligence for the firm’s efforts to build a more attractive workplace and keep employees longer, she said.

Bruce Zicari, CPA, CEO and managing partner at Rochester, N.Y.-based The Bonadio Group, said his firm started doing stay interviews about a year ago to better understand how the increase in remote working, COVID-19, and other pressures might change how employees felt about working there.

Bonadio has more than 900 employees, including about 300 CPAs, spread across nine offices in New York, Vermont, and Texas. Leaders from the across the firm interviewed employees and reported back to insight teams that compiled the feedback. Bonadio executives wanted to know “how do we make a career at our firm and in public accounting more attractive to you,” Zicari said.

The feedback, including recommendations for changes, are part of a strategic initiative around the firm’s “people experience.”

How to conduct a stay interview

Whitman said the firm should communicate why it’s holding the meetings. He suggested telling employees, “We’re starting to do these meetings because we want to hear your voice.”

During stay interviews, Ross said, employees should feel comfortable to speak candidly — even when some of their comments are critical.

Her firm tries to schedule stay interviews several months away from annual performance reviews, to avoid any impression the interview could affect those reviews. They also wait a few months after new hires start before conducting stay interviews; that ensures newer employees fully experience work life there and develop their own impressions.

At Bonadio, Zicari said, the interviews were designed to be “informal conversations.” The interviewers had a handful of questions to start with but were encouraged to take their direction from the employees they were talking to — and not to follow a highly scripted format.

More than talk

The key to successful stay interviews is acting on the feedback.

“Don’t ask the question if you’re not prepared to do something, because then it’s just talk,” Whitman said.

At Bonadio, for example, feedback from stay interviews helped drive a whole host of changes in how the firm operates. Those include changes to compensation and benefits and setting guidelines for capping weekly work hours at 55 during the busy season, for example.

Zicari and Ross said their firms will continue to conduct stay interviews, as well as seek formal and informal feedback in other ways on a regular basis.

“I really do believe that this process helped us get a whole other level of feedback,” Zicari said.

What to ask

To draw out meaningful feedback, you must ask deeper questions. Here are some stay interview questions that go beyond just “Tell us what we could do better.”

What do you think about on your way to work or when you’re preparing to start your day? Ross said this question — or a similar question about what people think about at the end of the day — provides a good barometer for how people feel about their jobs. “If someone is relaxed and ready to go, I think that shows they’re having a positive experience,” she said.

If you were the managing partner of this firm, what would you roll out to all your fellow employees? Whitman said this question is a good way to solicit ideas for concrete, specific changes a firm could make.

Are there things we could be doing to make your life at work and your life outside of work happier? Whitman said focusing on happiness can help firms uncover ways to help employees meet career goals while also supporting their personal priorities.

Your team probably has ideas for good stay interview questions, too. Asking them for questions will help you gain insights from employees — which can give you an advantage in the fight for accounting talent.

— Mark Tosczak is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article, contact Courtney Vien at [email protected]

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