Listen to this episode here: Protect Your People

Welcome to our blog for TALKING NUMBERS with Paul Jansz. In this article, we share our conversation with Harry McFarlane, Associate Director at Andersen Partnership. Harry shares his experience with people and recruitment in the accounting industry in this special edition.

A ‘Candidate Market’

Harry is currently leading a team of recruitment consultants, and they operate solely within the Public Practice and Accounting sector. This group of specialists recruits for accounting firms of all sizes. They work with all divisions, but tend to focus on business services, tax, and auditing. Harry is still involved in 360 Recruitment, attracting candidates, and managing a portfolio of clients. Their team is Melbourne-based, but they have offices all over Australia and New Zealand.

Having worked in this space for the last five years, Harry feels that the current market is the busiest he’s ever seen. There are a lot of accounting firms of all sizes looking to recruit staff at this stage. With deadlines looming, the team is very busy looking for candidates at all levels of experience.

Harry says accounting firms are in desperate need of additional resources, and it’s probably more of a ‘candidate market’ at the moment. The candidates have a lot of opportunities to choose from. Harry thinks a six-month probation period is very standard, and three months is less common. However, many candidates don’t like six-month probation.

The Reason for Accountant Recruitment Demand

Harry says, at this stage, they are seeing a huge demand for intermediate to senior-level accountants in both the business services and audit divisions. Many firms are ultimately struggling to fill the gaps within their teams.

The reason, Harry explains, is multi-fold. First of all, accounting firms were on the frontline during the pandemic, and they had to guide thousands of clients through lockdowns and uncertainty. Also, the regular tax compliance and annual accounting were pushed back as the stimulus was brought in, such as Job Keeper. Finally, some of the businesses with offshoring offices or are outsourcing have been hit with an even bigger resource shortage, just because some countries are still struggling to fight the pandemic.

Challenges in the Near Future

Harry says Job Keeping has created a lot of positive activity within small and medium-sized market businesses. However, it’s just created a backlog of the traditional Tax Compliance work that needs to be done.

Harry also points out that, during the pandemic, there’s very little graduate intake. He thinks this potentially will have a knock-on effect for the next one to two years and remains to be seen.

What’s more, auditing was one of the areas that had been hit the hardest, with border closures and restrictions on travel, and especially for larger firms. Even for smaller businesses, they’ve been growing and picking up work off these businesses, and their capacities being stretched beyond standard levels.

Tips to Keep Your People

Harry cites that there’s a lot of demand for good quality candidates, especially over the last five years. What he finds is, while many firms are budgeted to pay what the candidates are looking for, there are also astronomical offers ranging upwards of $30,000 a year to keep the current accountants, both senior and junior employees. Harry says this can be seen more and more frequently, indicating that firms cannot afford to lose any employees. He thinks it’s more important than ever to do whatever you can to make sure they’re happy and look after your good people.

Harry shares his thoughts on what the employees are looking for from a firm. First of all, money is always a factor, no matter if somebody says it out loud. Putting money aside, currently, everyone most about flexibility, whether that be flexitime or working from home as a policy. Harry suggests that businesses look into that aspect if they haven’t done so already because flexitime policy is something that all firms need to be addressing this. Last but not least, training and development are absolutely massive for candidates. Whether it’s knowledge and regular updates or soft skill development, candidates are really looking for leadership and mentors that are genuinely invested in their development. Accounting firms are moving to progress their businesses forward and deliver more advisory and consulting services. They need staff that can actually spot those opportunities and do that. Technical skill development and soft skill development are both important for the firms as well.

Culture is also a key, Harry says. When it comes down to culture, candidates often talk about a lack of feedback, social activity, and internal communication.

Harry cites that it’s widely known that people don’t necessarily leave their jobs; they leave their manager. Suppose you are thinking about how to develop the business and relieve some pressure. In that case, the key is to invest in the leadership and management team, make sure they’re looking after the intermediate and senior level. If the people are well looked after, a company will have a much happier and more productive workforce.

Mental Health Matters

Harry shares a good example of some of his clients. A few firms had mental health experts come in and present or doing some day courses. It’s definitely something that people resonate with. Harry also mentioned another firm, who made it available for each staff member to have eight hours of confidential psychiatric support per year and it worked really well for them. Harry suggests if a firm is thinking about initiatives to support members, they should look into the mental health space.

A Piece of Advice

Attracting and retaining good people is essential, and Harry urges leaders to put it on their agenda. Harry says it all comes back to communicating as clearly, openly, and as often as possible. He finds annual performance reviews are so common, but people need it at least twice a year, if not quarterly. People need to get feedback. He says, if you have star performers, don’t wait for six to nine months to give them a pat on the back and encouragement, because it’s probably going to be too late. You need to protect your people and it comes from having regular feedback, catch-ups, and encouragement.