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Consulting: Big Four struggle to retain „boundaryless“ workforce

Stephen Frenkel

Talented accountants can work anywhere in the world today. Today’s professional adventurer anticipates „boundaryless“ possibilities and is keen to flex newfound career mobility muscles, cherry picking the best job destinations along the way. It’s a major dilemma for the Human Resources managers at KPMG, PwC, Deloitte and Ernst & Young. A workshop convened by Australian School of Business researchers Steve Frenkel and Kyong-Hee explored retention strategies for peripatetic accounting professionals. One solution is widening in-house career opportunities, they determined, along with more sophisticated approaches to career development.

Better ways of repatriating and harnessing the knowledge of those returning from international postings are also required. Frenkel and Yu outline why managing diversity in the accounting profession is no numbers game – it demands thinking outside the square. Recruitment and retention are connected because if the selection processes don’t match the subsequent experience, then accounting firms won’t easily be able to keep employees. Expectations of new employees are not always sufficiently followed through in their work experience. An example is when new graduates are told: „There will be a lot of variety in your job. You’re going to have wonderful experience.“ But, contrary to their expectation, they find they are required to do repetitive work.

HR practices have to be consistent at the selection stage and subsequently. Another burning issue for accounting firms is that the intake of talent has different demographic characteristics to the partnership, and it’s very difficult for the senior managers to understand the requirements of employees. Many of them are women and many come from a different ethnic background. The firms have diversity practices and strategies, but making them effective is extremely difficult. Research has focussed on how to improve these HR practices towards creating a better alignment between the firm’s needs in retaining employees – to keep them effective and engaged – and the needs of employees to have variety, challenge and enjoyment in their careers.

Also organisational support for career mobility leads to greater loyalty. The Big Four accounting firms run international mobility programs in which, say, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) in Sydney, will support somebody going to work in London. This would be funded by KPMG or PWC in Sydney, with the expectation that this person will bring back tacit knowledge and expertise that was developed elsewhere. People have found this to be very helpful in developing talent and it breeds higher job satisfaction.

But often these firms like to think of themselves as global, but actually they think nationally. One of the Australian firms said, „Well the UK office just does not like us because whenever they send people to us, the people want to stay.“ They lose talent, although from the global viewpoint the person’s staying within the firm, but they are moving from the national business, so that’s quite a big issue. (December 9th, 2010)

Source: American School of Business

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