IPA uses feedback from 2,000 accounting firm employees to determine culture assessments.

Accounting Firm Culture Assessment Reveals Blind Spots

After asking nearly 2,000 accounting firm employees to describe the culture at their workplaces, a few generalizations emerged: partners view their culture more positively than most everyone else; respondents expressed low opinions about firm agility; and as firms grew, staff engagement decreased.

These were some of the findings from INSIDE Public Accounting’s (IPA) first culture assessment of 21 firms, ranging in net revenue from under $10 million to $100 million. Results, broken out by gender, years of service, department, and job title, were outlined by IPA publisher Kelly Platt in a November 12, 2019 AAM High webinar.

While culture seems intangible, like an invisible glue that holds companies together – 12 core measurable qualities drive and define culture, according to IPA’s partner in the assessment effort, CultureIQ. The core qualities are Agility, Alignment, Collaboration, Customer Centricity, Empowerment, Engagement, Growth Development, Innovation, Quality, Recognition Rewards, Trust and Integrity, and Work-life Balance.

Agility, the ability to sense and plan for change, scored very low overall, Platt said, particularly among women and administrative/support staff. Employees with more than 20 years of tenure at firms between $20 million and $30 million ranked agility lower than other employee groups.

Respondents generally gave alignment high scores, Platt said. When firms are aligned, everyone is working together on firmwide goals, not just individual advancement. Equity partners scored alignment “off the charts,” at 91% or more, but tax staff ranked alignment lower. Using this data, partners can ask themselves: “Why the disconnect?”

Engagement may be the most important aspect of culture. Platt cites Gallup research that found 70% of U.S. employees are not coming to work fully committed to performing their best. “That’s a very powerful statement,” Platt said.

Overall, the 2,000 survey respondents scored engagement relatively high, but it dips in the largest firms, particularly among professional staff and the 3- to 5-year employees, a vulnerable group that needs attention because they’re asking themselves hard questions about whether they want to stay in accounting or move on, Platt said.

Some similarities emerged when it came to rankings of empowerment. Again, partners scored this quality higher than others. Women and the 3- to 5-year group, on average, scored empowerment the lowest of all 12 qualities. Women feel most empowered in the smallest firms and least empowered in the largest firms. They are 11 percentage points behind male respondents in firms of more than $30 million.

Firm leaders would do well to pay more attention to recognition and rewards since it was the lowest-scoring core quality for all respondents, Platt said. Consistent with other areas, the administrative and support staff, 3- to 5-year employees, women, and tax professionals gave this area lower marks than others.

Platt said the investment in alternative work arrangements over the last several years is paying off since 3 in 4 respondents scored work-life balance positively. “We’re vying for good talent and to retain it, and we’re finding innovative ways to adjust to the needs of employees and clients.”

Culture may be best summed up by the answer to this question: “What does it feel like to work here,” Platt said. IPA’s 2020 culture assessments, set for May and November, can help uncover the answers. The data can help firms bring culture top-of-mind, develop a well-defined, positive culture, boost brand awareness, and increase retention, and marketers can play a key role.

She advises firms to create employee-led committees to make recommendations on how to improve culture.

In a tight labor market, the ‘you’re lucky to have a job’ management style is no longer working. Employees must look forward to going to work or they will work elsewhere, she said.

“Bring out the best in your staff, and you’ll bring out the best in your brand.”

To understand the assessment results on accounting firm culture in more detail, download a complimentary executive summary. Complete an online form to receive more information on the 2020 culture assessments.

To listen to the Nov. 12 webinar, access a recording of “Surveying Accounting Firm Culture: Results, Blind Spots, and Marketing’s Role in Improvement.” It is available at no cost to AAM members. The cost is $79 for nonmembers.

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