Accounting for Good People

Surprising as it might seem, the Big Four accountancy firms have lots to teach other companies about managing talented people.

Much of this recruitment is aimed at hard-to-find experienced professionals, especially important in the advisory businesses where corporate knowledge is highly valued. As a result, an old taboo is being broken and more outsiders brought straight in as partners. Robust selection procedures are used to ensure that they fit in. Programmes that help keep the firm in touch with former employees are also being strengthened so that people who leave can more easily find their way back (these “boomerangs” account for up to a quarter of those hired by the Big Four in America).

Former employees can also act as useful recruiting agents and help to drum up new business. For these alumni programmes to work “a massive cultural switch” is needed, says Keith Dugdale, who looks after global recruitment for KPMG. Few employers are used to helping people leave on good terms. But in an era of job-hopping and a scarcity of skills, loyalty increasingly means having a sense of emotional allegiance to an employer, whether or not that person is still physically on the payroll.

A similar change in attitude is needed to manage the careers of female employees. Each of the Big Four wants to promote more women, who account for about half of their recruits but around a quarter, at best, of their partners. Many women drop off the career ladder at some point (usually to have children or to care for an elderly relative) and find it difficult to get back on again. Options such as career breaks and part-time working are part of the accountants’ response. “The Big Four are ahead of most in managing talented women,” says Sylvia Hewlett, author of “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps”, a new book on the subject.

Across borders

Gaps in one country can be plugged with people from another. The Big Four have big plans in Asia, especially China. Deloitte aims to have 20,000 people in greater China by 2015, up from some 8,500 now. But like other firms it is finding that experienced people are thinner on the ground than promising but untested ones. One answer is to use member firms outside China to find experienced Chinese émigrés who want to return home, although they do not always get on well with local employees. Similar techniques are used to handle temporary gluts of work. Canadian accountants cross the border in droves during the American audit season to reinforce their American colleagues’ efforts.

Mobility is seen as a useful way to retain and help employees develop. International assignments can be critical in attracting new graduates. According to Pierre Hurstel, Ernst & Young’s global managing partner for people, new entrants want to work abroad: that’s the biggest change in recruits in the past five years, he says. Recruiters at PwC are authorised to promise the best candidates on campus language training and an overseas visit at the end of their first year. International assignments can be pledged after two to three years. High-minded young people also want to work for companies with a decent ethical reputation.

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