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How to retain talent in audit

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 27 Jul 2022

Auditors frequently struggle to hang on to their brightest talent. What should they do to boost retention rates? Firms and recruitment specialists provide some ideas.

According to James Hadfield, Partner at Menzies LLP and Lead of its Audit and Assurance Service Line, auditing is often undertaken by graduates who are prepared to spend the first few years of their career gaining valuable experience and qualifications – which pave the way for further opportunities in finance and accounting.

But more recently, he says: “Auditing has been on the receiving end of a large amount of finger pointing and blame in the media for the failure of some high-profile businesses. That’s having an unfavourable effect on application and retention levels in the field – not great at a time when job vacancies are already at a record high.”

Engagement champions

So, how can firms turn this around? Let’s start with the people they already have.

Hadfield notes that on top of basic initiatives such as competitive salaries and benefits, Menzies has invested heavily in the technology required to offer hybrid working options. “Staff across the board now expect flexible working as part of their package,” he says. “This is unlikely to change anytime soon.”

At Mazars, HR Director Steve Saville says that his firm is putting “significant energy” into boosting engagement by helping line managers develop their team-management skills.

“Our people managers are highly engaged with this process, because they understand its importance and are committed to their teams,” Saville says. “We’ve spent a lot of time upskilling and empowering our people managers to carry out this role effectively, which will lead to more engaged team members.”

On a similar note, Sophie Austin, HR Partner at south-west accountancy firm Monahans, says: “Ensure you have audit ‘champions’ leading your audit teams. Having people around who are passionate and fired up about what they do will, in turn, make those around them feel more engaged with the role, and give them a vision of what they could achieve.”

Managing progress

Visions of what auditors could achieve are central to another, crucial aspect of the retention campaign: learning and development.

Jo Howell, a specialist accountancy and financial services recruiter at Cathedral Appointments, says: “Audit staff want to know how you’ll support them in their career path. What’s next? What direction do you intend to take them in? Employees want to understand how they can grow alongside the business – especially within the audit division. If a clear and structured plan is given to them, they’re far more likely to stay.”

On that front, Mazars has created a progress management tool called Capability+. Saville explains: “We’ve developed a skills and competencies matrix across all levels, service lines and business units, which highlights the skills we require now and in the future.”

To support progression discussions, he says, “Capability+ provides clarity around the roles our employees are currently doing – in a way that’s directly linked to key elements of our Gallup engagement survey – together with the skills they’ll need for the next level up. As such, it helps us identify training and learning needs.”

On the earlier end of the career ladder, Austin says: “Audit management teams and employers must work hard to create a robust talent pipeline – hiring and developing specific audit trainees. That can be more difficult for smaller firms because of the investment required, relative to size and scale. However, it’s more than worth it.”

With that system in place, she notes: “Ensure you’re providing early responsibility and pushing people to be the best they can be, rather than expecting them to do the same work year in, year out.”

Creative culture

Convention-bucking, fast-growing firm Cooper Parry has ambitious plans to disrupt the Big Four. As such, it has created a unique company culture with talent retention – and recruitment – firmly in mind.

Partner and Head of Audit Operations Gemma Edwards says: “We’re different, and we don’t do grey. Every day is dress down, and our work spaces are buzzy, informal, collaborative and inspirational.”

Edwards notes: “We’ve also introduced a scheme called ‘WFAAF’ – or ‘work from anywhere, anytime, forever’. In our high-performing culture, this kicks old-school presenteeism into touch, letting individuals work where and when they want, while still delivering a top-class client experience. Before COVID-19, we were early champions of remote working, with 7pm to 7am email curfews, open holidays, weekly ‘How’s it Going?’ staff surveys and regular family events fostering an ‘in it together’ spirit. We’re also trialling ‘100-80-100’: driving 100% productivity in 80% of the time, while retaining 100% of pay.”

Within audit, Edwards says: “Our Four Pillars framework focuses on technology, processes, systems and quality. We’re constantly challenging ourselves to think about what we can do to make our auditors’ lives better. How can we smartly use automation to enhance engagement, and help them develop their strategic roles? Those are key issues for us.”

Edwards points out that Cooper Parry is currently marshalling its highest-ever early-career intake. “As we grow,” she says, it’s a massive priority to provide a supportive, high-performing, diverse culture for everyone as they go through their training programmes.”

In parallel, she adds: “We’re also launching Returnships: flexible, variable contracts, enabling those who’ve been away from the workplace for extended periods – such as new mothers – to train up on fast-moving technologies, so they can re-enter the workplace with total confidence.”

For Saville, any set of retention initiatives in audit must sit within a culture that welcomes people from all sorts of backgrounds. He notes: “We empower team members to contribute to our culture of inclusion in a number of ways – from each partner having dedicated diversity and inclusion goals to embedding well-being as a priority across the firm.”

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