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Why people leave the audit profession (and how to keep them)

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 23 Feb 2023

Changeable management approaches, lack of formal training and excessive hours all forced Jackie Crane to become an ex-auditor. What do her experiences tell us about how audit employers must retain talent?

Up until late last year, Jackie Crane had spent 13 years in finance, since leaving school at 18 to take up an apprenticeship. Following a spell of work in various tax roles – which had stemmed from a tax paper she had written that won an international prize – Crane returned to audit. However, her time in that part of the profession ultimately led her to rethink her career – and she now describes herself on LinkedIn as an ‘ex-accountant’. Crane’s experiences shed light on some of the tricks that audit may be missing when it comes to retaining talent.

“Expectations were an issue for me,” says Crane. “For example: ‘This is what a good file looks like’; ‘this is how we approach our scheduling’. But it wasn’t like that in the firms I worked for. I found that one local office would work in certain ways, while another had its own approaches.”

Those inconsistencies extended to managers having different levels of focus on the tasks that Crane was assigned, regardless of how challenging the job might be. That lack of guidance on prioritisation led to an inevitable impact on work-life balance.

“I ended up having to work lots of hours to get things done,” Crane says. “I didn’t know what was sufficient and what was too much. And I never had any feedback on whether I was overworking. It was just: ‘Okay – on to the next job and keep going.’”

Thinking outside the box

Crane’s late working hours and constant state of time crunch led to what may be described as her ‘Jerry Maguire moment’.

“In my last audit role, I was really struggling,” she says. “I thought: ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ So I raised the issues I was facing with my operations director. They said: ‘Tell us what you need help with that would enable you to stay.’ After that conversation, I wrote what I thought was a really detailed document outlining all the areas where I felt I needed support – but in the next three months I was there, nothing changed.”

It wasn’t all bad – Crane was a positive influence on the team and culture. “People felt like they were learning from me and that they were part of a unit when they were working with me. But I always felt like I was failing because I was working so many hours.”

Crane ultimately went through a similar thought process that many have experienced since the pandemic: given the hours put in, is this really better than taking a minimum wage job with less working hours? Having calculated all the hours she worked, Crane decided she would actually be better off taking a step back and freeing up her personal time.

“I’m not scared of hard work, but thought I’d rather work those hours in a warehouse and actually switch off in my spare time rather than emotionally drain myself and use my spare time to recover.”

Crane would like to see more focus on people management skills as people rise up the ladder and believes that this would improve staff retention. “Often, people are promoted to management roles not because they are great with people, but because they are good at what they do on a task-based level. That doesn’t help teams to evolve. So, I think there’s a lot of scope in the profession for perhaps having managers who are specially trained to work with people, while others focus on client-facing work.”

In Crane’s opinion, it would also be good to have a clearer and more consistent set of processes that empower more autonomous working. “Audit should be all about how we are using our own thoughts and trained instincts,” she says. “Plus, managers should be more open to thinking outside the box and exploring new ways of working that help to create efficiencies.”

In addition, Crane believes that firms should put more effort into understanding mental health and neurodivergence. “I’ve done lots of research on ADHD and autism and I think both apply to me. If audit had more awareness and openness around issues linked to neurodivergence, people would receive help from managers before the challenges they are facing become emergencies.”

Sense of progression

Chris Goulding, Managing Director of specialist HR, finance and accountancy recruitment firm Wade Macdonald, says: “Research we are compiling shows that business partnering, commercial finance skills and data analysis and interpretation are emerging as the top capabilities required to reach higher levels and they are not easy to build while completing audits. That said, outside the usual employee perks and fair pay, there are ways to encourage audit talent to stick around.”

Given audit’s long hours and regular travel to client sites, there isn’t the same scope for flexibility in practice as there is in commerce, Goulding notes. But employers should take steps to increase remote audit work wherever possible. As career progression in audit is a common stumbling block, employers should organise regular reviews with staff to discuss where their careers could go if they stay on – both upwards or sideways moves. “That may include providing opportunities to lead other staff, if they want to. Team management will lend itself to a different sense of progression and added value.”

Providing auditors with the opportunity to work with a range of clients, Goulding says, is also crucial: if staff have variety in their client base, they are more likely to stay on so they can encounter diverse experiences that stimulate continuous learning. Plus, to support further development, employers should strive to surround their auditors with strong role models: leaders who can provide vision and inspiration, and are able to convey the importance of the work they are carrying out.

And if they don’t already, he adds, employers must embrace more advanced technologies for parts of audit that could be automated. “That will allow staff more time with their clients, not only to take on increasingly strategic and arguably more appealing tasks, but to add commercial value, too.”

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