I strongly believe the major reason people leave public accounting is work/life balance. People feel they cannot have a reasonable work/life balance in public accounting and look to private industry for a better combination.
Another major factor is tax season hours. Many CPA firms have untenable overtime requirements, with some firms requiring staff to work 60 to 70 chargeable hours per week during a tax season that can start in the middle of January and run through April 15. This means no personal life or activities for one quarter of the year.
Regardless of the overtime, at many firms the payment for that work is either nonexistent or subject to a determination by the owners of what they will pay as a “bonus” as late as the end of June. At least if the payment was made in the next regular paycheck after the overtime, the employees (and their spouses or partners) would see some tangible benefits for the extra hours put in. If people leave because of these top two reason, it is the fault of the firm—and shame on them for not recognizing their own narrow-minded management.
Work done by public accountants is demanding. People employed by CPA firms need to be on top of things, continually learning and growing. Many do not want to put in the effort. For a CPA firm, these people are not losses, but benefits—when they leave. Nevertheless, a firm should examine its hiring process if it keeps losing people for this reason.
Some people do not like working any overtime. I know staff that have left or given notice because of this reason, but then found that they could continue without any overtime expectations. This is happening more and more; from my many conversations with managers and staff, I am finding that the profession is adapting to a very flexible work model. This includes the absence of overtime, but also being able to work at home or in the office as they prefer. I recall one situation where someone who just had her third child gave notice but was convinced to continue working 15 hours per week from home (this was before COVID-19). One day I saw her in the office and asked why she was there, and she replied, “I just needed to get out of the house!” This didn’t disrupt her 15-hour work week, but she decided to change her choice of time and location.
Clients can be difficult for any number of reasons. But whatever the reason, lousy clients can cause people to disassociate themselves from the firm and even the profession.
Even with the best clients, some people get put to work on very large clients for long periods, and then find they either do not like the client or industry, or they feel they are not growing and remain stuck in a place they do not want to be. They are not getting exposed to the range of businesses and industries they believe is necessary for growth. This common reason for people to leave is the firm’s fault for not managing their staff’s mix of clients.
Some firms have an “up or out” mentality. This can force staff to move around quicker than they are able to absorb the full experiences of their work, yet they may be expected to replicate those experiences in a new position.
Occasionally, when you hire an “outside person” and give him an “inside job,” or vice versa, the staff person is dissatisfied and leaves because they are a bad match for the work. Avoiding this kind of mismatch is part of being an alert, successful manager.
Some people leave because they do not like the jumping around from one client to another and would prefer a relatively fixed schedule that more or less repeats itself on a monthly or periodic basis. There is nothing bad about this when they leave. People have different feelings and ways they want to spend their time. Some firms require out-of-town travel to clients in different parts of the country or in out-of-the-way places, and this doesn’t work for some staff.
Many CPA firms have untenable overtime requirements, with some firms requiring staff to work 60 to 70 chargeable hours per week during a tax season that can start in the middle of January and run through April 15. This means no personal life or activities for one quarter of the year.
Many firms that have successfully recruited diverse staff do not have similar diversity of representation in higher management or partnership positions who can serve as mentors and coaches, provide a role model, and demonstrate potential growth opportunities. This does not mean that staff are discriminated against, but that they just do not picture themselves filling a long-term leadership position. Seeing others in prominent positions at the firm can lead staff to believe “yes, it’s possible,” and help encourage individual fulfillment.
Some people leave because they do not like their boss. People do not work for a “firm”; they work for a person—if they do not like that person, they will leave. One time, a friend told me their daughter was going to leave public accounting because she hated her boss; she loved the work but found it very unpleasant to work at that particular large firm. I told her to speak to the firm’s regional managing partner. She was retained and transferred to another office that was the same distance from her home, but in a different direction. She stuck it out and made partner in that firm.
I believe many people leave public accounting because they are not aware of the growth opportunities, including a path to partnership. This can be more difficult in smaller firms because of limited staffing or client and firm growth, but larger firms should make staff aware of growth prospects and also of their future salary potential. A new hierarchy has developed, with imaginative categories of partners and positions for those without an accounting degree. Senior management at firms has traditionally been weak in promoting these opportunities, but I see this changing rapidly.
There are those in public accounting who do not aspire to become partner but like the work and are good at it, and like their position within the firm and view that as the pinnacle of their career path. These people should be encouraged to remain with the firm and in public accounting.