In Brief

For years, the public accounting sector has been characterized by high employee turnover. In the past few decades, public accounting firms have implemented work-life balance practices as part of their attempts to curb excessive turnover. Previous research shows that the use of such practices in other industries served to significantly decrease employee turnover and increase job satisfaction. Despite the implementation of these practices in U.S. public accounting firms, however, turnover has continued to increase. The author’s research found that conflict surrounding work-life balance practices, and perceptions of unfair treatment with regard to their application within a CPA firm, were directly correlated to employee turnover intentions.

* * *

For many years, public accounting firms and accounting academics alike have attempted to address the known problem of employee turnover within the profession. These concerns have yielded more than 100 published research studies dating back to 1973, making employee turnover one of the most heavily studied topics in the accounting literature (H. Nouri and R.J. Parker, “Turnover in Public Accounting Firms: A Literature Review,” Managerial Auditing Journal, vol. 35, no. 2, pp. 294–321, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1108/MAJ-03-2018-1823). As a result of continuing high turnover (and possibly in response to the growing body of reported research), public accounting firms began taking steps meant to increase job satisfaction and organizational commitment, thereby intending to decrease employee turnover. A mainstay of these policies has been a focus on greater work-life balance, with firms continuing to tout alternative work arrangements (AWA) as one of the major incentives available to employees (J.C. Anderson, “Accounting Recruits’ Perceptions of Alternative Work Arrangements and the Effects upon Formal and Informal Measures of Performance Evaluation,” Journal of Business and Accounting, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 22–41, 2020). The implementation and utilization of work-life balance practices (WLBP) has been shown to not only reduce turnover rates and stress, but also to increase job satisfaction and productivity in most industries (I.M. Martínez-León, I. Olmedo-Cifuentes, M.E. Sánchez-Vidal, “Relationship Between Availability of WLB Practices and Financial Results,” Personnel Review, vol. 48, no. 4, pp. 935–956, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1108/PR-12-2017-0402). Yet despite many of these WLBPs being in place, the public accounting profession continues to experience extremely high rates of employee turnover (S. Johnson and B. Pike, “Employee Retention: The State of Engagement in Public Accounting Firms and Why It Matters,” The CPA Journal, vol. 88, no. 12, pp. 64–66, 2018). A recent study found that turnover at CPA firms with revenues exceeding $75 million is 17%, whereas 1 in every 6 firms experiences annual turnover of 20% or more (Johnson and Pike, 2018). Given that the direct costs associated with replacing a staff member can be as much as 50–60% of the employee’s annual salary, there are great incentives to examine the causes of high rates of turnover (Johnson and Pike, 2018). One such study investigated high turnover as it pertains to millennial employees, those born between 1981 and 1996 (J. George and S. Wallio, “Organizational Justice and Millennial Turnover in Public Accounting,” Employee Relations, vol. 39, no. 1, pp. 112–126, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1108/ER-11-2015-0208). That study revealed that organizational justice theory—which describes an employee’s perception regarding fairness within their organization—is the best indicator of turnover intentions. This perception of fairness or organizational justice has been shown to have an instrumental effect on burnout, job satisfaction, job commitment, stress, actual employee turnover, and turnover intentions. Several work-related factors—including salary, promotions, performance appraisals, work assignments, work arrangements, and mentoring—can impact organizational justice for employees.

The main focus cited by these individuals pertaining to feelings of unfair treatment revolved around disproportionate distribution of hours among employees, preventing some individuals from being able to take full advantage of WLBP.

The Problem

Limited research has explicitly examined the relationship between WLBP and turnover in the accounting profession. Although one study specific to public accounting firms did in fact find that employees in an AWA had greater job satisfaction and lower turnover intentions, burnout, and stress compared to those on a traditional work schedule, it did not examine any potential negative consequences of the AWA (J. Anderson and H. Smith, “An Analysis of Alternative Work Arrangements to Address the Gender Gap in Public Accounting,” Journal of Business and Accounting, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 87–104, 2019). Those negative consequences include co-workers rating employees participating in AWAs as having a lower likelihood of professional success, experiencing higher anticipated turnover, and being less likely to be chosen for subsequent engagements than those not working in an AWA. This indicates that there may be some type of conflict existing between employees who utilize AWAs and those who do not. Other studies have reported that participation in an AWA negatively influenced perceptions of long-term career potential. Those who were in an AWA were seen by their peers as more likely to perform poorly, less likely to be chosen for special projects, more likely to be given less challenging work, and less likely to be promoted. Those individuals who were actually participating in an AWA, however, were found to express no negative perceptions of their long-term career prospects, indicating some type of potential conflict—or at very least differing expectations—between staff members. In addition, conflict may exist between management and staff, as research has found that although an AWA does not impact formal evaluations, it does appear to influence informal evaluations.

Additional conflict may result amongst staff, and between staff and management, as feelings of resentment and unfairness may arise towards those participating in an AWA by non-participants (Anderson and Smith, 2019). One survey found that 40% of employees felt resentment towards peers who receive “family-friendly benefits” like an AWA if those practices did not help them personally (Anderson and Smith, 2019). Interviews with Big Four employees found similar evidence of resentment and feelings of injustice towards those participating in an AWA. In addition, managers indicated that they have more difficulty managing employees participating in an AWA compared to those following traditional work schedules.

Unfortunately, whereas most U.S. public accounting firms now offer WLBP including AWAs (Anderson and Smith, 2019), high turnover rates still plague the field. Public accounting firms have implemented initiatives that should reduce turnover, but the expected benefits have not manifested themselves (George and Wallio, 2017). No research to date has sought to explain why these WLBPs are not helping to reduce employee turnover within the public accounting profession. As WLBPs are still fairly new in public accounting firms, and still an emerging research stream, Nouri and Parker (2020) suggested that addressing the significant and long-term problem of turnover in public accounting firms would require future research on more favorable WLBP.

The Research

The participants in this survey were employees of a mid-sized regional public accounting firm located in western New York. These participants included employees from all levels, including staff accountants, senior accountants, managers, and principals. In addition, these participants cover all service areas of the public accounting firm, including tax, audit and assurance, business advisory, and accounting support. The firm surveyed has approximately 130 employees of varying ages, genders, races, years of experience, and positions; their ages ranged from 23 to 67 years old. Those individuals also ranged in experience, with some having less than one year whereas one individual had more than 45 years in the field.

Interviews and surveys were administered to a blind sample of the overall employee population. The interview asked a number of open-ended questions with follow-up questions guided by the participants’ previous answers. Once the interviews were completed, the participants were sent a 15-question survey that was utilized to confirm the data gathered during the interview phase and avoid any “misunderstanding” by the researcher. A blind sample of 25 participants was initially selected. Based upon the idea of data saturation in qualitative research, after conducting the initial interviews, expanding the sample size was not necessary. (Data saturation is the point in a research process where enough data has been collected to draw necessary conclusions, and any further data collection will not produce any new or emerging themes.)

Findings

All interviewed participants were aware of, and able to provide specific details pertaining to, the WLBP offered by the firm. The availability of WLBP is consistent with the literature, which shows that work-life balance opportunities including an AWA continue to be universally pushed by public accounting firms as major incentives for motivating and retaining employees (Anderson and Smith, 2019; Anderson, 2020). Although not at all surprising, it is imperative to the rest of the thematic findings to show that participants do in fact know of, and understand the benefits provided by, their employer. To ensure that participants were accurate in their depiction of these practices, prior to conducting interviews, copies of the flexible work hours policy, the alternative work policy, and a remote work policy that are provided to employees were distributed to interviewees. These policies detailed the specificities of the WLBPs and provided an insight into how, at least in writing, the firm views WLBP. In addition, all interviewees utilized either the flexible work or remote work policy; in fact, 92% indicated that they make use of both flexible time and remote work arrangements.

Unfortunately, this is where the similarities amongst almost all employees ends, as 40% of interviewees felt that the firm’s WLBPs are not administered fairly across all employees. Although the existing literature points to women as being the primary beneficiaries of WLBP, an unexpected finding in this study was that men, not women, overwhelmingly felt as through the practices are not administered fairly. Of the participants who felt that WLBPs were unfairly applied, 70% were men (Exhibit 1); 66.7% of those who felt that the practices were fairly administered were women. It is important to note that these findings are not due to a skewed gender sample, as the sample size was equally distributed between men and women (Exhibit 2).

Exhibit 1

Gender/WLBP Administered Fairly Crosstab

Participant; Men 12; Women 13; Total 25 WLBP administered fairly; 33.33%; 66.67%; 100.00% WLBP not adminis tered fairly; 70.00%; 30.00%; 100.00% Total (unique); 48.00%; 52.00%; 100.00%

Exhibit 2

Job Title by Gender

Participant; N=25; Total Men = 12; 12 Job Title = Staff; 3 Job Title = Senior; 4 Job Title = Manager; 2 Job Title = Principal; 3 Female = 13; 13 Job Title = Staff; 4 Job Title = Senior; 4 Job Title = Manager; 3 Job Title = Principal; 2 Total; 25; 25

From those participants who felt that WLBPs were not administered fairly, additional themes also emerged. A majority (70%) of respondents who did not feel that WLBPs were administered fairly provided reasoning centering on disproportionate hours in relation to their peers and others in the firm. Half of the participants (50%) who felt that WLBPs were not administered fairly blamed their supervising partner or principal. For instance, one participant said that although there is a policy, “you still hear comments from certain partners on why this person is working from home, and they need to be here, etc.” In addition, a different participant indicated hearing that “partners intimidate staff to make them feel like they can’t use their benefits.”

Building on participants’ responses that WLBPs are not fairly administered by supervising partners or principals, a similar theme emerged from the data pertaining to the lack of support from management for these practices. When interviewees were asked if partners and management support WLBP, 48% indicated that they do not feel the practices are supported. Many participants expressed that although the policies are written and provided to employees, a number of partners’ actions indicate that they do not support or are not aligned with those written policies. One participant succinctly stated that “for me, actions speak louder than words, and I just haven’t seen that.” In addition, a few of the respondents pointed to direct comments from partners or management to them indicating that they do not support the policies fully.

Perceptions of conflict, organizational injustice, and turnover intentions were higher among men than women.

Gender also played a significant role among those who did not feel as though the policies were fully supported by partners. Among participants who indicated that they felt that WLBPs were not fully supported by partners, 75% were men (Exhibit 3); conversely, of those who felt that WLBPs were fully supported by partners and management within the firm, 77% were women. Age or generational differences also began to emerge regarding whether WLBPs were supported by the firm. More than 71% of individuals age 30–39 (i.e., millennials) felt that WLBPs were not fully supported by the firm, whereas only 50% of those age 40–49 and 33% older than 57 agreed (Exhibit 4).

Exhibit 3

Gender/WLBP Supported Crosstab

Participant; Men 12; Women 13; Total 25 WLBP supported; 23.08%; 76.92%; 100.00% WLBP not supported; 75.00%; 25.00%; 100.00% Total (unique); 48.00%; 52.00%; 100.00%

Exhibit 4

Age/WLBP Supported Crosstab

Participant; Age <30; Age 30–39; Age 40–49; Age 50–56; Age >56; Total WLBP sup ported; 61.54%; 28.57%; 50.00%; 0.00%; 66.67%; 52.00% WLBP not supported 38.46%; 71.43%; 50.00%; 0.00%; 33.33%; 48.00% Total (unique); 48.00%; 52.00%; 100.00%; 0.00%; 100.00%; 100.00%

Finally, it was found that these identified issues lead to conflict within the firm. For purposes of this survey, participants were given the following definition: Conflict is often the result of “a misalignment of goals, motivations, or actions between two parties that can either be real or perceived” (M.L. Cooper, M.E. Knight, M.L. Frazier, and D.W. Law, “Conflict Management Style and Exhaustion in Public Accounting,” Managerial Auditing Journal, vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 118–141; https://doi.org/10.1108/MAJ-09-2017-1643, p. 123, 2019). This may be the result of a difference of opinion, a harsh word, or a direct action meant to resolve an issue at hand. A slight majority (52%) of all participants identified some sense of conflict within the firm. The conflicts identified mainly were found to arise from situations pertaining to WLBP not being administered fairly. “Scheduling issues compounded by staffing issues have created conflict between seniors and managers, and managers and partners,” said one participant. Another explained feeling as though there was “underlying conflict from staff and seniors that are unable to take full advantage of the policies.” A number of other interviewees mentioned that conflict exists not only across different job titles within the firm, but also among those at the same level, mainly at the senior positions.

Perceptions of unfairness.

It is worth noting that 69% of the individuals who perceived conflict occurring within the firm (36% of overall participants) referenced feelings of unfairness, or organizational justice as the contributing factor. The main focus cited by these individuals pertaining to feelings of unfair treatment revolved around disproportionate distribution of hours among employees, preventing some individuals from being able to take full advantage of WLBP. Most comments suggested that employees at the senior level were least likely to be able to fully utilize the policies. “High performers are so inundated with work that they can’t take advantage of the policies,” stated one participant, whereas another said directly regarding WLBP, “being available to everyone is one thing, but being able to take advantage of them based upon schedule, workload, and client deadlines is another.”

Related to the conflict arising from unfairness based upon disproportionate hours scheduled or worked is the feeling that salary is not commensurate with the increased hours put in by some. Many individuals who identified these issues around organizational justice as creating conflict commented that job levels are accompanied by a salary range; however, the range is often so small that it does not make economic sense to work more, knowing that the pay range will not be exceeded until promotion. Specifically, one participant stated, “if the firm sets expectations at X, and we work Y, but are not compensated more, what’s the point?” Another participant compared the disparity in pay compared to hours worked to football players mentioning that “wide receivers don’t get paid the same thing in the NFL just because they’re all wide receivers, they’re paid differently based upon their value to the team.” The feeling from participants was that, based upon the inequality in work hours or expectations from partners, salary should be commensurate with value to the firm, not simply on years of experience or job title. Essentially, the salary itself was not the concern; rather, the salary was unfair when compared to co-workers who may work significantly fewer hours. These sentiments support previous research indicating that perceived inequality does in fact lead to conflict.

Unfortunately, interviewees also indicated that partners’ leadership style in managing salary conflicts was one of avoidance. When concerns about the inequality in pay for work were brought to one partner’s attention by an employee, the partner advised staff not to discuss salary with each other. Research has shown that a perceived avoidant conflict management style has also been shown to lead to conflict thus still leading to increased potential burnout and employee turnover (Cooper et al, 2019).

Individuals also heavily cited the inequalities that exist simply based upon which partners one may be working for. One participant commented that “some partners still tell staff to work late or on the weekend to meet deadlines while they leave early to go play golf.” In addition, another participant indicated that it was definitely “not fair that just because of whom you are working for, you may have to work longer hours or not being [sic] able to take advantage of certain policies, so it definitely creates a perception of unfairness.” Again, these findings are supported by the previous research pertaining to organizational justice theory and conflict.

Turnover intentions.

With regard to how perceived inequalities and conflict directly impact turnover and turnover intentions within the firm, 44% of all participants indicated that conflict and perceived inequalities from these WLBPs either caused them to leave their previous firm, or consider leaving their current firm.

Of those participants who indicated turnover intentions, 78% indicated the existence of conflict due to perceptions of organizational justice as a reason, far above any other factor. In comparison, only 54% identified conflict in general, 70% felt as though WLBP was not administered fairly, and 50% felt as though WLBP was not fully supported by partners as reasons for their turnover intentions.

When examining conflict, organizational justice, and turnover intentions closer by variable, gender patterns continue to be a focus. Perceptions of conflict, organizational injustice, and turnover intentions were higher among men than women, with 69% of those who identified conflict were men (Exhibit 5). In addition, 78% of participants who referenced organizational justice issues as pertaining to the conflict were men. Finally, men comprised 88% of those who considered leaving the firm due to conflict.

Exhibit 5

Gender/Conflict, Organizational Justice, Turnover Intentions Crosstab

Participant; Men = 12; Women = 13; Total = 25 Conflict; 69.23%; 30.77%; 100.00% Organizational justice; 77.78%; 22.22%; 100.00% Turnover intentions; 87.50%; 12.50%; 100.00% Total (unique); 64.29%; 35.71%; 100.00%

Pertaining to age, generational differences continued to emerge within the data regarding conflict, organizational justice, and turnover intentions as well. Participants who perceived firm conflict were heavily weighted towards younger employees, with 46% of participants identifying conflict being under age 30 (Exhibit 6). In addition, 38% were in the age range of 30–39, whereas only 8% were age 40–49 or 57 and older. Younger individuals tended to perceive conflict due to organizational justice issues more frequently than older people, with 56% of those under age 30 expressing this sentiment. Another 33% of those individuals were age 30–39, whereas 11% were age 40–49; no participants aged 57 and older acknowledged these types of feelings. Finally, all participants who acknowledged turnover intentions due to conflict were younger than 39, with 50% being attributed to those younger than 30.

Exhibit 6

Age/Conflict, Organizational Justice, Turnover Intentions Crosstab

Participant; Age <30; Age 30-39; Age 40-49; Age 50-56; Age >56; Total Conflict; 46.15%; 38.46%; 7.69%; 0.00%; 7.69%; 100.00% Organizational justice; 55.56%; 33.33%; 11.11%; 0.00%; 0.00%; 100.00% Turnover intentions; 50.00%; 50.00%; 0.00%; 0.00%; 0.00%; 100.00% Total (unique); 50.00%; 35.71%; 7.14%; 0.00%; 7.14%; 100.00%

To corroborate the findings from the interviews, statistical analysis was completed on the additional survey data gathered to look for any statistically significant results that would indicate a relationship between two variables that is highly unlikely to be explained by chance. Statistically significant relationships were found to exist between the perceptions of conflict surrounding WLBP and turnover intentions, as well as between perceptions of conflict due to a lack of management support for WLBP and turnover intentions—thus supporting the findings of this study. There was a statistically significant relationship found between conflict within the firm arising from perceived unfair treatment and participants who indicated turnover intentions. Finally, salary, excessive overtime, conflict, organizational justice, and lack of fulfillment by work all showed statistically significant correlation with turnover intentions.

Recommendations for Further Study

The survey, although only one case study with a relatively small sample size, found that men were far more likely than women to express unfairness about the way in which WLBPs were implemented; they were also more likely to express the sentiment that WLBPs were not fully supported by the firm’s partners. In fact, 70% of those who indicated that WLBP was not fairly applied across the firm were men. In terms of gender, 75% of those who felt as though WLBP was not fully supported by partners were men. Significant gender differences were also found in examining participants’ identification of conflict, organizational justice issues, and turnover intentions within the firm. Regarding conflict within the firm, 69% of those who felt as though conflict arose within the firm surrounding these WLBPs were men. In addition, 78% of participants who referenced organizational justice issues or issues of unfair treatment surrounding this conflict were men. Finally, an overwhelming 88% of interviewees who indicated that they had considered leaving the firm due to conflict were men. These findings merit further study, as they raise concerns as to whether firms have been more likely, at least in the eyes of their male employees, to accommodate females in the work-place, presumably in part to increase the number of female partners—a longstanding goal of both the AICPA and the profession in general.

Curbing Turnover through Fairness

For partners and those charged with the management of public accounting firms, changing how they manage, lead, and understand staff is paramount to curbing the excessive turnover that continues to plague the sector. The present survey was never intended to identify any certain cause, nor was it intended to point any fingers, but was simply intended to provide relevant information in order to help address the continuing turnover issues plaguing the profession. The implementation of WLBP has obviously not been enough, as turnover continues to increase—in large part due to these practices not being administered fairly, or not being perceived to be administered fairly mainly by younger (millennial and Gen Z) employees. As previously detailed, organizational justice plays a significant role, especially with younger employees and their perspective turnover intentions. The old ways of simply telling employees that they should not discuss salary or hours amongst each other and that “life isn’t fair” will not work any longer. Employees today compare salaries, bonuses, hours worked, hours scheduled; their superiors’ verbal and physical reactions to time-off requests; their use of WLBP and anything else that happens in the workplace—as is their right.

It is not simply lack of salary or excessive overtime that drives turnover intention. It is the fact that the lack of salary or excessive overtime is seen as unfair compared to their counterparts in some way, which in turn creates conflict. The combination of that perceived inequality and the conflict surrounding such is the true driver of turnover. Again, it is worth noting that 78% of surveyed individuals who indicated that they have considered leaving the firm, also indicated the existence of conflict due to perceptions of unfair treatment—that figure cannot be ignored. In order to begin to increase job satisfaction and thereby decrease turnover within the profession, CPA firms must make every effort to eliminate conflict between employees by leveling the playing field. Based upon the structure of most traditional public accounting firms, this is undoubtedly a monumental task. CPA firms must get real and true buy-in of WLBP and attempt to eliminate the perception of any unfair treatment from each and every partner. Those firms able to do so will undoubtedly have a strategic competitive advantage in recruiting and retention in one of the tightest employment markets in history. As Patrick Lencioni stated in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Wiley, 2022): “If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.”

Mark Nickerson, CPA/PFS, CMA, is an assistant professor of accounting in the school of business at the State University of New York at Fredonia and operates Mark A Nickerson CPA PLLC in Buffalo, N.Y.