Accounting’s talent war: Why firms are rethinking how they attract top talent

Written on Jan 24, 2017

Public practice
By Chris Baudler, MBA, MA, CSSBB

Hiring accountants and finance staff has once again been ranked by the human resource consulting firm, Manpower, as the seventh most difficult job to recruit for. For almost a decade, demand for high quality accounting talent in Ohio has been growing, and firms are experiencing unprecedented difficulty finding experienced and collegiate-level candidates. For most firms this has become an economic recipe for painfully slow growth and missed client engagements.

With so much competition for top accounting talent, job candidates are asking two very tough questions, and many accounting firms are struggling to provide answers.

“Why should I come work for you?” and “How does your firm stand out from other firms?”

Industry recruiting woes

We recently asked a firm's director of recruiting how he would answer these questions, and his response was five seconds of dead silence, a long exhale and an almost imperceptible shoulder shrug. After 11 years leading his firm’s recruiting function, he was at a loss for words to explain how his firm stood out from the competition.

Over the last four years his Cleveland based mid-sized firm experienced unprecedented levels of difficulty filling their open seats with top, experienced and collegiate-level accountants. His firm tried every recruiting and HR best practice they came across to entice qualified accountants to apply. Some of these include:

•Top-notch training

•Flexible work schedules

•Above-average salaries

•Personalized career paths

•Involvement in community outreach

•Mentoring programs

•Career-life balance

•CPE reimbursement

•Signing bonuses

They even upped the financial ante for employee referrals, hoping this would persuade their current staff to recruit talented friends. Unfortunately, despite all of the firm's efforts there was little change in their number of applications, and the problem only seemed to be getting worse.

Challenges in recruiting top talent

In the last five years we have interviewed hundreds of recruiters, COOs and partners to better understand how they were managing staff and the challenges they were experiencing. Without exception, every one of them believed they were providing excellent workplace cultures that were values-driven, collaborative, development-focused, community-centered and very rewarding for employees. Many of these firms were even recognized as “employers of choice” by Inside Public Accounting’s Best of the Best and Great Places to Work. Also, without exception, every one of them was still struggling to recruit talent.

The firm mentioned in the introduction was twice awarded as one of those Best of the Best employers. However, their plan to grow this year by 7% was looking more and more unlikely, and it was little solace to know they were not alone.

The recruiting woes continue

Ask any director of recruiting, COO, or partner and they will tell you recruiting top talent is their first or second leading concern. They are quick to add they have found traditional recruiting and HR best practices no longer sufficient to draw the interest of top talent.

Former, highly-touted recruiting and HR best practices such as those listed earlier have become par for the course, and many firms have once again found themselves struggling to communicate to applicants what makes their job offers unique. In the end, most only find themselves digging deeper in their pockets for more pay or extravagant perks. Some firms have even gone so far as to offer car leasing programs and breakrooms complete with video game systems, ping-pong tables and nap rooms.

Many forward thinking firms have found themselves back at the drawing board to reevaluate how they approach recruiting, and for a way out of the vicious cycle of “one-upping” competitor’s pay and perks. For some, the future of their firm depends on it.

Diamonds in the rough

Amongst the more than 1,800 firms in Ohio, a handful are bucking the trends and growing at considerable rates. We have worked with eights firms who have grown their staff between 10% and 20% over the last year, all without compromising on the quality of new hires, or offering outlandish salaries or gimmicky perks. These firms became “talent magnets” by developing and implementing unique and meaningful employee-facing brands. This branding created an almost endless supply of high quality, experienced and collegiate-level applicants, saving them thousands of dollars in recruiting expenses and hundreds of hours in time.

What is employee-facing branding?

An employee-facing brand is a comprehensive, marketing-infused HR strategy that communicates a clear and attractive message to job candidates about a firm’s culture, why it’s a desirable place to work, and how the firm's job opportunities stand out from competitors. Coincidentally, these points are also where most firms currently struggle.

According to Harvard Business Review, employee-facing branding is, "an organization’s reputation as an employer, as opposed to its more general corporate brand reputation… defined by the key benefits, or value propositions, offered by the company as an employer". (See also "CEOs Need to Pay Attention to Employer Branding." HBR, 2015.)

In recent decades, employee-facing branding has become highly revered by the technology, insurance, banking and pharmaceutical industries because of its immediate and lasting effects on recruitment. Only recently has this strategy been adopted in the accounting industry, but the effects are already being felt. One firm was able to increase job applications by 3,000%, improve offer acceptances by 80%, and reduce cost-to-fill by 60%. Many firms are also able to indefinitely cut their ties to expensive recruiting services like LinkedIn Recruiter, Accountingfly and external staffing agencies.

How to develop employee-facing branding

The following three steps will allow your firm to attract higher quality candidates in less time, with less hassle and a lot less money.

1. Create firm-specific statements that resonate with your job candidates and employees. Develop three to five brand statements based on cultural values and experiences unique to your firm, and that meet job candidates’ needs, values and desires. Keep the statements simple, aspirational and attractive to candidates, yet grounded in the reality of working for your firm.

2. Integrate brand statements into all candidate-facing communications to create consistent brand messaging. The best firms realize top talent may not even make it to their career page if their job postings and brochures do not provide messaging that is unique and meaningful. Integrate your branding into all candidate-facing communications to create an attractive and uniform applicant experience.

3. Champion current staff members to create and share complimentary messaging. This last step is critical for the successful implementation of an employee-facing brand. Your staff members’ perspectives will resonate with job candidates in a way no recruiter, HR employee or partner can. This is one reason why online company review sites like Glassdoor.com are frequented by more than 80% of job candidates before they apply. Your staff knows what it is like to work for your firm, and can tell stories that will bring your employee-facing brand to life. Advocate for them to write white papers, case studies and day-in-the-life articles to share with their network and the community.

As many firms in Ohio continue struggling to attract top talent, some firms are standing out from competitors by developing strong employee-facing brands. These brands communicate how their job opportunities are unique, meaningful and worthy of a candidate’s consideration. This approach has immediate and lasting effects on recruitment – all without compromising on the quality of new hires, or offering outlandish salaries or extravagant perks.

Chris Baudler is a partner and lead consultant in The Robby Group’s People Strategy practice.

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