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The HR problems accountants cannot ignore

Business

Staff retention, managing conflict and a host of other human resources issues impact even the smallest practice.

By Barbara Selmer Hansen7 minute read
Barbara Selmer Hansen

Accounting practices, like most businesses, are busy and their focus is on servicing their clients and ultimately making money. So some areas do not get the attention they deserve. Human resource management is a good example. It is not a money earner and it is often not top of mind, unless there is an immediate need.

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However, there are a few issues that would be familiar to most accountants.

Misguided expectations of clients

Over time many accountants have earned the reputation of being “trusted advisers” to their clients. Trusted so much that clients expect them to be across a whole raft of issues not actually related to accounting or finance.

Human resource matters have become a large area where advice is sought, especially as it relates to industry awards, entitlements and even Fair Work issues. The trouble is, these areas are usually highly complex and require an entirely different skill set and legislative knowledge.

So for many accountants it is about managing the expectations of their clients. While they are “trusted”, they cannot advise on everything and clients should look elsewhere for HR advice.

Lack of documented and compliant HR processes and procedures

Ironically, accounting practices – like countless other businesses – often have their own HR issues to contend with. Many practices start off small and therefore do not put the time and money into creating and implementing compliant HR processes and procedures. Typically, they are created on a reactive and ad-hoc basis and often not updated regularly.

This can create issues, especially when the business grows or when there are immediate requirements that need to be met or, worse, when there is a dispute with an employee that exposes the lack of compliant processes.

As a start, it is always good practice to ensure employment contracts and job descriptions are accurate and up to date, and employee handbooks are reviewed and updated regularly. They need to capture policies around COVID and mental health days, for example.

It is also important that KPIs are set and documented for all employees and that performance reviews are conducted on a regular basis in a formal capacity. Processes do not need to be as elaborate as large businesses, but they should exist in a written format.

Having compliant processes give you peace of mind, and strengthen the experience you give your employees.

Finding the right staff and keeping them

Accountants are not typically trained in how to manage staff, write a job description, determine appropriate remuneration or write a job ad. Knowing what questions to ask in an interview, how to select a candidate and what questions to ask in a reference check are also skills required.

In fact, some accountants do not even bother with reference checks at all. This happens primarily for two reasons: either because they are too busy and the position needs to be filled with urgency, or because they simply do not know what questions to ask.

Managing and leading staff is a skill, one that not everybody has. The type of management style you have will often dictate the culture of your business, big or small.

Often, accountants will look purely at the skill sets of candidates and inadvertently overlook one of the most important factors: cultural fit. Is the candidate a good fit for the business, can they get along with the other staff members? Do they share similar values and interests? There is a direct correlation between a strong company culture and high job satisfaction and retention, so it is important that cultural fit is looked at very closely during the recruitment process. Hiring staff is an important decision and one that’s critically important to get right. Skills can be taught, but cultural fit cannot.

Accountants should spend time to ensure the culture is strong by having a good hiring and induction experience for new staff members, celebrating wins, sharing losses, offering flexibility and communicating regularly and effectively with staff. Doing these simple things will go a long way to keeping your staff for the long term.

Managing conflict

No one likes conflict and accountants are no exception. It does become an issue, though, when bad hires or poor performers are not managed in a timely fashion. It has a detrimental effect on staff morale and culture, and can lead to losing good staff members in the process.

This is where having a process to manage conflict comes in handy and understanding what actions you are legally able to take. Too often action is delayed and things escalate to an untenable level.

Burnout

Burnout in the accounting sector is real. Accountants have always worked long hours but the pressures of COVID and the uncertainty it created, especially in the early days, meant accountants were working ridiculous hours to understand what government schemes were available to their clients and themselves.

Many accountants had not set up their practices to work remotely, which added tremendous stress compounded by confusion over the definition of “essential workers”.

Add to that the bushfires, floods, clients losing their businesses, homeschooling, lockdowns and relationship breakdowns and it is no wonder that mental health issues are more prevalent than ever before and burnout is rife.

What is evident from these experiences is that accountants are consciously adopting an improved work/life balance. They are increasingly getting rid of problematic clients and focusing on those who are easier, allowing them increased satisfaction in their work.

The biggest upside of the last few years has been the focus on mental health and the importance of seeking help. Thankfully, in light of this, the stigma that once attached to mental health issues has decreased significantly.  

If accounting practices are too small for dedicated HR support then it is strongly recommended that they have a trusted HR consultant that they can reach as needed for assistance. Or if it is of a legal nature, then an employment lawyer who can advise accordingly.

Barbara Selmer Hansen is the director of Impact Business Consulting. She specialises in HR support and coaching. Her website is www.impactconsulting.com.au and her email is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The HR problems accountants cannot ignore
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Philip King

Philip King

AUTHOR

Philip King is editor of Accountants Daily and SMSF Adviser, the leading sources of news, insight, and educational content for professionals in the accounting and SMSF sectors.

Philip joined the titles in March 2022 and brings extensive experience from a variety of roles at The Australian national broadsheet daily, most recently as motoring editor. His background also takes in spells on diverse consumer and trade magazines.

You can email Philip on: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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