By Marc Rosenberg
To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, communication is one of those things that are hard to define but you know it when you see it.
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It’s always been my opinion that CPA firms operate much too secretly. Partners err on the side of NOT telling staff what’s going on, even in such innocuous areas as new clients, changes in health insurance, office changes, adoption of new software and the like.
Worse yet, they are vague about important things like what it takes to advance and how staff’s performance will be evaluated.
When communications are weak or break down, people start fearing the worst. Rumor mills are spawned, which leads to wasted time, morale problems and mistaken perceptions of what’s really happening. Staff wonder why important things are hidden from them.
Staff work more harmoniously with their co-workers and supervisors when people are open and honest with each other.
Communication is the elixir for silence and secrecy.
Best practices for staff communications
- Regular staff meetings
- Regular partner meetings so the partners know what’s going on and convey a consistent message to the staff
- Strategic planning: communicate what the firm’s goals are; involve staff in the process
- Intranets, blogs, internal newsletters
- Share highlights of the firm’s financial statements without revealing confidential information
- Seek the staff’s input on firm decisions
- Make sure all offices hear messages at the same time; avoid making satellite offices feel like stepchildren
- Unscheduled partner lunches with staff
- Annual staff retreat
- Update staff on important developments with clients they are working on
- Client planning meetings before the job begins
- Partners are accessible
- Engagements reviewed promptly
- Supervisors refrain from correcting staff’s work without telling them
One of the buzzwords of our time, transparency is a modern-day term for open and honest communications – disclosing information to staff rather than keeping it secret and operating in such a way that it is easy to see what’s going on.
Here are some ways CPA firms are transparent with their staff:
- Share key financial data about the firm such as revenues and efficiency metrics like realization and turnover.
- Communicate criteria for advancing to each new position, including to partner.
- Be clear how staff performance will be evaluated.
- Involve staff and solicit their input in areas such as new software adoption and changes in HR policies.
- Inform the staff that the firm will be trying to merge in smaller firms.
- Share the firm’s vision.
- When partners have key conversations with clients on projects, update the staff.
For those partners worried about transparency, here are examples of what transparency is NOT:
- Disclosing private personnel information, performance and compensation data on individuals
- Updating staff on the progress of merger discussions, especially upward mergers
- A prohibition on partners having closed-door meetings
Convening regular staff meetings is a great way to communicate with the staff. Meetings foster transparency and give staff an opportunity to provide feedback on various firm initiatives.
Here are examples of agenda items for staff meetings:
- Important developments with new and existing clients
- Marketing plans and updates
- Changes in policies and procedures
- Updates on the firm’s strategic plan
- Changes in benefits
- Changes in technology
- Public recognition of a job well done
- Personnel changes
- Results of “partner events” like retreats
- Short presentation by the staff on a technical topic
- Update from staff on outside training they have attended
Ground rules for the staff meetings:
- Attendance should be mandatory.
- Move quickly through agenda items.
- Allow plenty of time for Q&A.
A side note on technology and millennials
- They expect technology to work: make sure it does.
- Want current technology
- Want cool stuff
- Love social media
- Break out in hives at the idea of touching paper
- Prefer email over face-to-face communication
- Expect people to be accessible 24/7
Fun ideas for the staff
- Void check contest. Everyone brings in a blank check with the name and address cut off. People have to match the check style to the person.
- Crazy dress days. Everyone dresses in one color for a day. Crazy socks. Funny hat day. Luau day.
- Concierge day(s). One day a week or a month. Best suited for the tax season, when people don’t have time to run important errands.
- Dart boards.
- Golf putters.
- Internet spending spree. Tell the staff that they have a fixed number of hours to spend a specific amount of the firm’s money on the Internet. Rules: (1) They have to spend the money on themselves, (2) they have to spend it on the Internet and (3) they have to show a picture of what they bought.
- Ultimate bean counter contest. A jar is filled with some type of candy or beans and people guess the number of pieces. Prize to winner. The winner gets to keep the jar’s contents.
- Question of the day. Put a white board in the break room and every morning come up with a simple question. Alternatively, people write provocative (but tactful) things or witty quotes on the white board and co-workers add to the discussion.
- St. Patrick’s Day. Potluck lunch – everyone brings something green to eat.
- Wine tasting.
- Baby picture contest. Everyone brings in a baby picture and people guess who is who. Winner gets two movie passes.
- Gift certificates.
- Lighten-up parties. Every now and then, quit at 4 p.m. on Friday and have a social with a theme. Examples are a scavenger hunt, game day or soup/chili cook-off.
- Shopping mall spending spree. Everyone gets $100 in cash, with instructions to spend it all in 45 minutes. The one who comes the closest to spending exactly $100 gets another $100. Ground rules: You have to get something for yourself, something for the office and something for someone else.
- Friday night club. A different venue is selected each week for a 4 p.m. Friday get-out-of-the-office-and-relax bash. One popular idea is to go to a local bar that carries a trivia game on the big screen. The winning team gets a prize.
- Monthly events. Cake for Super Bowl (January), pizza and breadsticks for Valentine’s Day (February), soup and sandwiches for St. Patrick’s Day (March), Employee Appreciation Day for April 15.
- Games. Periodically, send out word searches or mazes just to give everyone’s brain a break.
- Afternoons off. One afternoon, take the afternoon off and play putt-putt golf or bowling.
- Ice cream social. Either do a party or have ice cream delivered to each person’s desk.
- Car wash. Auction off partners and have them wash the staff’s cars while they eat hot dogs and ice cream.
- Toy bowling set up in a long hallway of the office.