• Gwilym Davies

Why you’re rubbish at retaining tax talent.

Updated: Feb 16

Loyalty isn’t the same as it once was. Some even say there’s no such thing as a career for life anymore.

The skills gaps are widening. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to source the right people.

And when you get the right people, it’s becoming even more difficult to retain them.

Tax is one of the industries under pressure. In a sector trampled by legislative changes and steamrolled by an influx of progressive technology, change is bringing a need for new skills.

The thing is, we’re talking about skills that are a rarity.

Whether we like it or not, compliance work is dying. We’re on course to see AI and new tech take over most of it in the next few years. The digital wave and a new path into advisory brings with it a change in skillset. And the issue here is, most practices not only struggle to find that skillset; they struggle to nurture it in-house too. Like sharks fighting over a chicken nugget in a swimming pool, firms are battling for the same candidates. The problem is, when you finally get the candidate you’ve been searching desperately for, there’s no guarantee that you’ll keep them. That’s the issue when talent has rare expertise. There’s always a danger that they’ll jump the fence if the grass looks greener.

So, what’s the solution? How do you, as a firm, ensure that you hold on to the people you’ve fought so hard to attract?

Well, it’s not going to be easy, but I’ve put together a list of things to help that you probably hadn’t thought of before today.

1) You don’t have a clue what talent mapping is.

In short, it’s the process of identifying existing skills within your organisation, and highlighting which skills you’re missing that will be critical in the future. It’s important to emphasise that high performance does not mean high potential. Just because Barbara’s smashing fees out the park with compliance based work, it doesn’t mean she’s equipped for future changes. It’s extremely easy for a high performer to nosedive into oblivion the minute their job role takes a different course. Understanding where you lack expertise is the first step in coming up with a solution, whether that means recruiting new staff, or developing your existing workforce.

2) Your management team aren’t diverse enough

I’m not suggesting that you sack a couple of managers because you’ve just looked around your office, and realised that every one of the senior team are 45-year-old, white males, but the thing about being comfortable in a place of work is, staff need to be able to relate to those they work alongside. That includes their managers. If a female employee wonders if she’ll ever make partner due to the fact that your firm has never before had a woman in that position, you need ways to show her that she can. Otherwise, she’ll be downing that expresso, flipping you the bird, and getting on the next train to your competition’s station.

3) Untapped talent exists within your firm

Don’t have the expertise for the future of your firm? Why not put regular tests in place to find out which employees have the raw potential and drive to grow into the roles where you have skills gaps? Sure, it might take a year or so longer than if you brought someone in-house, and there’s always a danger that you’ll invest in a person’s development only for them to start flinging off applications to the big 4, but there’s also a shed load of benefits to this approach when it comes to retaining staff. Knowing that you, the employer, have a structured development programme, that you don’t shoehorn staff into positions, and that you take the time to identify employees’ key skills, will do wonders for staff morale. You may not have the skills you need for the future in your company now, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have the people that can develop those skills if given the opportunity to.

4) You pay peanuts for monkeys

“But I can’t afford to pay anymore than this,” said every practice with high staff turnover, ever. The funny thing is, those same firms are the ones spending more than it costs to buy a small island on recruitment fees and staff onboarding costs. Paying under market rate isn’t attractive in a candidate driven world with a skills shortage. It’s that simple. Yeah, staff aren’t just driven by remuneration, but having a few extra pennies in the bank can make life easier for them and, in turn, improve their overall happiness. Oh, and you can afford it because you’ll no longer be paying an agency to replace that monthly leaver in the tax team.

5) You only let partners meet clients

You’d be surprised how many firms still hold their client cards close to their chest. Shielding clients from associates is still common practice in tax advisory and accountancy. I get it. You’ve spent a lifetime building up your political capital in the industry, and you’ll be damned if you’re going to let a snotty nosed associate ruin your portfolio. Here’s the thing, though. You’re limiting their growth. Yep, they’re going to make mistakes, and maybe even step on a few toes, but if you don’t give them the opportunity to learn, they will leave you. That, I can promise. You have to ask yourself what’s worse: having to repair a few bruised client relationships, or having the chaos of finding, onboarding and training a new staff member.

6) You don’t bring in new technology

It’s understandable. You’re a 50-year-old technophobe, who spent the last few decades burrowing through the tax code and you can think of nothing worse than sitting with a client and spending half an hour trying to turn a computer on, let alone figuring out how to navigate that cloud accounting thingy. The problem is, we’re knee deep into a new age. Staff want to be up-to-date with the latest gizmos and they want to know that they’ll have the skills and experience to advance in their career. Nowadays, that means a familiarity with new tech. And, guess what? Your lower to middle tier staff are probably part of a younger generation that are used to adopting tech as part of everyday life. If you bring in some new software, let them champion it. Let them lead it. Let them teach you. That new responsibility will make them feel valued, have a direct impact on retention and stop them moving in-house or taking a running leap into the Big Four to be at the coal face of new tech. 

These are just a few of the things that I believe are key in ensuring you retain your top talent. If you don’t identify your employees’ drivers, expectations and key skills, you’ll struggle to develop them in a way that will ensure they stay with the business. Staff training is expensive, but the truth is, recruitment costs a lot more. The industry has transformed significantly. The way we view careers has changed dramatically. What we would once have termed ‘job hopping’ isn’t necessarily looked on in a negative light anymore, and a skills shortage means that we live in a candidate driven world where they will be tempted to jump ship the minute they get a whiff of a better opportunity. Keeping hold of your key hires and top performers is becoming harder than ever. Consider the above points, however, and I promise you’ll see a marked improvement in retention.

The changing landscape in tax makes it an extremely exciting career choice.

The thing is, your firm needs to adapt to keep up.

If you enjoyed this article, check out my follow up article, ‘Your Perfect Job ad‘.

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