Here in the UK, businesses have spent the past few years scrambling to make plans for the coming split from the European Union. In the accounting industry, that all-consuming topic carries no shortage of consequences, from regulatory changes all the way to the potential need to restructure entire firms.
From inside the Brexit haze, however, it's easy to lose track of the myriad other issues that confront the modern accounting industry in the UK, and one of them is the rapidly worsening labour shortages within the sector.
It's true, of course, that when it comes to the labour pool, Brexit is making a bad situation even worse. The fact remains, however, that the UK has been facing the makings of a severe labour shortage across all industries owing to our rapidly ageing population, Brexit notwithstanding. Unfortunately, it's also an issue that's made even more troubling by a tendency towards ageism within UK firms. That's why today's accounting firms are going to need to tackle ageism in their workforces and hiring practices to prepare themselves for the new reality they'll soon face in the labour market.
A widespread problem
Ageism in the modern workplace is something that frequently goes unnoticed – and unreported – despite how often it occurs. According to a recent study, one in ten workers over 50 years of age have faced some form of age discrimination in the UK, which is a number that should be cause for concern for any human resources department. For accounting firms here in the UK that have not yet begun to grapple with the issue, time is already a factor, especially if the most disastrous of Brexit outcomes come to pass. That means the time is now for every UK accounting firm to begin a systematic review and create a strategic roadmap to combat the issue before it cripples their ability to compete. A comprehensive plan should include the following items:
Flexible work arrangements
One of the difficulties many employers face when managing an ageing workforce is that they don't do enough to accommodate the needs of older workers. One of the realities that older workers face is the need to attend to familial responsibilities like caring for sick or homebound parents. It's a good idea to expand flexible work arrangements to help older employees cope with such situations, even for those without the statutory right to request such accommodation.
Managing health-related issues
As workers age, their propensity for developing long-term health issues increases. In general, many older employees avoid disclosing such problems to employers for fear of job loss or other career-related reprisals. Creating a clear, comprehensive policy regarding in-office health support can go a long way towards preventing older employees from leaving the workforce early due to medical issues, and help to encourage clearer communication from those employees regarding their ongoing needs.
Encouraging transparency in recruitment
Keeping older employees in the fold is one thing, but recruiting older employees is another. There are subconscious biases that tend to limit the hiring of older candidates such as a belief that older workers have less to offer in their chosen field. In reality, the opposite tends to be true, so adopting an age-positive recruiting strategy and making the hiring process as transparent as possible helps to ameliorate the problem.
Building an age-inclusive environment
It's important to communicate to all employees that age-diversity is a strategic goal of the firm and to elaborate on the many benefits that it entails. That will make it known that age should never be a factor in business decisions at any level of the firm, nor will age-related discrimination be tolerated. Also, employee development and training opportunities should be encouraged and open to employees at all ages and career levels to facilitate equal opportunities for growth.
Making the transition
Regardless of how Brexit ultimately works out, the accounting industry here will need to come to grips with the rapidly changing face of the population, and therefore, the labour pool. Taking steps to enact the policy provisions enumerated here will go a long way toward preparing UK firms for the inevitable transition they will have to make as their workforces age. With the clock already ticking, it's essential for thought leaders in the industry to make a point of addressing this issue sooner rather than later, or risk exacerbating what is sure to be the greatest challenge that UK accountancy firms will face in the coming decades.