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Why favour prejudice over performance?

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Accountants are missing a trick. Everyone is struggling to recruit, but few have considered bringing back the over-50s.

6th Feb 2023
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Not so long ago, whenever I talked to fellow accountants, whether they worked for the Big Four, medium-sized practices or smaller outfits, the most common issue was the difficulty of maximising work-generating opportunities which, in turn, would hinder optimum performance and limit profit shares for partners.

More recently, the standard complaint has become the inability to recruit an adequate number of staff.

Flexibility and the skills shortage

Make no mistake, we are not just talking about finding high-quality staff but any at all. There seems to be a serious lack of availability at every level from A-level and graduate trainee through newly qualified to managerial level and, though quality becomes more critical, at partner level as well.

Offering high salary packages doesn’t seem to be enough to draw youngsters into the profession or persuade those who are well established to switch.

A slightly more nuanced approach involving offers that concentrate more strongly on work/life balance can prove attractive, especially when attempting to entice those who need (or wish) to spend more time at home with the family or hate commuting.

That impetus may be slowed as a trend develops whereby business owners such as Elon Musk and those running some of the big banks, but also partners in the firms of accountants, irrationally decide that they want staff to come into the office much more regularly.

Why is that irrational? Because such an approach seems to derive from control-freakery and will inevitably drive the very staff that you are desperate to keep and cannot replace to more enlightened competitors.

In addition, flexibility should be quite manageable and beneficial in the context of our industry. Both audit and tax compliance tend to be somewhat seasonal, while transactional work will always have peaks and troughs. Therefore, it shouldn’t be that difficult to work together with your staff to make life easier for all concerned.

Tap into the 50-plus workforce

However, I get the impression that many accountants are missing a trick. There has been much recent press coverage regarding a large number of individuals who have left the workforce, especially those in the 50 to 64 age band but also those even more senior.

I would be willing to bet a pretty penny that very few firms have thought about tapping into this market, which results from what might in some cases be unconscious prejudice. This is a ridiculous oversight.

Trainees need training and many of them will fail at the first or second hurdle, effectively representing a massive waste of time, effort and money.

If, instead, you take on someone with great experience in the older age group, the chances are that they will do at worst an adequate and, in many cases, an outstanding job without making much fuss.

As a quid pro quo, it may be necessary to adapt around their needs; for example, agreeing to part-time working and zero office attendance, other than the annual party of course. None of that should be a particular problem given a quick check on individual work ethic and performance.

Don't believe the tired tropes

One tired trope put forward in favour of the young over the old is that they will stick around longer. Generally that is a fallacy and the opposite is actually the case. Someone who is say 55 will probably be happy to spend the next 10 years with a good employer, where many newly-qualifieds will look to move on after 2-3 years.

Having just passed the end of the tax return season, surely weary accountants must realise that the opportunity to find someone willing to spend the cold, dark winter months plugging away at tax returns on a short-term contract is too good to miss. If it’s too good to miss, why are we all missing it?

There is also a possibility that those in semi-retirement might not be working exclusively for the money. Then, if it suits both parties, you might even get away with paying them at relatively modest rates via what could effectively be a zero-hours contract with no great commitment on either side.

Perhaps this is already happening, but it isn’t apparent from this accountant’s desk.

Open the door to experienced talent

If, like so many others, you are struggling to get the work done then surely it is worth dipping a toe in the water and seeing whether there might be some former members of staff, older, retired accountants in one of your wider networks or merely by tapping the recruitment market to solve your problem.

Not only will this make your life easier but also please some ministers of state at the same time by boosting the nation’s productivity.

Replies (5)

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By Hugo Fair
06th Feb 2023 13:09

Interesting, but missing the key point that so often goes unspoken (whether intentionally or because people have forgotten about it is itself a moot point).

And the missing component in the discussion is 'employment law' ... which can have a dramatic impact on otherwise logical business decisions.

This can range from trite topics like:
* younger staff typically being healthier, or at least less prone to immediate periods of medically induced non-productive employment; or
* younger staff having more recent experience of revision/examinations and so, possibly, finding it easier to cram in those 'keeping up-to-date' hours in the evenings or weekends.
How are those relevant to employment law? Well there are simple solutions that used to be available to employers, but are now off-limits due to various elements of equality law.

At the more fundamental (and no doubt contentious) end of the spectrum, from when I was an employer:
* we used to prioritise 'return to work' mums over recent graduates, simply because their dedication was second to none and they were still of a generation that understood responsibility;
* for any management role you had to be 45+, if only because that seemed to guarantee the required work ethic and the commitment/flexibility to achieve results rather than working-to-rule.
Of course both of those recruitment methodologies were firmly somewhere in the 'inappropriate or illegal' behavioural rulebook ... but then that only mattered if you admitted them in public.

My point is that using logic to drive your approach to recruitment isn't the full story because you then have to work out how to make your 'solution' at least appear compliant.
AND doing so doesn't involve anything detrimental to your staff or to your business ... but certainly will involve a lot more ducking'n'diving than worrying about WFH vs office-based positions.
Shorter days (to coincide with school pickups) and paid time-off for studying are just two examples of more effective answers - wherever the job is based.

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Replying to Hugo Fair:
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By spilly
08th Feb 2023 23:28

We love the ‘back to work mums’ - our practice is almost built on them! We offer flexible hours plus a ‘work from home if you want, work when you want’ model.
Some like to work in the evenings, other prefer the school hours.
Recruitment is not too much of an issue - as soon as you put part-time on an advert, it seems to automatically put off 99% of male applicants.
The only negative issues we’ve encountered is less availability in school holidays, and ensuring that the late hours workers remember to use the ‘send later’ email option so clients don’t realise they are working at 10pm.

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By Postingcomments
06th Feb 2023 16:29

Anyone worth having in that age group has likely found a spot that suits them - and did so long before discussing work arrangements became a thing for the media to talk about.

If someone in that age group is replying to a job ad, you're already selecting from a pool of people who, for example, don't have a strong enough network (after 30 years) to find a suitable position that way. Or be self employed/freelance in some capacity for good flexibility and good pay (ie getting to keep your hourly rate vs getting a fraction of it)

So, while I agree that there are plenty of great over 50s, I suspect that the % applying for a job will tend to be in the bottom percentiles of their group rather than the top.

But, hey, I'm letting my prejudice stop me from making millions. I'm that stubborn!

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By Susan Keane
07th Feb 2023 09:22

We have a few - worth their weight in gold!

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By CatsandDogs
09th Feb 2023 17:33

If there are any of you out there in the Sevenoaks area - please get in touch!

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