This guest blog features Chris Camara, managing editor of the monthly INSIDE Public Accounting (IPA) newsletter. We’ve greatly enjoyed working with Chris and the IPA team on developing “The Road to Retention: Motivators and Drivers for Young Public Accounting Professionals.” In this week’s post, Chris explores common misconceptions about young professionals

The stereotypes aren’t pretty. Younger staff may view older professionals as old-school technological dinosaurs who aren’t creative or innovative. Accounting firm owners may believe they supervise a bunch of entitled, ungrateful complainers who don’t care about their work.

Millennials (21-33 years old) and Generation X-ers (34-40 years old) took exception to these broad generalizations in a survey of 723 young CPA professionals conducted last year by INSIDE Public Accounting and ConvergenceCoaching. These professionals did more than object, however. They also made numerous constructive suggestions on how the different generations can work better together.

Young professionals are a key demographic for accounting firm leaders, with projections that by 2020, Millennials will account for half of the workforce. Turnover is high, more than 20% at many larger firms, and it’s expensive. Young professionals tell INSIDE Public Accounting that firm leaders need to find ways to offer rewarding work, a plan for professional development, 21st century tools and a flexible work environment or face seeing their pool of future talent dry up.

Here’s what we learned from young professionals in analyzing the survey results, which led to The Road to Retention report.

What are the Top Misconceptions?
The mistaken impression that young professionals are “lazy” came up over and over again, more than 150 times in fact, when survey respondents were asked, “What’s the biggest misconception about young professionals?” More than a third of respondents, 36%, said firm leaders are mistaken if they think young professionals are not willing to put in the effort needed. More than 120 times, survey respondents said they’re unfairly viewed as uncaring and unwilling to work hard. They contend they’re just as committed, they just want to work differently.

Some of their (anonymous) comments:

  • “In order to make public accounting a career, a flexible schedule is key.”
  • “I do not think that flexibility is a direct reflection of whether or not someone works hard. I believe that by allowing more flexibility, a firm can help their staff achieve more and have a greater work output since they are able to work on their own time.”
  • “Professionals my age want work to fit into their lives not work to be their life.”
  • “We grew up with parents who both worked and had to miss time with their kids, or with a parent who was never home due to work, and to us it is not an ideal lifestyle.”

These professionals tell us that they do care deeply about work, but they care deeply about their families and outside activities deeply as well. Work-life balance, in fact, was the most important factor determining whether this group of emerging leaders will stay in public accounting, the survey said. When asked to comment on the needs of young professionals, Dave Finklang, a manager of tax services at Anders CPAs + Advisors of St. Louis  noted: “Just because a younger associate doesn’t want to work 2,800+ hours a year to get ahead like senior partners did, it doesn’t mean they don’t care.”

Ways For Different Generations to Work Together Better
The survey respondents also offered constructive feedback on how to overcome some of these obstacles. Firms should encourage openness, frequent communication, knowledge sharing and team work in an atmosphere that respects differences and “rewards efficiency over time put in,” as one respondent put it.

Here is a sampling of responses to the survey question,If you could suggest ONE WAY to help the generations work together more effectively, what would it be?”

  • “If management preaches work-life balance and flexible working, don't reprimand employees if they are not sitting at their desks from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week.”
  • “Have mature partners work from home for a week and young staff work from the office 70 hours a week to see the difference.”
  • “[They] simply need to learn new tricks. Paper is ancient. Digital is the future.”
  • “The older generation needs to provide clear advancement path with benchmarks that can be measured, not nebulous concepts.”
  • “I would suggest creating outcome-based accountability measures to focus on results rather than core hours.”

Flipping the Conversation
Consider this: Perhaps young people are changing jobs because the workplace culture resists change, not because they aren’t loyal. “We are likely to stay at a firm if the culture embraces changes in technology and flexibility,” says Kim Hardy, Shareholder at Ridgeland, Miss.-based Matthews, Cutrer & Lindsay who was also asked to comment on young professional needs. And perhaps instead of viewing young professionals as impatient, maybe they’re driven, committed and eager to grow.

Another respondent suggests that we search for understanding. “If we can understand how one another thinks, we can alter our form of communication and work style to work together more effectively.”

The Road to Retention offers a clear message to firm leaders. Listen to and seek to understand your young professionals. They have great ideas that can foster teamwork, loyalty and a strong culture that embraces all generations.

Order the entire report today.

Christina Camara is managing editor of the monthly INSIDE Public Accounting newsletter.