Staff Orientation: A Little Investment Goes a Long Way

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC

I have addressed some aspects of staff retention in earlier posts. Another critical component to retention is staff orientation. Because of the accounting profession’s regulation-heavy nature, firms have provided CPE in accounting, auditing and tax updates. Why? Because adherence to rules and standards are mandatory. But what about other aspects to ensure that the firm’s professionals are given the tools and knowledge to perform at their optimal level?  We know technology is driving the workplace and will continue to expand its platform when it comes to repetitive processes and procedures. Audit sampling will become more computer driven; tax preparation has been here for years.

But acclimation goes beyond training and learning new technologies. And there are limitations on the magical powers of artificial intelligence. Accounting firm partners and managers should dispense with the notion that the younger professionals “Should already know this stuff…” whatever they think “this stuff” should be.

Don’t ever assume that new accounting professionals know anything more than GAAP, GAAS and taxes. The environmental divide between the classroom and the workplace is too broad to take for granted that someone can hit the ground running. The key to helping younger professionals is through a formal and comprehensive orientation program. The first day of exposure to anything in life—whether it is elementary school, high school, college or work—is fraught with uncertainty, confusion and stress — even though it can be exciting and stimulating.

What am I supposed to know? What will I be learning? How will I know I am doing what is expected of me? Who can I ask questions of? Where’s the bathroom? Lots of questions; the answers, however, may not be readily forthcoming. If you are involved in developing or implementing an orientation program, keep in mind the concerns your new professionals will have. Structure your orientation program to address a broad swath of issues. Anxiety and curiosity are two basic elements of human emotion and should be considered when you develop your staff orientation program.

Wait No Longer Than Day One…Maybe Start Well in Advance

There is no one right approach to a staff orientation program, but there is no argument on should exist. While you can be creative as you want, at least have a basic structure in place. A staff orientation program should begin no later than the first day of someone’s start date. In fact, consider conducting an orientation session a few weeks before the formal date of employment. This can provide a solid head start and ensure that questions are answered and expectations are set. Focus strongly on getting your people up and running; this gives the impression that you are invested in their success. When I and my contemporaries first started in public accounting, we could go a week or more before a partner or a manager plucked us from the “bullpen” to assist on some matter. Otherwise, reading a newspaper, talking, or drinking copious amounts of coffee were the options. Or, we could do what I did: study for hours for the CPA exam to get the darn thing out of the way sooner rather than later.

If you have overall responsibility for staff (whether it’s called human capital or organizational development or whatever), develop a checklist to guide you and the new employees through the orientation process. The items should cover the prosaic (e.g., the location of bathrooms and the lunchroom) to the more important (computer network and protocols, phone system, policies, payroll and benefits administration) that a new person may not immediately think about. Build on this checklist every time a new round of hires raises new questions or issues.

Save time and make the orientation programs more meaningful by including all recent hires, irrespective of staff level or department. This mutual “getting to know you” approach is targeted to all hires and everyone will hear the same information.

An added benefit is that there will be an immediate bonding of employees through a sense of belonging to a larger organization with adherence to policies and a shared commitment to clearly articulated values.

Don’t Forget to Follow Up

Staff orientation is not a one and done. For at least the first month or six weeks, human resources should schedule weekly 15 to 30 minute meetings to answer any concerns and to make sure that the there are no potential issues (of course the firm’s size and structure will dictate the frequency and duration). If someone appeared to be a “star” but there is a problem, you should take immediate action to rectify the situation, whether it is a performance or attitude problem, a miscommunication of responsibilities, or if there is a need to mentor the individual.

Because it can be costly to replace staff, orient, train and mentor, a little investment at the beginning can yield optimal performance, improved profitability, and a retention rate that other firms will envy.

About Steve

Steven Sacks is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose. Visit his website at www.solutions2results.com.