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Recruiting Top Talent: Why Firms are Getting Serious about Their Employer Brands

by Chris Baudler, MBA, MA, CSSBB | Feb 14, 2017
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Hiring CPAs has once again been ranked by Manpower as the 7th most difficult job to recruit for. For almost a decade, demand for high quality accounting talent in Washington has been growing, and firms are experiencing unprecedented difficulty finding experienced and collegiate-level candidates. For most firms this has become an economic recipe for painfully slow growth and missed client engagements.

With so much competition for top accounting talent, job candidates are asking two very tough questions, and many firms are struggling to provide answers.

“Why should I come work for you?” and “How does your firm stand out from other firms?”

Standing Out in a Competitive Market

We recently asked a firm’s Director of Recruiting why top talent should come work for his firm, and his response was five seconds of dead silence, a long exhale, and an almost imperceptible shoulder shrug. After 14 years leading his firm’s recruiting function, he was at a loss for words to explain how his firm stood out from the competition.

Over the last four years his Seattle-based, mid-sized firm experienced unprecedented levels of difficulty filling their open seats with high quality and diverse, experienced and collegiate level accountants. His firm tried every recruiting and HR best practice they came across to entice qualified accountants to apply. Some of the best practices included offering:

  • Top-notch training
  • Flexible work schedules
  • Above average salaries
  • Personalized career paths
  • Involvement in communityoutreach
  • Mentoring programs
  • Career-life balance
  • CPE reimbursement
  • Signing bonuses

Unfortunately, despite all of the firm’s efforts there was little change in their number of applications, and the problem only seemed to be getting worse.

Challenges in Recruiting Top Talent

In the last five years we have interviewed hundreds of recruiters, COOs, and partners to better understand how they were managing staff and the challenges they were experiencing. Without exception, every one of them believed their firms were providing excellent workplace cultures that were values driven, collaborative, development focused, community-centered, and very rewarding for employees. Many of these firms were even recognized as “employers of choice” by Inside Public Accounting’s Best of the Best and Great Places to Work. Also without exception, every one of them was still struggling to recruit talent.

Industry Recruiting Woes

Highly-touted best practices such as those listed above have become par for the course. In fact, in a recent comparison of 340 accounting firms across Washington and the US, we found 95% of them tried to entice potential job applicants with all or some of these benefits. Many firms have once again found themselves struggling to communicate to applicants what makes their job offers unique, but most only find themselves digging deeper in their pockets for more pay or more extravagant perks.

Many forward-thinking firms are once again reevaluating how they approach recruiting, and looking for a way out of the vicious cycle of “one-upping” competitor’s pay and perks. For some, the future of their firm depends on it.

A Glimmer of Hope

Amongst the 1,923 registered firms in Washington, a handful are bucking the trends and growing at a considerable rate. We have worked with six firms who have grown their staff between 10% and 20% over the last year, all without compromising on the quality of new hires, or offering outlandish salaries or gimmicky perks. These firms became “talent magnets” by developing and implementing unique and meaningful employer brands. This branding created an almost endless supply of high quality, experienced and collegiate level applicants, saving them thousands of dollars in recruiting expenses and hundreds of hours in time.

The following sections provide more information on what employer brands are, how they attract talent and provide value to firms, and specific steps your firm can take to develop their own brand.

What is an Employer Brand?

An employee-facing brand is a comprehensive, marketing-infused HR strategy that communicates a clear and attractive message to job candidates about a firm’s culture, why it’s a desirable place to work, and how the firm’s job opportunities stand out from competitors. Coincidentally, communicating these points are also where most firms currently struggle.

According to Harvard Business Review, employer branding is, “an organization’s reputation as an employer, as opposed to its more general corporate brand reputation… defined by the key benefits, or value propositions, offered by the company as an employer.” (“CEOS Need to Pay Attention to Employer Branding.” HBR, 2015.)

Over the last couple decades, employer branding has become highly revered by the technology, insurance, banking and pharmaceutical industries due to its immediate and lasting effects on recruitment. Only recently has this strategy been adopted in the accounting industry, but the effects are already being felt. One firm was able to increase job applications by 2000%, improve offer acceptances by 80%, and reduce cost-to-fill by 80%. Many firms are also able to indefinitely cut their expensive recruiting services like LinkedIn Recruiter, Accountingfly, and external staffing agencies.

While employer branding is not a “cure-all” for ailing firms with less-than ideal workplace cultures, it is highly beneficial for those firms who have already invested the time and money to satisfy candidates’ and employees’ basic (and even advanced) employment needs.

How to Develop Your Employer Brand

The following four steps will allow your firm to attract higher quality candidates in less time, with less hassle, and with a lot less money:

  1. Interview and survey current employees and recent hires to better understand what influenced them to join your firm. This will help you better understand what is attractive (and not so attractive) about your firm. Also, review materials from competitor firms to learn how they are “marketing” their job opportunities.
  2. Create firm-specific statements that resonate with your job candidates and employees. Develop three to five brand statements based on cultural values and experiences unique to your firm, and meet job candidates’ needs, values, and desires. Keep the statements simple, aspirational, and attractive to candidates, yet grounded in the reality of working for your firm.
  3. Integrate brand statements into all candidate-facing communications to create consistent brand messaging. The best firms realize top talent may not even make it to their career page if job postings or brochures do not provide messaging that is unique, meaningful, and consistent across mediums.
  4. Champion your current staff members to create and share complimentary, “real-life” messaging. This step is critical for the successful implementation of an employer brand. Your staff members’ perspectives will resonate with job candidates in a way no recruiter, HR employee, or partner can. Your staff knows what it is like to work for your firm, and can tell stories that will bring your employer brand to life. Advocate for your employees to write white papers, case studies, and day-in-the-life articles to share with their network and the community.

Conclusion

As many firms in Washington continue struggling to attract top talent, firms are standing out from competitors by developing strong employer brands. These brands communicate how their job opportunities are unique, meaningful, and worthy of a candidate’s consideration. This approach has immediate and lasting effects on recruitment – all without compromising on the quality of new hires, or offering outlandish salaries or extravagant perks.

Chris Baudler, MBA, MA, CSSBB

Chris Baudler is a Partner and lead consultant in The Robby Group’s People Strategy practice. He is an expert in creating iconic, passion-driven, and attractive employer brands that communicate meaningful candidate and employee experiences. You can contact Chris at chris@therobbygroup.com.

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