To Reduce Turnover: Align Learning With Employee Engagement

The accounting profession has always been plagued with high turnover, but now, on the cusp of the so-called Great Resignation, that turnover problem is about to get worse.

Firm leaders know all too well the economic and client service consequences of staff turnover and have invested heavily in employee engagement initiatives to stem the outflow of talent. Some leaders intuitively sense that training can somehow be deployed in ways that improve retention, but it’s an open question as to how exactly that might work.

This article describes one possible roadmap: Use learning to build and reinforce the skills necessary for employee engagement. If employee engagement truly does aid in retention (all the research suggests it does), then making these programs more effective through learning should be helpful.

What is employee engagement?

Employee engagement describes a set of employee work experiences that correlate closely with improved business outcomes such as increased profitability, a reduction in defects, and better client engagement.

The Gallup organization has been the leader in researching employee engagement for 50 years, and they’ve created a set of 12 characteristics that correlate with a set of business objectives, one of which is employee turnover. These characteristics fit into a pyramid reminiscent of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — the basic elements at the bottom create a foundation for progressively higher levels of need, culminating in personal and organizational growth.

Employee engagement hierarchy:

The 12 characteristics of employee engagement organize into a four-tiered pyramid. Like Maslow’s hierarchy, the lower levels must be established first before moving up the pyramid to address more advanced employee needs.

To address the increasingly high levels of turnover, many firms have initiated employee engagement efforts. What’s needed now is support from the learning function to increase the effectiveness of those programs.

What we’ve learned about employee engagement

Recent research by the ADP Research Institute and Cisco Systems revealed an important truth about employee engagement: Employees engage most at the team, not the organizational, level. Whether the team is a service line, an office, or a project team doesn’t matter. It’s the employee’s experience with that team that carries the most weight in defining their life of engagement and therefore the chances they remain at the organization.

The research also confirms what many of us have long known, that the team leader is the single most important determinant of the employee’s experience with the team. Gallup’s research has identified the best practices of team leaders that improve employee engagement and retention. For example, their research indicates that turnover could be reduced by 20% to 30% if team leaders:

  • Clearly communicate their expectations;
  • Take the time to understand and recognize the talents of their staff;
  • Show interest in the personal and professional growth of those under their direction; and
  • Set a high bar for work quality and hold accountable those who perform substandard work.

The good news is that all of these behaviors are easy to understand, and the vast majority of professionals are capable of becoming proficient at them. It’s not difficult to help someone learn to write review notes that hold someone accountable for substandard work while also acknowledging what they have gotten right and demonstrating a commitment to help them improve.
The bad news is that most learning curriculums do not include developing these skills that should be considered the low-hanging fruit of employee engagement. To rectify that disconnect, firms should commit to creating an employee engagement path in their competency maps and then follow through to ensure their learning and skills development programs support the revised set of competencies.

Choose the skill set for your firm

Staff retention is a firmwide problem, and firm leaders should be involved in crafting a solution. Without the buy-in and active backing of firm leadership, the chance of implementing an effective solution diminishes rapidly.

Updating a competency map to include engagement skills starts with firm leaders, including the chief human resources officer and the learning leaders to review the 12 qualities of employee engagement and consider both the data and their own experiences to choose the three or four employee engagement characteristics most directly associated with their firm’s turnover rates.

In the beginning, it’s unrealistic to target all 12 of the characteristics to be part of the learning plan. Choose a handful of those believed to be the most impactful and resolve to develop these skills firmwide as rapidly and thoroughly as possible.

The next step in the process is the most important and usually the most time consuming and difficult. Creating skills development training requires a clear vision of the desired behaviors at a fairly detailed level. It’s one thing to say your team leaders should “understand and recognize the talents of their staff,” but what does that really mean? What does that look like in practice? The creation of successful skills development programs requires answers to those questions.

Fortunately, Gallup has done a lot of the legwork. Their research over the past 50 years has resulted in the observation, description and cataloging of manager best practices for each of the 12 engagement characteristics. These best practices define the desired learning outcomes for the employee engagement path of the firm’s leadership curriculum. From there, it’s simply a matter of comparing these desired learning outcomes with the learning objectives of the organization’s existing leadership programs to identify gaps and develop a plan to fill them.

Keep in mind that nurturing employee engagement is a skill, and all the fundamentals of skill building will apply:

  • Activity-based formal classroom experiences built around case studies, scenarios and opportunities to practice the newly acquired skill; and
  • Reinforcement of the skill outside the formal classroom.

Define the target audience

Most firms save their leadership training for high-potential managers, which is understandable due to the high cost of these programs. But the findings of Cisco and ADP Research imply that firms should find ways to democratize their leadership training. If the employee’s engagement (and their propensity to stay with the organization) happens at the team level, and the primary determinant of one’s team experience is the team leader, then all team leaders must become skilled in the art of employee engagement.

Public accounting service delivery teams are fluid. Over the course of a year, a staff person may work for several different leaders; those leaders may never lead the exact same group twice. What’s more, a team leader may have as little as two years of experience, far too early for traditional leadership development programs.

That’s not to say the firm should spend thousands of dollars on leadership training for each staff person. But if the firm wants to improve retention, and if leadership believes employee engagement will increase retention, then they must push their leadership training both “down” to the staff level and “out” to all team leaders, not just those deemed “high potential.”

No perfect solution

A young professional’s decision to leave or stay is personal and driven by a complex interplay of many factors, most of which are outside the firm’s control.

That does not mean firms are powerless or should accept the status quo. Research indicates — and personal experience validates — that the firm can shape many of the experiences employees consider when making career decisions.

Honing in on the drivers of employee engagement combination with the strategic use of skills development programs can make a difference. Increasing retention and the resulting improvements to profitability, client service and service quality should justify a firm’s willingness to invest in this synergistic combination of professional development initiatives.

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