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Recently, some Starbucks and Amazon units voted to unionize. I have read quotes from management saying that all of their employees’ problems could have been solved. It’s not about those companies, it’s about accounting firms and how they treat their staff.

Quality of life has always been an issue, but when it’s hard to find a job, that sometimes gets pushed aside. However, if employment is easy to obtain and staff skills are transferable, quality of life becomes more important than the employment offered to them.

I believe that public accounting is a great profession and, if necessary, I could “prove” it. However, there are well-recognized downsides and these seem to be emphasized by many who leave. For me, there’s only one really bad part, and that’s the excessive tax season overtime at many companies. This seems to be endemic to all companies of a given area and size. For example, in a small town where there may be relatively little excessive overtime, this is the case for all businesses. In cities with larger companies, they all seem to have the same number of excessive hours. Sure, there are exceptions, but I think excessive tax season hours are the rule.

Agree that there are undoubtedly other areas that staff find oppressive, but excessive hours are a major reason, if not ‘the’ main reason, then definitely in the top three. So, let’s see what can be done about it. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Reduce the hours to a manageable number. Every industry or business has its seasons. We have tax season. The main difference between accounting firms and all other businesses is that everyone experiences tax season. Reducing the hours will mean that some of the tax returns will not be done. One solution is to hire more seasonal staff, train and hire interns for small returns, outsource tax preparation, implement better processes, reduce errors, and/or migrate more aggressively to digitization of the tax preparation process.
  2. Break the process into sections and have teams work on each section. For example, one team might work on rental real estate and sole proprietorships, another on complex capital appreciation transactions, and yet another on clients with multi-state income.
  3. Make better use of administrative staff who could perform many of the functions accountants need to perform.
  4. Keep everything as is, but pay hefty extra amounts for tax season work. It won’t help work-life balance, but the attitudes of staff and their families won’t feel as negative about those overtime hours.
  5. Drop off a few customers. You can choose who to drop, but narrowing down the potential client base and referral sources isn’t a common way to grow. Some customers should be dropped, such as those with very low fees with no growth potential, customers with neck pain, and uncooperative or traditionally laggards, but this should be part of your normal review process. customers and not a method for tax relief. compression of the season’s workload.
  6. Ask your professional corporations to lobby the IRS to stagger return due dates, with one-third due on April 15, May 15, and June 15. There were other pressures, but overall I think the weekly hours worked were much less.
  7. Better plan and coordinate the preparation of complicated returns with preparers and reviewers and the delivery of data to clients.
  8. Shift the work of higher level tax staff to lower levels and train them more appropriately to get that job done right.
  9. Reduce, eliminate, or lighten personnel, areas, and reasons that create bottlenecks.
  10. File extensions and make your own scaling. If this is done, then the preparation workflow needs to be managed. Too many companies are pushing extended returns to September and October, creating mini tax seasons, so it’s not working as well as it seems it would when it was intended.
  11. Push as much tax season work as you can before tax season. It’s an easy thing to do and very logical, but many companies ignore doing it “because we’re too busy” in the summer and in November and early December. Eh?
  12. Get out of the tax preparation business. Double huh?

Let’s go back to our problem of easing working conditions and improving work-life balance. If your employees unionized, what do you think the union representatives would demand? If you’re realistic, they’d be asking for more money, less tax season hours, and payment for those hours. More money is usually not needed since most companies pay the correct amounts. However, how unreasonable would the request to reduce tax season hours and be paid for those hours be? Why not take the leap, avoid such efforts and work on these two elements?
Coda: I don’t believe unionization is a threat, but I do think more reasonable hours and payment for those hours is necessary to reduce turnover and keep good people from leaving public accounting.

Do not hesitate to contact me at [email protected] with your questions about practice management or assignments you may not be able to complete.

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is a partner at WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPA. He is on Accounting Today’s list of the 100 most influential people. He is the author of 24 books, including “How to Review Tax Returns”, co-authored with Andrew D. Mendlowitz, and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition”. He also writes a blog twice a week dealing with the issues customers have with with the Pay-Less-Tax Man Blog for the bottom line. He is an adjunct professor in Fairleigh Dickinson University’s MBA program and teaches end-user applications of financial statements. Art of Accounting is an ongoing series where he shares autobiographical experiences with advice he hopes his colleagues can adopt. He welcomes practice management questions and can be reached at (732) 743-4582 or [email protected].