Art of Accounting: Employee unionization

Hanah Lopes

Recently some units of Starbucks and Amazon voted to unionize. I read some quotes from management saying that any problems their employees had could have been worked out. This is not about those companies but about public accounting firms and how they treat their staff.

Quality of life was always an issue, but when it is hard to get a job, that sometimes gets pushed aside. However, if it is easy to get a job and staff skills are portable, the quality of life becomes more important than the job they are offered.

I believe public accounting is a great profession and, if needed, I could “prove” this. However, there are some well recognized bad parts to it and those seem to be emphasized by many who leave. For me there is only one really bad part, and that is the excessive tax season overtime hours at many firms. This seems to be endemic to all firms in a given area and size. For instance, in a small town where there might be relatively little excessive overtime, that is so for all the firms. In cities with larger firms, they all seem to have the same number of excessive hours. Of course there are exceptions, but I think excessive tax season hours are the rule. 

Let’s agree there are arguably other areas that staff find oppressive, but the excessive hours are a major reason, if not “the” major reason, then certainly in the top three. So, let’s see what can be done about this. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Reduce the hours to a reasonable number. Every industry or business has its seasons. We have tax season. The major difference between public accounting firms and every other business is that everyone knows about tax season. Reducing the hours will mean that some of the tax returns will not get done. A solution for this is to hire more seasonal staff, train and hire interns for the smaller returns, outsource return preparation, set up better processes, reduce errors, and/or migrate more aggressively toward digitizing the tax prep process.
  2. Bifurcate the process into sections and have teams work on each section. For instance, one team could work on rental real estate and sole proprietorships, another on complicated capital gain transactions, and yet another on clients with income from multistates.
  3. Make better use of administrative staff who could perform many functions the accountants need to do.
  4. Keep everything as is but pay very high added amounts for tax season work. This will not help the work-life balance, but the staff and their families’ attitudes would not feel as negative toward those added hours. 
  5. Drop some clients. You can pick and choose who to drop, but shrinking the client base and possible referral sources is not a usual way to grow. Some clients should be dropped, such as those with very low fees with no potential to grow, pain in the neck clients, and uncooperative or traditionally laggard clients, but that should be part of your normal client review process and not a method to ease tax season workload compression. 
  6. Have your professional societies lobby the IRS to stagger return due dates with one-third due each on April 15, May 15 and June 15. When COVID drove the 2020 tax season deadline to July 15 a lot of due date pressure was relieved. There were other pressures, but on balance I believe the weekly hours worked were much less.
  7. Better schedule and coordinate the preparation of complicated returns with the preparers and reviewers and client delivery of their data. 
  8. Push down work from higher-level tax staff to lower levels and train more appropriately to have that work done properly.
  9. Reduce, eliminate or alleviate staff, areas and reasons that create bottlenecks. 
  10. File extensions and do your own staggering. If this is done, then the preparation workflow must be managed. Too many firms push the extended returns to September and October, creating mini-tax seasons, so this doesn’t work as well as it seems it would when planned.
  11. Push as much tax season work as you can to before tax season. This is an easy thing to do and very logical, but many firms ignore doing this “because we are too busy” in the summer and in November and early December. Huh? 
  12. Get out of the tax preparation business. Double huh?

Back to our problem of easing work conditions and improving work-life balance. If your employees unionize, what do you think the union reps would ask for? If you are being realistic, they would ask for more money, fewer tax season hours and payment for those hours. More money is usually not necessary since most firms are paying the right amounts. However, how unreasonable would the request for less tax season hours and payment for those hours be? Why not jump the gun, head off any such efforts, and work on those two items? 
Coda: I do not believe unionization is a threat, but I feel that more reasonable hours and payment for those hours are necessary to reduce turnover and to stop good people from leaving public accounting. 

Do not hesitate to contact me at [email protected] with your practice management questions or about engagements you might not be able to perform.

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is partner at WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPAs. He is on the Accounting Today Top 100 Influential People list. He is the author of 24 books, including “How to Review Tax Returns,” co-written with Andrew D. Mendlowitz, and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition.” He also writes a twice-a-week blog addressing issues that clients have at along with the Pay-Less-Tax Man blog for Bottom Line. He is an adjunct professor in the MBA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University teaching end user applications of financial statements. Art of Accounting is a continuing series where he shares autobiographical experiences with tips that he hopes can be adopted by his colleagues. He welcomes practice management questions and can be reached at (732) 743-4582 or [email protected].

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