Full-Time Mother and the Firm Perspective (Part II of II)
This article is a follow-up article to an earlier article written by Laura Whitman, CPA, MS, manager, WithumSmith+Brown, PC titled Part-Time Accountant; Full-Time Mother. In this article, Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, ABV, CFF, interviews John Mortenson, CPA, partner in charge of the Withum East Brunswick, NJ office who interviewed Laura Whitman regarding how she managed her roles and how this impacted the firm.
Follow-up to article by Laura Whitman, CPA, MS, manager, WithumSmith+Brown, PC, titled Part-Time Accountant; Full-Time Mother.
Interview with John Mortenson, CPA, partner in charge of East Brunswick, NJ office of WithumSmith+Brown, PC.
Interviewed by Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, ABV, CFF, partner, WithumSmith+Brown, PC.
Question: Laura Whitman has written about her experiences as a part-time accountant while being a full-time mother. What led you to permit her the flexibility she wanted in her job?
John: Actually, it was a no-brainer and did not involve much of a decision. Laura worked for us several years and fit in perfectly with us, our culture, and what we are trying to do with clients. When she requested some flexibility, I just told her to tell us what hours she could work effectively, and we would assign her projects and jobs to fit into the reduced schedule. She had a full schedule before she went on maternity leave, so we kept her on some of the clients she had been working with and had her transition others to other staff. The transition was seamless. The clients she transitioned off became opportunities to other staff members and with her still being employed, allowed us to transition the work to those members with no disruption to the clients. Her supervisory level remained the same and when she returned, many of those clientsâ€”those she previously served when she was full-timeâ€”were eventually re-assigned to her. Occasionally, when someone returns as a part-timer, a client will request that the part-time CPA be re-assigned to work with them; the clients understand the part-timerâ€™s constraints and they work that into their schedule. Above all, the client has a sense of continuity that they value.
Question: Laura had two more children. How did that work out with Withum?
John: When she returned after her second child, it was along the lines of the first and we fit her workload to the hours she could work. However, after she had her third child, she told me she could not work anymore. I told her that she should not stop working completely and perhaps she could work about 15 hours a week from home and that we would give her work she could do that way. I have always thought working even minimal hours allows them to keep their skills sharp and maintain relationships with partners and staff. We moved her into reviewing employee benefit plan audits which required a low number of hours on each report that she could do at home, at a time of her choosing with turnaround periods that should be easy to manage. That type of work only had her working with one person at a time for each report she reviewed. Typically, part-timers are fit in with the workload they left off at, but in Lauraâ€™s situation this time, her work was to be done at home at a schedule she wanted so there was not much for her to manage. Laura started that way at home, but we kept her office and she ended up coming in about one day a week because she said she needed some time out of her house.
Question: What happened afterwards?
John: Laura reached a point when she wanted to return on a more regular basis with additional hours, but not exactly full-time, but close and without the tax season overtime. At that same time, we started a new service areaâ€”Withum Work Flowâ€”that had grown quite rapidly, and they needed someone at Lauraâ€™s experience level, so she moved right into that. Her position requires her to manage, supervise, train, and review the work of about eight or nine people.
Question: How did it work making an exception for Laura?
John: Actually, we did not make an exception for Laura. We have been doing this since at least the early 1990s. From a business model, we have highly skilled and trained intelligent people that fit well in our culture, and by accommodating them, we get to retain their services. Attracting and keeping qualified staff is a key to the success of an accounting practice and this program allows us to keep our top talent. We are a firm comprised of individuals with lives separate and apart from our business, and forcing some of them to choose between their profession and family does not seem right or reasonable. It is important to have team members that are comfortable working here and who also have happy family lives. Whatever we can do to contribute to that, we do. That is a firmwide policy, but while talking to you, I realized that each of the four women partners in my office have worked part-time at one point in their career and right now, two are still part-time. Three of the four were working part-time when they became a partner. We have many women that are working part-time right now that you could say are on a partner track. Laura was not an exception and we are certainly thrilled we were able to accommodate her and, at the same time, benefit us.
Question: Was there an advantage to retaining Laura since she was familiar with the firmâ€™s systems?
John: There was a big advantage to retaining Laura. She â€śgrew upâ€ť in our firm, knows our commitment to exceptional client service, how we train and supervise, is smart, and knows how we do things. We also have substantial investments in all our team members. The annual CPE and in-house training, both in technical and soft skills, and familiarity with our mentoring, supervision, office and work processes and procedures represents a substantial investment. We hope our relationships with staff are long term, but that is not necessarily so in many situations. In the case of young mothers that want to remain in the profession but on a reduced schedule, it makes no sense to push them away. At some point they usually come back, and we then have them on a more permanent basis. The arrangement builds loyalty and trust in our employees. The staff are so appreciative of the flexibility we give them to raise their family, that they often are some of our most dedicated staff. It also influences our young staff who see the flexibility, and rather than leaving public accounting before they start a family, they realize that other companies may not be as accommodating, and they remain here. Public accounting is a great profession to provide work flexibility. There are many different types of work and it is not difficult to find segments of jobs that could be assigned to people that do not work a full schedule or who work remotely. For us, it is a strong win-win.
Question: What was Lauraâ€™s level and how did the switch to part-time affect her professional status and her advancement to the next level?
John: Laura is a manager and has been for quite a while (keep in mind that she worked only 15 hours a week for an extended period). Her working part-time had no effect on her status and position in the firm. However, being a part-timer has slowed her progression as compared to working a full schedule. Just to give an example, but not necessarily for Laura, if a regular progression to the next level would take three years, then someone working half-time would need to work six years, and someone working two-thirds of the time would take four years. Being part-time does not hinder the professional progression they are on, but it does make it take longer. We typically pay bonuses, and part-timers also get bonusesâ€”they are staff, work hard, and it is recognized. Usually the bonuses are in line with full-timers at similar levels, but the bonuses are adjusted to the percentage of full-time that they work. For instance, someone working exactly half-time would generally get a bonus about half of what a full-time person would get performing at the same level. If someone is scheduled to work half-time and works more than that, then everything is true upped to put them at the right pay and bonus amount. Part-timers also get regular raises on a similar scale as does everyone else. Our staff is either salaried or paid on an hourly basis and not by the project. Benefits are available to part-timers, but some are based on minimum hours worked, such as health benefits where at least 30 hours a week must be worked. We try to be fair and we think it shows since we really do not have turnover from these staff. The work part-timers do is no different than if they were full-time. They cover the entire range of servicesâ€”tax, accounting, auditing, and advisory. There are quite a few â€śLauraâ€™sâ€ť in the firm. This year already, three of our staff had babies, and three last year during the last six months, and a few more are on the way. It is really nice. We have an almost complete retention rate of those that had babies. Obviously, some might not like public accounting and they leave usually before they even get pregnant. However, those that stay, really like public accounting and our firm and they all return if they want to keep working. Sometimes they return after a few yearsâ€™ hiatus from working. We treat all of them in a fair manner and it also is strong evidence of the advantages of staying in the profession and continuing with us. Many working here become friends and they talk among themselves and what they could expect is very important to them; each person returning part-time is an ambassador for us. We have over a dozen offices and I am relating what we do in East Brunswick, but what we do is a firmwide policy and is duplicated throughout our firm.
Question: How does someone working part-time keep up with CPE and other changes in the accounting and tax world?
John: We make CPE available for all our part-timers and pay for it, and we encourage it and they all take it, so they are usually up to date. We also encourage some work, even 15 hours a week, so they remain involved in the profession and it makes it much easier when they return. If they stopped working altogether for a period of years, and do not maintain their CPE, it becomes much harder for them to reengage with the public accounting routine, which is demanding, but also very satisfying. All our part-timers are assigned typical work for their professional skill levels and are scheduled no differently than full-time staff, with time consistent with the schedule they work. There is a caveat. The client service level must be maintained. Sometimes it is necessary for them to work a little longer or on a day they ordinarily do not work. They must be somewhat flexible, just as we are with them. The clientâ€™s needs must be met. This does not happen often, but went it does, it is important. However, we have not had any issues in this regard.
Edward Mendlowitz, CPA/PFS, ABV, CFF is
partner at WithumSmith+Brown, PC and on the Quick Read Buzz editorial board. He
is also the author of a bi-weekly blog posted at
Mr. Mendlowitz can be contacted at (732)
828-1614 or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.