Accounting and Auditing

Hong Kong firms face fight to keep staff engaged

Employers need to be proactive in creating appropriate work environment and corporate culture

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 September, 2017, 9:31am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 September, 2017, 9:31am

Accountancy may be perceived as one of the more stable professions in terms of career pathways and general supply and demand.

But in common with other sectors, all the leading firms still have to contend with a host of evolving recruitment and retention issues. These reflect changes in the workplace, the broader economy, and the aspirations and expectations of those in and coming into the profession.

So, with the need for experienced accountants expected to remain strong in Hong Kong over the next few years, employers have to be on top of changing circumstances and stay sharp if they plan to hire – and retain – the best.

“From a CPA industry perspective, the rate of attrition among experienced employees is no longer confined to those switching to the commercial field,” says Angela Wong, human resources director at BDO. “They are also joining start-ups and fast-growing mainland Chinese companies, which are hungry for finance and accounting talent, particularly middle managers.”

Wong also points to other significant trends. Factors such as digitisation, increased regulation and enhanced ESG (environment, social and governance) reporting requirements have created new types of specialist roles. These can be in IT audit, internal control, compliance, corporate finance, or data analytics.

Our retention strategy is multifaceted to accommodate staff needs in areas like learning and development and career advancement
Angela Wong, HR director, BDO

In addition, a shift towards outsourcing certain functions by major industries has led to more temporary assignments for teams or individuals with the requisite know-how and qualifications. And all that, coupled with the impact of attitudes and ideas espoused by the millennial generation, has caused firms in Hong Kong to pay closer attention to individual preferences and goals.

“Our retention strategy is multifaceted to accommodate staff needs in areas like learning and development and career advancement,” Wong says. “There also has to be a caring and supportive culture that considers individual well-being and the importance of work-life balance.”

As illustration, she cites the firm’s revamped staff wellness programme, which includes insurance and “flexi-benefits” covering health check-ups, dental care and vaccinations extended to family members and dependants. The leave policy takes account of external obligations, allowing days off for parents with children starting infant school, for graduation ceremonies, and granting sabbaticals in recognition of long service.

The results of such initiatives are tracked by regular in-house surveys, with the latest showing a 40 per cent jump in the figure for overall staff engagement.

“At BDO, we always listen to staff; no one is merely a grain of sand in the desert,” Wong says. “Mutual support is one of our core values and something which is genuinely practised.”

Chris Joy, acting chief executive of the Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants (HKICPA), similarly refers to a membership survey published this year in confirming that demand for experienced accountants remains “pretty high”.

Medium-term prospects for the profession look promising, with new opportunities likely to result from Beijing’s global trade strategy, the “Belt and Road Initiative”, and the Greater Bay Area economic initiatives as they steadily gather steam.

That said, employers should be on their toes and suitably proactive in creating work environments and corporate cultures which answer to modern realities and ambitions.

“Changes are coming,” Joy says. “The profession is dynamic by nature with all kinds of international opportunities, and that will continue for many years to come. At the same time, firms are concerned about retaining qualified staff, so they have to accept the need to strike a better work-life balance and look at what more they can provide.”

Salary is an important factor, but much else can come into play. For example, employers should be considering flexible hours, overseas secondments, and helping staff develop careers that can branch away from standard audit and compliance work into business advisory roles.

Joy says: “We don’t see a problem with the number of entrants into the profession, and our survey showed that 58 per cent of respondents don’t plan to change jobs in the next year.”

“However, there are challenges in terms of perceptions. Technology will have an enormous impact on some of the routine work, but firms also have to use what’s available within their networks to offer worthwhile careers and make improvements for staff in other ways.”