Work-life Programs: How the Big Seven Flex

Employees at audit firms can pretty much write their own work-life script. Here's a roundup of how the seven largest firms approach flexible work a...
David McCannJuly 23, 2008

Companies looking to raid public accounting firms for talent, be warned: The talented are accustomed to a degree of flexibility in how they work that may be beyond what your corporate culture can stomach.

Many companies of all types have responded to the workforce’s growing demand for work-life balance with a raft of programs. But few have bent as far as the accounting firms. There, after only a couple years of employment, client-service staffers generally are free to work how, where, and when they want, bestowed with seemingly endless options for customizing their careers.

The firms have had little choice, thanks to a collision of demographics and regulation. Just as the paltry supply of people born during a deep trough in the U.S. birth rate began to enter the work force a few years back, Sarbanes and Oxley got together and required the testing of public-company internal controls, which helped make independent auditing a growth business. The human-capital needs of the accounting firms quickly reached the insatiability point — and that was before the new era of fair-value accounting rules and global melding of financial-reporting standards came along to brighten their star still further.

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All of that made recruiting and retaining talent the top business imperative. The accounting firms, whose approach to the workplace environment had already been fairly flexible, ratcheted up their efforts a few notches, a process that continues today.

In many cases work-life programs came about as responses to the preferences of the newest generation of workers. Why do young adults these days so boldly proclaim their desire for flexible work arrangements? “Because they can,” said Dan Black, director of campus recruiting, the Americas, for Ernst & Young. “Gen X is roughly half the population of the Baby Boomers, who are retiring. So Gen Y knows: ‘Hey, they need us.’ That empowers them.”

But the accounting firms say their flex offerings are even more important for holding on to talent than for recruiting it. “You can recruit someone with words, but if you don’t deliver on it, you’re not going to keep your best people. So this is really about retaining our top talent,” said Michael Fenlon, people strategies leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers. And, according to the firms, Baby Boomers are as enthusiastic about taking advantage of flex opportunities as anyone.

The accounting firms acknowledge that retaining talented women is a special motivation for offering flexible work arrangements. “Women are almost 60 percent of college students today, so there is an increasing number of them in the workforce. But the majority of women do not work full-time throughout their careers,” said Anne Weisberg, a director in the talent organization at Deloitte & Touche.

The firms are careful to note, though, that their flex programs are for everyone — women and men, young and old. BDO Seidman launched a “women’s initiative” in 2006 focused on better retaining and recruiting of women, and pinpointed workplace flexibility as the key driving factor. “But then we had an ‘ah-ha’ moment where we realized that flexibility is not a women’s issue,” said Sandi Guy, human capital partner at the firm. So the flex strategy that had been developed for women was pulled out of that initiative and relaunched firm-wide.

Public accounting is, of course, still a grind. The hours are often long, the expectations high. Not everyone wants to stay on indefinitely. Despite all their retention efforts, the Big Four accounting firms suffered voluntary turnover rates between 12 percent and 17 percent in 2007, according to Fortune Magazine‘s 2008 “Top 100 Employers to Work For” feature. Yet all four firms made Fortune‘s list, Ernst & Young for the 10th consecutive year and Deloitte for the ninth time in 11 years.

The big accounting firms’ work-life programs have many common elements. All, for example, allow their client-services staffers to apply for work arrangements with such non-traditional parameters as a four-day week, working from home, or not working for portions of the year. Following is a breakdown of the approaches at seven big audit firms.

McGladrey & Pullen

The menu of work-life programs at McGladrey & Pullen may differ in some respects from those of its competitors, but it is fairly typical of the breadth of work-life offerings at public accounting firms.

To apply for flexible hours, employees go to an online database where they fill out a proposal. If the proposal is judged to have a positive or neutral effect on the firm’s business, the firm’s leadership says it should be approved. “We don’t care what their reason is — we don’t even want to know. It is a business proposal,” said Teresa Hopke, worklife/talent management director at McGladrey. She noted, as did representatives of other accounting firms, that studies have shown employees actually are more productive when they can work on a schedule that best suits them.

The firm’s “flex year” option allows workers to take off a portion of the year and prorate their salary over the entire year, with full benefits. Typically people will choose not to work during the summer, according to Hopke, but time off can be taken anytime during the year, depending on business needs. “We have a guy in Seattle who’s a forest-fire fighter in the summer,” she said.

Under McGladrey’s “flex career” program, people can leave the firm for up to five years and be welcomed back into the fold. In the interim they are provided resources to help them stay connected with the organization and industry, and McGladrey will pay for any continuing education courses they take.

The firm also requires that employees, when writing their annual business goals, write a work-life goal as well. Their managers will ask about their progress against the work-life goals during reviews.

All of the programs are available to partners as well as associates. Partners are required to take a sabbatical of one to three months every five years, during which time they are disconnected from their company E-mail and phone. “At first some of them weren’t too happy about it, but that’s changed,” Hopke said.

Deloitte & Touche

Not all of the firms have such an itemized list, preferring to construe the concept of “flexibility” literally. “Rather than creating a menu of programs, what we’re trying to do is create a process that allows customization,” said Weisberg.

Weisberg, along with Deloitte’s chief talent officer, Cathy Benko, co-wrote Mass Career Customization, a book published last fall that promotes the idea that “climbing the corporate ladder” is an anachronism. Instead, it advances the notion of a “corporate lattice.”

“Mass career customization takes into account that today careers ebb and flow over time, that people will move in many different directions through organizations,” Weisberg said. “And that’s OK, because it’s already happening. This is not something we’re initiating; we’re responding to a reality that is here for us and most organizations.”

Deloitte has signed up 8,000 employees so far to a program based on Weisberg and Benko’s model. Employees fill out a customization profile in which they map out their career goals in four areas: pace, or the rate of career progression; load, or the amount of work; location and schedule; and role. The profile can be changed at any time. “The whole point is to build a model that allows the conversation with your manager to be about a career/life fit — about how your career unfolds in the context of how your life is unfolding,” said Weisberg. “Those two things are not separate at all.”

She said Deloitte set out in this direction as a way of fostering retention. “We were finding that people were leaving our firm not because of present needs but because of what they thought they might want to do in the future, and their view of their options,” she said. “Mass career customization creates tremendous option value.”


In addition to the usual assortment of flexible work arrangements, PwC offers “Full Circle,” which like McGladrey’s “Flex career” program, allows employees to leave the firm for up to five years, but stay connected to it. They are assigned a “coach” during their absence, and the firm provides any training they need to keep their credentials up to date.

The firm offers an unusually liberal 16 weeks of paid maternity leave. And “Mentor Moms” is a PwC program that pairs new moms, or moms-to-be, with another PwC mother who has already experienced juggling motherhood and career for guidance and insights.

The firm also offers two kinds of sabbaticals that last three to six months, during which employees are paid 40 percent of their base salaries. One is called Personal Growth and Development, allowing time off for education or skills acquisition; the other is Social Service, for those who want to devote time to volunteer and charitable activities.

PwC is particularly vigilant about making sure employees use their vacation time. They get E-mail alerts when unused vacation is nearing the expiration date; the same alerts are sent to their supervisors. The firm also ran an internal communications campaign called “Rest and Relaxation: The Value of Time Off.”

PwC provides 22 vacation days to employees after their first year. In the past many were hesitant about using it, but they now see the company communications, which began in 2006, as “permission to use their benefits,” said Fenlon. Taking vacation not only is good for employees, he added, but “it’s good for our clients as well, by helping our people maintain their focus, energy, and enthusiasm for the work.”


The firm says that more than 70 percent of its professionals have used some type of flexible work arrangement. Employees can pull back to a 60 percent workload, or three days a week. They can even choose to work full time three months a year, usually during the busy January-April period, and 40 percent the rest of the time.

An unusual program offered by KPMG is “shared leave,” whereby employees donate their own paid time off to employees who are faced with unexpected life emergencies but don’t have sufficient remaining vacation time. “Usually more time is volunteered than what is needed,” said Manny Fernandez, national partner in charge of university relations and recruiting.

The firm also provides 12 hours of paid time off per year for employees to donate time to community involvement.

Ernst & Young

Black said the firm commissioned a study that included 3,000 people each from Gen X, Gen Y, and the Baby Boom to determine their work-life needs. It found that all three groups had similar levels of interest in work-life balance and flexibility. “Generally speaking, it’s just a difference of why,” he said.

Of the 2,000 E&Y employees who have a formal flexible work arrangement, 85 percent are women, according to the firm. Eleven people in 2007 were promoted to partner or principal while on an FWA.

But Black said he’s careful about how he communicates the firm’s flex offerings to candidates. A flexible work arrangement is something employees earn over time, and “we do not want to convey any message to a new hire that starting Day 1 you can take off any day you want. Ernst & Young is going to give and give and give, but it’s a two-way street. There will be late hours and weekends to work in the busy season. If you don’t paint that realistic picture, there’s going to be an issue when they get here.”

The firm offers a concierge service for employees who work late or are out of town. “You can arrange for someone to walk your dog or pick up your laundry,” said Black.

BDO Seidman

The firm is currently conducting its own generational study, consisting of an assortment of focus groups and an electronic survey of all employees. It’s aimed at reappraising every policy and practice at the firm. Guy said, however, that she expects a lot of feedback on the work-life component.

Guy also said that she expects some assumptions to be proven wrong. For example, “we say we have to allow casual dress because that’s what the millennials want,” she said. “But from an anecdotal perspective, that’s not really true. Do we really need to be more casual to recruit and retain people, or do they like professional attire because this is the career they’ve chosen?”

BDO doesn’t have a menu of flex programs; Guy said the firm will allow almost any arrangement that doesn’t interfere with business needs. “People always come up to me and say things like, ‘Someone wants to work four 10-hour days, can they do that?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know, you tell me. What does their client need?’ ”

Grant Thornton

Grant Thornton, too, views flexibility as completely customized. New recruits can’t apply for flexible arrangements until they’ve been on the job for two years — and that’s just fine with them, according to Nina Guthrie, director of university recruiting.

Offering a different take than her counterparts at competing firms, she said young people are not very focused on work-life flexibility. “The new-generation students are not that way,” Guthrie said. “They don’t all want to be out of there at 5:00. They want the most challenging assignments, and they’re not worried about working more than a 40-hour week.”

The firm offers flex time (alternative starting and ending hours), compressed workweek (a full-time workload in less than the standard number of days), telework (some or all duties performed from home), part-time workload, and hybrid (a combination of some of those options).