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Study Finds an Uncertain Future for Customized Work Arrangements in the Accounting Profession

June 7, 1998

 

WALTHAM, MASS.-The accounting profession is at a critical juncture, report researchers at Bentley College in a new study funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Changes in the profession have given firms stronger incentives than in the past to retain experienced professionals. Moreover, the recent tight labor market has given accountants greater negotiating power when it comes to asking for work arrangements that help balance professional and personal lives. Accounting firms must rethink their ways of doing business to remain attractive to professionals who want non-traditional work arrangements.

The findings are reported in "Customized Work Arrangements in the Accounting Profession: An Uncertain Future," a study by Elliott S. Levy, associate professor of accountancy; Patricia M. Flynn, dean of the Bentley Graduate School of Business and professor of economics; and Diane M. Kellogg, associate professor of management, at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts.

The team found that customized work arrangements (CWAs), defined as work arrangements that depart from the traditional full-time, year-round commitment to an employer, can create a competitive advantage. Increased flexibility, reduced costs, and a family-friendly work environment will help draw and retain the best and the brightest in the field. But gender issues and concerns of "career death" must be addressed if both individual accountants and their firms are to benefit.

The researchers interviewed individual accountants and representatives of professional associations, public accounting firms and employment agencies. They analyzed current literature and surveyed accounting graduates of Bentley College, where the emphasis is on business, technology and the development of well-rounded individuals adaptive to changing environments.

The survey findings are based on 1,148 respondents who graduated between 1975 and 1995. Among these, 234 examples of CWAs were identified. A majority (56 percent) of the CWAs involved reduced hours, with the individuals working less than the number of hours per week expected of their peers. Forty-four percent of those with CWAs continued to work the standard number of hours at full salary, gaining flexibility in where and/or when the work is done.

Gender, marital and family status, career stage, functional area, type of employer and firm size all influence the existence and nature of CWAs. Women are far more likely than men to request and be granted flexible work arrangements, and most of these women have a working spouse. Among the few men who have a CWA, full-time work is generally still the rule, but on a more flexible schedule. A CWA is especially attractive to a two-career family with one or more children.

The researchers also found that CWAs tend to be more common in tax groups than in audit or consulting positions. Career stage is also a factor. For example, in public accounting firms, managers can arrange more flexible schedules than can staff accountants or seniors. Technology, including e-mail and voice-mail, make it easier than in the past to communicate with clients from any location, at any hour. Among each of the three major employment sectors for accountants (public accounting, business/industry, and not-for-profit), organizations with fewer than 100 employees reported a disproportionately high representation of CWAs.

Fear of damage to one's career keeps many accountants from seeking a flexible work schedule. The quality of assignments, career development opportunities, and the appearance of less than full commitment to the job all factor in. There are also financial considerations since reduced hours means a reduced salary. Status, training and networking opportunities offered by larger firms, as well as traditional CPA certification requirements, tend to encourage some accountants to start their careers at large public accounting firms.

"This study clearly documents, perhaps for the first time, the mobility patterns of many accountants from Big-Six firms to smaller accounting firms or positions in corporate America," said Patricia Flynn. "This pattern is triggered at least in part by the desire for greater flexibility and control over work and professional lives."

Role models help change stereotypes and debunk myths. Accountants and their employers often express support for flexibility but cultural change is needed in most firms before reduced-hours CWAs will be viewed as viable alternatives for those aspiring to high-level positions. This research highlights the importance of distinguishing between full-time and part-time flexible work arrangements. The career penalty associated with the latter is more severe, and one that most men are not willing to accept. "Data on these two types of flexible work arrangements are often combined when reported," said Flynn, "a practice that suggests considerably more progress has been made than is actually the case."

Support for CWAs needs to be systematic and widespread, with men as well as women encouraged to request flexible schedules. Challenging assignments must be provided to those on CWAs, sending the message that these individuals are not "second-class citizens." If accounting firms can master creating family-friendly, flexible environments before employers in other fields, they can generate a competitive advantage for the accounting profession in attracting and retaining productive women and men.

An executive summary of the report may be obtained free of charge by contacting Dean Flynn's office at Bentley College, Waltham, MA 02452-4705. Please contact Ms. Jane Jones by phone at 781-891-2921, by fax at 781-891-2464, or by e-mail at jjones@bentley.edu

* Note to Journalists: The authors of the report can be reached by e-mail at: pflynn@bentley.edu, dkellogg@bentley.edu, and elevy@bentley.edu

BENTLEY UNIVERSITY is one of the nation’s leading business schools, dedicated to preparing a new kind of business leader – one with the deep technical skills, broad global perspective, and high ethical standards required to make a difference in an ever-changing world. Our rich, diverse arts and sciences program, combined with an advanced business curriculum, prepares informed professionals who make an impact in their chosen fields. Located on a classic New England campus minutes from Boston, Bentley is a dynamic community of leaders, scholars and creative thinkers. The Graduate School emphasizes the impact of technology on business practice, in offerings that include MBA and Master of Science programs, PhD programs in accountancy and in business, and customized executive education programs. The university enrolls approximately 4,100 full-time undergraduate, 140 adult part-time undergraduate, 1,430 graduate, and 43 doctoral students. Bentley is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges; AACSB International – The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business; and the European Quality Improvement System, which benchmarks quality in management and business education. For more information, please visit www.bentley.edu

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