Why accountancy employers need to find a purpose

More employees expect their firm will make a difference in the world – here’s how firms are responding

When managers wrap up job interviews with the inevitable, “so, is there anything you’d like to ask us?”, they usually expect the candidate to shuffle awkwardly in their seat before blurting out innocuous questions about future promotions or the benefits programme. Not so today, says Sue Bonney, KPMG’s Vice-Chair and UK head of environmental, social and governance (ESG).

“Often, the first questions they’ll ask us are challenging questions about purpose or which clients we will or won’t work with, such as oil companies,” she notes. “It shows they really want to understand what we’re doing about such things.”

It also signifies that “purpose” and ESG are more than just buzzwords bandied around on corporate websites – both talent and investors alike are using them as a yardstick to gauge which companies to work with.

New opportunities

It’s predicted an extra two million “green-collar” jobs could be created by the UK setting its target to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Many of these jobs could be in ESG reporting. In 10 years’ time, accountants could be just as likely to be measuring the amount of greenhouse gases a company emits, or how many tonnes of plastics it uses, as they would compiling monetary-based reports.

“The more companies have to report on non-financial data, the more they’ll have to assure or audit it, putting it as a mainstream part of their reporting,” says Bonney. “Data is at the heart of this, which is good for accountants.”

She also notes working in such purpose-led areas is rewarding:

“Being part of a bigger narrative helping people assess whether organisations are doing what they say they do [in terms of ESG] makes your work more satisfying.

“Accountants need to factor in ESG,” she says. “If you want to be relevant to your clients, you need to appreciate these issues.”

Connection

Of course, this is a key part of the appeal for businesses to pursue a purpose-led agenda – it woos talent. Today, job seekers – especially Generation Z – are demanding employers incorporate values and ethics as part of their business model (see, for example, the 77% of Generation Z who told one 2018 Deloitte survey it’s important to work for an organisation whose values align with their own).

By ignoring the ideals of this generation, companies could risk shutting themselves off to smart future employees.

Adopting a more inclusive approach towards recruitment not only chimes with the 83% of Generation Z who said a company’s commitment to diversity is important when choosing an employer – it boosts business too.

By hiring neurodiverse people (those with autism, ADHD, dyspraxia or dyslexia) to work at KPMG, Bonney notes: “Being thoughtful about what people can bring to the rich tapestry is important… It’s not just because it’s the right thing to do, it actually makes good business sense.”

Case-study: good deeds baked into the business model

Embedding purpose within an organisation can boost company culture, says Keith Lesser, chief executive at London-based firm, Vegan Accountants.

“For many companies, staff retention is tough,” he says. “However, we have four vegan staff at Vegan Accountants and I know they enjoy working with vegan clients and love our brand’s vision. When staff have those values, it makes you [as leader] excited about the future.”

That mission is not only to encourage veganism, but to build good deeds into the natural course of doing business, which Lesser does using automated software. For example, for every invoice raised, the firm promises to plant a tree. For every new client, it will donate pyjamas for children in emergency care. However, Lesser points out, having an overarching ethical mission isn’t enough – potential recruits will still need to cut it as an accountant and know what to do when presented with a tax return.

“While you want people who’ve got fantastic ethics, you can’t have people who aren’t on top of their game,” he says. “We still hire people who consume animal products, as it’s arguably more important to focus on quality – without that we wouldn’t have a business. Plus, they could become the vegans of tomorrow.”

Walking the walk

Of course, as more and more big businesses trumpet their zero-carbon offices or mental health campaigns, there will be suspicions of green-washing, woke-washing, pink-washing or even corona-washing. The words “dignity”, “honesty” and “respect” crop up on the values section of company websites with alarming regularity. However, there are various ethical standards and certificates that larger businesses can work towards, such as the B Corp benchmark, that signify to customers and clients that there is substance to companies’ claims. These standards are equally important for smaller practices.

Case-study: becoming a B Corp

Warren Munson, the founder of Inspire Accountants, is exploring gaining the B Corp recognition for his practice.

“It’s also about leading by example,” he says. In qualifying for the B Corp benchmark, businesses conduct a self-assessment of their progress. Those scoring above 80 points qualify for the benchmark, while those falling below can see where they need to improve.

“It gives us focus,” says Munson. “We’re strong in community involvement and treating our team members well, but there are other areas such as sustainability that we can improve before the next step.”

There’s a commercial aspect to undertaking this process, too, says Munson. It shows clients, prospective clients and potential recruits that the firm is serious about its purpose.

“If we can say ‘this is where we are and this is what we believe in’, there is going to be a resonance with both clients and potential employees.”

Making change with purpose

However, many smaller practices may argue that they have more pressing concerns than “purpose”, such as cash flow and keeping their own business afloat. Vegan Accountants’ Lesser suggests making incremental changes.

“You don’t need to be purpose-driven overnight – you can just make small, baby steps,” he says.

“Can you be ethical in maybe 5% or 10% of what you do? Just start somewhere and work from there… Only 5% of my overall clients are vegan – I wouldn’t be able to pay my mortgage if I refused to work with 95% of my clients just because they eat meat.”

Sometimes, change can come from within. Bonney talks about a young KPMG employee who was inspired to create a carbon-tracking tool after questioning why staff were regularly flying to Dublin. Her carbon-tracking tool was piloted by KPMG just before the pandemic struck, which found it halved the footprint.

But placing ethics front and centre is not without its challenges. It can be akin to walking a high wire – with the occasional fall from grace.

Earlier this year, Emmanuel Faber was ousted as CEO of French food group Danone after announcing plans to build a more sustainable company. In 2018, Sacha Romanovitch, the first female boss of a major accounting firm, resigned from Grant Thornton after 28 years at the firm. She had made moves to cap her own salary and introduced a profit-sharing scheme for staff, but her departure came after an anonymous internal memo (which claimed to speak for 15 partners) surfaced accusing her of “misdirecting” the firm and having “no focus on profitability”. 

Christian Koch is an award-winning journalist/editor who has written for the Evening Standard, Sunday Times, Guardian, Telegraph, The Independent, Q, The Face and Metro. He's also written about business for Accounting Technician, 20 and Director, where he is contributing editor.

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