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Initiatives for Women Boost Retention

Ernst & Young has not only altered how work is assigned, performed and evaluated, but provided better support for its personnel—men and women—to balance work and personal issues.

November 1, 1998
Related Topics: Diversity, Retention
One of today’s biggest HR challenges is retaining talented employees—particularly women and minorities. Recognizing this importance, New York City-based Ernst & Young LLP, a professional services firm, launched a two-year study of the issue. The effort was undertaken with Catalyst, a New York City-based non-profit organization that aims to advance women in the workplace. As a result, Ernst &Young formed the Office for Retention (OFR) in 1996 with Director Deborah K. Holmes as its guiding force (Holmes was formerly Catalyst’s director of research and advisory services). Within the last couple of years, Ernst & Young has not only altered how work is assigned, performed and evaluated, but provided better support for its personnel—men and women—to balance work and personal issues. Holmes spoke with Workforce about the Office for Retention’s achievements thus far.

What were the issues that first gave rise to Ernst & Young’s concerns about retention?
Our turnover among women was higher than the turnover among men—at virtually all levels. Now, that’s an industry concern, not just an E&Y concern. What prompted us to focus on this issue was the change in the particular client-service environment. Our clients increasingly let us know they weren’t interested in high turnovers. They want consistency in service. They want people who know their business. And since we’re in the client-service business, that means we have to listen to what our clients ask of us.

What did the survey tell you?
What we found is that we needed to focus on three challenges to improve the retention of women: provide opportunities for people to have a life outside of work, as well as have a challenging job at work; ensure that women get access to the same exciting career opportunities as men; and ensure that women enjoy the same access to senior leaders and other networks of men that men do.

What role did HR play in this change?
Our current vice chairman of human resources, Tom Hough, assumed his new position at precisely the same time I assumed mine. In fact, at our all-partner meeting, which occurs once every three years for our 2,000 partners, we both addressed the importance of our partnership. We work very closely together.

Around issues of concern to women, my group leads in consolidating ideas from multiple sources within the firm, such as our line people. My office also takes the lead in devising solutions. But when it comes to implementation, we work closely with local HR folks. On issues that don’t present themselves at first as women’s issues, we participate as members in larger HR task forces.

Can you give me an example of a program generated by your office and assisted by HR?
Right now, we’re rolling out a new program called Women’s ACCESS: Accelerating Shared Success. The program is designed to enhance women’s access to leaders in the firm. One person from my office is working one-on-one with all of our local HR leaders to roll out the program firmwide.

How did E&Y determine the best retention strategies?
Recognizing the importance of keeping valuable employees, our chairman and CEO, Phil Laskawy, led the effort. We began with consultations with Catalyst. Then we got results from our "Survey 97" last year, which was a climate survey that went to everyone in the firm via e-mail and snail mail. There were 120 questions. Some were multiple choice, while others were open-ended. The goal was to get feedback on all kinds of issues, including benefits, work/life balance and other HR concerns. Incidentally, we received almost 70 percent response rate. Also, our areas of focus were validated at the E&Y women’s partners meeting, which we hold every year for all women partners, of which there are 177.

What’s the purpose and value of the annual women's partners meeting?
We've seen great value from the professional women's networks developing across the firm as a result of the OFR prototype work. These networks give E&Y women opportunities to build greater affiliation with each other, to hear creative solutions to challenges (both at work and in balancing work and personal life), and to focus on career development.

How have you innovated such policies as flexible work arrangements?
At this point, everyone has flexible work arrangements. The challenge is to convince our employees that it’s safe to use them. When I joined E&Y, it struck me that there must be a lot of success stories out there in our organization (then with 25,000 people). We just needed to compile them. The flexible work arrangement database is the only one in the country I know of that provides very candid information about each arrangement available to everybody at the firm. It contains profiles of participants in our flexible work arrangements, with their names and identifying characteristics so one can sort the database by level, type of work, job and location. The employees can find people who are just like them.

How else does the database help the employee?
It also includes concrete assistance for developing a business case for a flexible work arrangement. For example, it provides a roadmap that walks an employee through the steps—from a concept to reality. It’s a really phenomenal tool. It has resulted in a 10 percent increase in flexible work arrangements since it was launched. As a side note, five of our part-timers were promoted to partners, which is the highest level in the firm. This is an example of how we measure employee value, not just by face time.

And what about external and internal networking?
Those are important because after all, career development is based largely on meeting people, whether a client or someone within the firm. What we heard is that women feel there’s less opportunity to meet people. Interestingly, the women are more likely than men to see meeting people as important. So we created something similar to the prototype we developed for Women’s ACCESS. We focused on internal and external networking. [This effort] resulted in new ways of thinking about client development activities. For instance, in the past, something like going to a spa for a day with a woman client wouldn’t have been reimbursable. Today, it is.

Since the inception of the Office for Retention, what results have you seen?
Turnover overall is down—which is very exciting—but it’s particularly down among women. In our largest business unit—AABS (Assurance and Advisory Business Services)—the women’s turnover on the senior management level is down more than 7 percent.

How does your office and HR interface?
I meet with the vice-chairman of HR several times a month. We attend a lot of each other’s meetings. I work very closely with the people in his organization. For example, my office created the flexible work arrangement (FWA) database. But in administering and responding to specific questions about FWA issues, we work with somebody in national HR who also focuses on flexible work arrangements.

How many staff do you have in the Office for Retention?
Eight, including myself. We have five staff with 10 to 20 years’ experience in a wide range of areas, such as change management, organizational development, communications, women’s issues and human resources. In addition, we have one research assistant and one assistant.

What makes your retention strategies better than before?
I think our openness to innovation is extraordinary. There are twice as many opportunities at E&Y as there are hours in a day to pursue them. Having a good idea can be very dangerous here. No sooner do you have one than people enthusiastically start signing on to make it happen. That kind of environment means we can create big changes in a short period of time. I also can’t overstate the effect of our investment in technology—not only in the sense that people are linked by the computer system. We have over 600 databases of external and internal knowledge. We are a knowledge-based organization. But unlike other knowledge-based organ- izations, we actually have an infrastructure to make my knowledge available to everyone. Access to information helps employees—particularly women and minorities—to continually feel challenged and excited.

How does your technological infrastructure help women employees?
E&Y uses technology to allow its people to empower themselves. Right now, employees can search the flexible work arrangement database for E&Y people in situations similar to their own who are using FWAs successfully. Then they can use the electronic FWA Roadmap to guide them through the process of applying for a flexible work arrangement. In the weeks ahead, we'll launch the Women’s ACCESS Program and we’ll introduce Women's Forums and Professional Women's Networks, all with supporting technology that allows women across the firm to share best practices. In addition, an Office for Retention Web site on the E&Y intranet gives anyone with interest in OFR activities access to information and links to information.

How does E&Y recognize improvements in women’s career development?
We’ve established the Rosemarie Meschi Award, presented annually to the employee who has contributed most toward the development of women in the firm. The award is named in honor of the late Rosemarie Meschi, who during her 22 years with the firm, first as an auditor and then in human resources, focused on issues regarding diversity and advanced the cause significantly.

What’s the most important lesson your office has learned about retaining employees?
First, we've confirmed what we knew intuitively about the strong business case for retention. We're undertaking these women's initiatives not because they’re a nice thing to do, or even because they’re the right thing to do. We're undertaking them because Ernst & Young will be a better, more successful firm for our efforts. The firm's goals for growth and client satisfaction demand that we attract and retain the best people in the industry, and our women's initiatives are helping us achieve those goals.

We've also confirmed what we knew about the universality of people issues. Our efforts to improve life balance are paying off with increased awareness of the issues and increased employee satisfaction about life balance, regardless of gender.

And never underestimate the innovativeness of line people in addressing HR issues. Never assume that because you’re the HR specialist, you know better.


Workforce, November 1998, Vol. 77, No. 11, pp. 97-100.

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