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Toxic Workplace Wisdom from a Stress-Busting Accounting Firm


What do you get if you mix poor communication, lack of recognition, constant complaining and out-of-hours stress? A seriously toxic workplace.

In a whitepaper by the Chartered Accountants’ Benevolent Association (CABA) about the impact of a negative workplace on employee wellbeing and productivity, 74% of employees surveyed said poor wellbeing significantly impacted their concentration, and 40% of respondents took time off work due to a toxic workplace environment.

Lucy Whitehall, CABA’s wellbeing consultant, urges firms to take appropriate action: “Employee wellbeing influences every aspect of a business. Profitability, sustainability, customer engagement, talent attraction and retention are all impacted by how well, or not, employees feel.”


So, what can be done to prevent or fix a toxic workplace environment?

BKD is a Member Firm in the Praxity Global Alliance and appeared on the INSIDE Public Accounting Best of the Best Accounting Firms list for the ninth consecutive year in 2019. The firm has made employee wellbeing a real focus, aware of the direct relationship between happy employees in a positive environment and excellent client service.

Read on to discover their philosophy and practices, which can easily be applied to businesses in other industries.


Work–life balance and flexibility

The rise of ‘always on’ culture is a challenge in most professions, but particularly in public accounting. Smart phones allow emails and instant messages to fly back and forth 24/7, often with the expectation of immediate replies, and accountants report routinely skipping lunch to keep up with bulging inboxes.

Accounting Web reports that “commonly, practitioners would rather sacrifice their lunch than let their work life feed into their home life”.

In 2019, the BKD management committee formed the employee value proposition task force to review flexibility practices and ensure the firm is taking steps to guide and support employees with work–life balance and flexibility.

BKD’s philosophy on flexibility is to put their people in the best position to provide Unmatched Client Service® while still being able to attend to personal commitments. This starts with effective communication between leaders and team members.

  • BKD encourages staff members to have open and honest conversations with their leaders about the flexibility they require. To encourage this, a task force of senior leaders recently helped develop content and best practices for team members and leaders to reference during these conversations.
  • They also encourage firm leaders and engagement executives to be mindful of their teams’ needs and adjust accordingly to meet the needs of both employees and clients. BKD offer PTO and a PTO purchase program to give employees extra time off if they need it for rejuvenation.
  • The firm believes that excellence can be delivered in a variety of working environments. There is an expectation that employees remain disciplined in their client-facing work, whether they are working from home, in the office or on-site with a client.

BKD says: “When we put client service front and centre while offering employees day-to-day flexibility, we help ensure that we meet both employee and client needs, and our clients view our employees as trusted advisors.”


Positive office culture

People are BKD’s number one asset, and employees are expected to exhibit the same level of professional demeanour to co-workers as they would to clients.

This professional demeanour includes:

  • Choosing to have a “contagiously positive attitude”
  • Dressing in a professional manner
  • Avoiding sensitive and polarising discussions as well as inappropriate language
  • Being receptive to and acting upon constructive feedback
  • Exhibiting leadership behaviours, such as respecting and extending trust

During the recruiting process, BKD keeps these values top of mind as they consider bringing new talent in to the firm.

During the campus recruiting process, they host social and team-building events to gauge candidates’ attitudes and behaviour as professionals. In the interview process for both campus and experienced talent, candidates are asked specific questions to evaluate culture fit as well as skill alignment. Fostering a culture based on integrity and professionalism has helped BKD retain dedicated employees.

If conflict arises, managing partners and HR associates are available to assist with conflict resolution. As a part of this resolution process, BKD believes in ‘putting the moose on the table’, encouraging team members to address difficult conversations directly with one another. BKD employees have access to internal online trainings and resources on how to communicate effectively.


Management–employee relationships and cooperation

BKD recognises that to provide Unmatched Client Service, teams must bring together a variety of skill sets and personalities to meet the unique needs of their clients. The firm has defined roles such as engagement executives and managers leading our associates, but everyone has equal responsibility to:

  • Be responsible for the work
  • Delegate but remain engaged
  • Collaborate to make sure the right talent is in the team
  • Help others meet client expectations

BKD partners and firm leaders are approachable and ready to step in when needed to support their team, and when the firm earns new business or solves a problem, everyone is recognised. Through their Wow! award program, everyone can nominate a fellow BKD colleague for a job well done.

Thousands of nominations are submitted annually, and every month, managing partners in each office select a few recipients for a monthly Wow! award. In addition, one employee and one partner are recognised at the firm’s annual Leadership Conference with the PRIDE award, the firm’s greatest honour.


Catering to clients

In today’s technology-driven, ‘always on’ world, accounting firms have to manage the changing expectations of clients — some of whom expect a prompt response out of hours and on weekends — and inevitably employees can feel a pressure to comply with this expectation.

One of BKD’s Unmatched Client Service values is ‘responsive reliability’. They expect staff members to be responsive to clients, but the ownership in on them to set expectations up front with them.

BKD says: “To plan ahead and establish an open line of communication with clients, engagement executives and team members, we develop a clear understanding of client needs and what a successful working relationship looks like. We inform clients of our service standards and expectations and provide training for our team members to create alignment.

“We also provide clear expectations of how employees can keep business moving, even when they are out of the office on PTO or unavailable with other commitments. The firm provides guidelines and best practices for how to leverage out-of-office messages and voicemail greetings to direct clients to other associates in the firm who may be able to help. We also expect engagement teams to communicate and confirm availability of other team members before setting commitments.”

As a rule, BKD strives to underpromise and overdeliver. To be successful in this practice, team members are expected to:

  • Educate clients on the effort required and/or complexity of deliverables
  • Communicate early and often when deadlines need to be adjusted
  • Plan and allow for contingencies and unexpected challenges

By setting expectations up front with both employees and clients to be responsive and professional and practice exemplary communication, firms can provide a great working environment while continuing to meet client needs. 

Find out more about BKD by visiting