Can Ernst & Young Retain Women By Rethinking Work?

The radical idea: Accountants have lives, too, you know

Here is the new canon: Come Saturday, 755 Ernst & Young professionals in San Jose and Palo Alto, Calif., will resist the temptation to check their office voice mail. They'll try not to peek at E-mail messages until Monday, either. Really.

It sounds like a no-brainer: Just enjoy the weekend, people! But for E&Y and other companies where workaholic fervor reigns, "it's like this revelation," says Palo Alto tax manager Mary Stern, 33. And even such a nominal gesture can produce broad repercussions. A colleague could go without a critical piece of data. A report might get delayed. A client could have to wait.

So be it. Ernst & Young is trying to get beyond the usual networking, mentoring, and flexibility schemes adopted by many employers to help keep female professionals. Its year-old women-retention effort is attempting something far more difficult--actually changing the way the firm operates. Only a mold-breaking overhaul of work itself, the firm believes, can root out systemic biases toward men.

"FRUSTRATION." The strategy grew out of a 1996 critique by Catalyst, a research group on corporate women, that underscored the firm's gender failings. Although Ernst & Young hired male and female entry-level professionals in equal numbers, only 8% of the firm's partners were women. Tellingly, just 27% of E&Y women told Catalyst that becoming partner was "a realistic goal," compared with 59% of their male peers.

Ernst & Young was losing 22% of its women professionals annually and was spending $150,000 per job to hire and train replacements--who tended most often to be men. More important, says Chairman Philip A. Laskaway, "there is some frustration to the client when they see different faces all the time." Reducing turnover, Laskaway figured, could create a competitive advantage. So he created an "Office of Retention" and hired Deborah K. Holmes, the young Harvard-trained lawyer who had headed the Catalyst study, to find ways to stem the exodus.

Some of the problems Holmes identified were easily solved. A Boston senior manager, for one, had her expense report rejected after she took a client for a manicure. The problem: It wasn't for golf or one of a few other traditionally male diversions readily approved by the firm. A task force of New England partners and managers worked to broaden the range of acceptable entertaining activities, including picnics and baseball games with clients' entire families.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS. The real issue, though, was Ernst & Young's intense work environment, which demands 50-hour-plus weeks and constant travel for most managers and partners. The rigors weren't gender-specific: 48% of women and 47% of men told Catalyst they found their workloads "excessive." Yet women tended to feel greater strain, since far more of their spouses worked.

That's what a task force of tax/audit professionals in San Jose and Palo Alto is trying to address. "This is a very demanding profession. You have high client expectations, and we're a service organization," says Roger Dunbar, the managing partner who heads both offices. But employees still want lives. Hence, the weekend telecommunications ban, plus a new casual-dress policy and efforts to hire administrative staff who can take on more professional functions.

At the heart of the California prototype is "client triage." Partners now explicitly consider demands on their staffers and the costs of potential employee turnover in assessing the profitability of clients. They work with customers before projects begin to develop clear mutual expectations about the staffing that will be required. And a new "utilization committee," composed of employees at all levels, meets regularly to reconcile client demands with staffers' personal needs.

The point is to avoid forcing employees to compromise their lives to meet preformed business expectations. Rather, the business tries to incorporate flexible schedules, dependent-care needs, and other demands. When staff accountant John M. Watson found his schedule crammed with too many clients, the utilization committee quickly reassigned one of his projects to ease the load.

Such strategies, known as business- process change or work redesign, have captivated the human resources world since a 1996 Ford Foundation study of work-life balance at Xerox, Corning, and Tandem Computer. In that project, researchers demonstrated higher productivity, fewer absences, and shorter time-to-market by altering the way people worked--eliminating unnecessary meetings, for example, or allowing employees to schedule their own hours.

A new study, to be released on Feb. 17 by the Radcliffe Public Policy Institute, reaffirms the Ford results. In a year at Fleet Financial Group Inc., researchers modified the way credit applications were assigned, freeing underwriters to adjust their workloads. Administrative tasks, too, were shifted from professionals to lower-level staff. Fleet met productivity goals and reduced a loan-application backlog, while employees reported greater work-life satisfaction.

A LITTLE SANITY. In real life, of course, companies don't have high-profile academics and consultants available, gratis, for months on end. When the researchers pack their bags, "that's when efforts begin to erode or stay localized," says Thomas A. Kayser, a human-resources manager in the Xerox Channels Group, which includes one of the operations studied. While Xerox has mounted a credible internal campaign promoting employee empowerment, it hasn't broadly replicated the much hailed work redesigns.

Such lessons aren't lost on Holmes and her team at Ernst & Young. "There's no silver bullet for work-life balance," she says. The firm's overall retention rate is edging up, with the San Jose/Palo Alto offices improving to 81% last year from under 70% in 1996. Yet lasting, structural change, she knows, requires years of grinding away, site by site. The steps she is engineering now are baby steps: A consulting team working with Ford Motor Co., for example, has limited its members' maximum travel demand--but only to a still draining four days a week. And while many partners support women's advancement in principle, they find business-process change toward that end "much bigger and scarier." Saner weekends, in any case, are a good start.

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