Karen Abernathy
Karen Abernathy

CPAs and the Human Resources Profession

How CPAs can add value in this unexpected career path.

November 23, 2009
by Karen Abernathy, CPA/CFE

The mind of a CPA is a wondrous thing. It easily analyzes, calculates and organizes information from the simplest of schedules to the most complex systems. Taking a large amount of data and making sense of it is second nature to accountants, to the extent that they often assume everyone has this skill. I can say this because I am a CPA. How then, you ask, are you now the director of human resources for an international forensic accounting firm? How does a “numbers-focused” accountant transition to a “people-focused” human resources professional?

I started out on the typical route, landing an audit job with a Big 4 (then Big 8) accounting firm right out of college. It takes drive, ambition and endurance to become a CPA; I had worked hard and was proud of who and where I was. My employer was pleased and I was happy with the direction of my career. Even so, a change of course presented itself many years later that would provide new opportunities to expand my professional track.

I’ve always enjoyed people; I like their stories, where they’ve come from, what their plans are. Involvement in recruiting was a natural outgrowth of that “people” interest. Seven years ago our then CEO suggested we parlay that interest into creating a much needed human resources department. After a great deal of deliberation, I decided to give it a go. Similar to the accounting world, human resources has its own set of rules and regulations. I knew I would need additional training and education, and didn’t take this decision lightly. What I discovered was that many of the qualities I had developed as a CPA could also be applied to my new role.

CPAs are required to remain neutral and maintain independence when performing the audit function. Similarly, as it represents both the employee and employer, human resources must delicately balance the needs and rights of individuals with those of the organization when following policies and regulations. A successful auditor uses tact and discernment when working with clients; these same skills must be equally sharp and fully developed in human resources professionals.

The CPA’s training teaches diligence and perseverance to see complicated, large projects through to completion — especially during busy season when tight deadlines and 80-hour weeks are the norm. Teamwork is an essential and necessary part of the audit group to ensure a quality end product and provide superior client service. I have found this training extremely helpful when creating and implementing RGL’s worldwide initiatives. Much like my past audit teams, I work closely with a diverse international team of Partners who bring unique strengths and perspectives from their part of the world. What we have developed as a team is unsurpassed in the industry for most firms our size, with an interrelated career path, performance incentive plan and evaluation system that is followed across all of RGL’s worldwide offices. These programs and systems have collectively played an integral part in increasing employee satisfaction and promotion, and reducing turnover to single-digit numbers.

A forensic accountant’s work is unique and highly specialized, and it’s critical their remuneration reflect that. With our distinct skills in the human resources department, RGL’s comprehensive annual market compensation study is prepared in-house, using information from several sources that are then blended together to create appropriate salary ranges for our unique company. This ensures employees are compensated fairly across all offices, provides necessary information for budgeting and is an effective tool for negotiating, all of which are bottom line economic benefits.

Though I utilize the skills developed as an accountant every day, transitioning to the human resources world has presented new challenges and areas of development. An incredible amount of judgment is needed to interpret laws, regulations, company policies, and more. Resilience is a must when dealing with difficult situations, much more so than in my past accounting role. Just as no two humans are alike, no two issues are alike.

Often organizational leadership fails to recognize the strategic importance of human resources in current and future operations. RGL’s top leaders are an exception. Our CEO and Board appreciate the critical role that human resources performs in attracting, developing and retaining employees. As a professional services firm, RGL’s only asset is its people. This is not just lip service but integral to our company’s strategy. Here, human resources enjoys a “seat at the head of table” and provides input into decisions that affect the ingenuity and motivation of employees. My background in accounting enhances this participation. In my role I have the unique position of knowing what it’s like to be in the trenches, speak their language and I have a first-hand understanding of their career aspirations.

Human resources has been a natural evolution of working for a professional services firm. I have no doubt that every accountant has developed beneficial strengths that overlap and enhance other areas of their life. I’m not recommending a career change, but do suggest that as a CPA you open your eyes to the added value you can bring to your professional and personal life. Knowing this, I do challenge all CPAs to develop their “people skills” just like I am still using CPA principles in the world.

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Karen Abernathy, CPA/CFE, PHR, is director of human resources at the international forensic accounting firm, RGL Forensics. She may be reached in RGL’s Denver office at 303-721-2970.