It pays to stay in touch when staff leave

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When staff at Deloitte & Touche in the US want time off to look after children or sail the world, the firm does the sensible thing: it maintains contact and a few years later invites them back. Similar pragmatism is rare at investment banks.

Accounting and investment banking professions rely on intellectual capital, require high levels of staff commitment and face a shrinking pool of potential employees. But so far, accountants have proved more attuned to those challenges.

Deloitte, for example, introduced its Personal Pursuits programme last June whereby staff who leave - perhaps to look after children or elderly relatives - are invited to stay in contact and to rejoin two to five years later. The US programme may be rolled out across Europe.

Stan Smith, director of the Next Generation Initiative, the Deloitte think-tank behind the programme, said flexibility was becoming a critical issue. "It's about trying to find a way for staff to navigate personal and professional responsibilities," he said.

Demographic realities underpin the need to retain staff and to make life easier for overworked professionals. The United Nations' population division predicts the number of Europeans aged 20 to 40 will fall by 20% over 15 years. And according to studies of UK graduate aspirations, such as the one carried out by High Fliers Research in association with The Times, younger people place increased stock on leisure time.

Accountancy firms have responded with an array of policies, including home working and flexible hours. Stevan Rolls, national director of resourcing at Ernst & Young, said flexibility was ingrained in the culture.

"Our whole attitude is around doing what you need to do. When you do it and how you do it are less important than doing it to an excellent standard," Rolls said.

Female partners in the audit division can work four-day weeks and take additional time off in the summer to spend with children.

At KPMG, staff benefit from "glide time" with everyone working between 10am and 4pm but the hours either side are negotiable. Of the 390 staff who asked to be included in this and other flexible hours schemes during the past year, only nine were refused.

Accountants excel at maintaining contact with former employees. KPMG runs an alumni scheme with 18,000 members in the UK alone. They meet regularly and attend a biannual cocktail party.

BDO Stoy Hayward, the world's fifth-largest accountancy firm, is preparing for its UK annual alumni event at London's Kensington Roof Gardens.

Tony Fry, partner in charge of alumni relations at KPMG, said 10% of UK staff were former employees who left to work elsewhere.

He credits the alumni programme with keeping them in touch. "It can't do us any harm if there are tens of thousands of people out there who have a warm feeling about KPMG as a previous employer." Fry said.

Investment banks lag accountancy firms on flexible hours and maintaining contact with former staff. The head of human resources at one US bank in the City of London said: "We have one or two people in fixed-income sales who work short weeks, but it is rare."

However, the tide may be turning. Sabbaticals are proliferating: when JP Morgan added six people to its cash equities team last month, half were existing staff returning after sabbaticals of nine months to two years.

John Harker, Citigroup's head of HR for the corporate and investment bank in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said changing demographics had influenced banks' family-friendly and flexible working policies.

"We've done a lot of research using focus groups and panel discussions, giving people the chance to say what they want from work," he said. Citigroup has 248 people working flexible hours in the UK.

Alumni programmes are also becoming part of the banking landscape. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have introduced schemes in the past two years. Harker says Citigroup may follow.

Tim Doyne, who is responsible for marketing, advertising and sponsorship at Morgan Stanley in Europe, manages the alumni programme. He said the programme was not charged solely with bringing employees back to the fold.

"It was set up to provide a way for Morgan Stanley employees, who work intensely together, to stay in touch," he said. The bank's alumni scheme has 2,500 signed-up members in Europe, most of whom have left the company during the past three years, according to Doyne. Members include bankers employed at other investment banks.

"We take a grown-up attitude and hope we can be competitors and still maintain good relations. People are very professional about it," he said.

In this sense, at least, Morgan Stanley is more pragmatic than some accountants. Riaz Shah, head of UK audit operations at Ernst & Young, said his firm would not stay in contact with staff who left to work for a rival. Fortunately, this is rarely an issue: only three of the 80 auditors who left E&Y last year went to rival firms.

The limits of Morgan Stanley's pragmatism may be tested if its alumni scheme foments rebellion against the bank's leadership. Will the likes of Robert Scott and Parker Gilbert, the former president and chairman behind the rebellion against chief executive Philip Purcell, be invited to alumni cocktail parties in the US?

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