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Accountants on Why They’re Leaving: ‘The Hours Are Long and Unreasonable, Compensation Is Low’

Employee quiting his job by throwing away business briefcase bag and tie leaving all other boring workers behind. Vector artwork depicts the pursuit of happiness.

“The number-one trend is that the candidate is in complete control…because the unemployment rate is lower in accounting and finance than it’s ever been.” That’s a quote from a Robert Half recruiter in the Talent Retention in the U.S. Accounting and Finance Profession study released a few days ago, a collab between IMA and Robert Half (and about two dozen research partners, mostly state societies). Unemployment may be low but accountants’ desire to leave their employers is higher than ever, the study sought to find out why.

We don’t have all day so let’s look at the main points:

  • Survey respondents in the 18-to-38-year-old age cohort, who experienced the highest turnover rates (39%) in the past 24 months, are most likely (26%) to leave their current employer in the next 12 months. Furthermore, as many as 8% of them are considering leaving the accounting and finance profession in the next 12 months.
  • Approximately 30% of those who intended to leave their current employers in the next 12 months expressed dissatisfaction with their work and co-workers. They were also five times more likely than those intending to stay to feel disengaged at work.
  • Career advancement concerns significantly influence respondents’ decision to leave their employer or the profession. Those with the intention to leave were nearly three times more likely to cite that they do not expect to advance in their organization.
  • Professionals intending to leave their employers, or the profession, were four times more likely to highlight the absence of a strong sense of belonging within their organizations.

It’s too bad they didn’t break the 18-38 group down further, would be nice to see the difference between early career professionals and manager level where talent is more scarce. Here’s turnover anyway:

Almost half of remote workers surveyed had left their employer voluntarily in the past 24 months (47%) compared to 26 percent of hybrid workers and 23 percent of on-site.

Overall job satisfaction isn’t too bad; 87.14 percent of respondents said they are satisfied with the work they are required to perform, 86.48 percent are satisfied with their coworkers, and 78.44 percent are satisfied with their supervisors.

Of note, 79 percent of accounting and finance professionals intending to stay with their employer reported receiving outstanding perks on the job. So employers should probably make sure that’s taken care of first before they go firing all the bad managers.

The study goes on to cover workplace flexibility, sense of belonging, and engagement. We’ll include that last one just to point out that engagement and resulting disengagement from overwork aren’t making people leave the profession as strongly as bad management is.

Lastly, a few choice quotes they got from professionals who intend to leave their employer or the profession completely. There are four pages of this in the report.

“If I decide to leave, it’s due to narcissistic management, lack of hybrid work offerings, low pay, limited benefits, inflexibility, unfriendly staff, no advancement opportunities, no work-life balance, excessive overtime, and being contacted outside of working hours.”

“The compensation is low given the number of hours required, especially when compared to fields like IT.”

“There is a noticeable lack of opportunities for meaningful advancement.”

“I’m at the age of retirement, and reflecting on it, choosing accounting as a career hasn’t been fruitful for me. If given another chance, I wouldn’t pursue a CPA designation.”

“I dislike the work, and my manager is incompetent and unreasonably demanding without understanding what he’s asking for.”

“First and foremost, there’s the unfair treatment, bias, and weak leadership competence. The line between ethics and morals is razor-thin, and leadership positions are given by the board or influential people. I won’t compromise my morals for an underpaid job.”

“There’s a lot of politics in my organization I don’t agree with. Many employees, including me, are taken advantage of. Despite good pay, the disparity between favored employees and those who drive the company is huge. When things work based on my insights, others get the pay and bonuses, while I work long hours.”

“I can’t maintain 65-hour workweeks. The impact on my health from such demands is due to poor leadership.”

“Being perpetually short-staffed means taking on more duties and working extra unpaid hours, affecting my work-life balance.”

“The pay is low for the amount of work, and the commute is far from my residence.”

“If opportunities for better pay or more engaging work arise, or if I can pursue my passion for politics, I might leave. Pay is a growing concern, especially with rising costs and student loans.”

“Micromanagement is rampant with the new COO, and the pay in accounting is not fair compared to the rest of the organization.”

“The environment is stressful due to long hours. Hiring competent newcomers is lacking, resulting in more pressure on the veterans.”

“The pay doesn’t justify the 24/7 availability they demand. The firm’s reluctance to hire or invest in workload-reducing technology is concerning. There’s also a mismatch between the firm’s DE&I values and some client beliefs.”

“Leadership is lacking, and we’re often understaffed to save money. This leads to long work hours and more tasks. The focus is more on closing books quickly than accuracy. I’m burned out and even considering leaving the profession.”

“The general challenges with the CPA profession combined with the firm’s push to return to the office instead of promoting remote work are problematic.”

“I recently quit a high-paying tax job. The documentation was poor, feedback was demoralizing, and timelines were tight.”

“Public accounting’s long hours don’t feel worth the pay, especially without overtime. The reward structure benefits partners more.”

“High staff turnover at lower levels leaves more work for management.”

“The hours are long and unreasonable. I’m in my 40s, financially secure, and ready for a change. The CPA profession is stressful.”

“The CPA profession hasn’t advocated for its members’ better working conditions. While new standards are being introduced, the core issue of limited tools remains unaddressed.”

“I don’t believe the industry is set up for long-term success. The demands on young staff, coupled with unrealistic work-life balances, lead to early-career burnout.”

“I left the profession due to the low pay, excessive work hours, and the overall negative atmosphere among my coworkers.”

And let’s end with this one:

“I struggle to see the benefits of the work and often disagree with our direction. We’re responsible for our own talent shortage, and we seem trapped in our ways.”

Sounds about right.

Talent Retention in the U.S. Accounting and Finance Profession [IMA and Robert Half]

20 thoughts on “Accountants on Why They’re Leaving: ‘The Hours Are Long and Unreasonable, Compensation Is Low’

  1. Interesting. Long article with a lot of information, and a lot of true and valid points, but it doesn’t mention one of the largest factors causing so many young accountants to say they’re unhappy. I’d say what that is, but it would likely cause people to reply with things like “Old man says get off my lawn!”

      1. People had to make a living. Speaking up in a CPA firm would destroy any chance of advancement. Don’t blame employees for greedy owners who view employees to be expendable.

    1. I can tell you why accountants are unhappy. The hours and pay are a symptom of why: the job is too difficult. It wasn’t always this way, but in tax and to a lesser extent audit, the laws are constantly changing–significantly more so than in the past, which compounds the amount of work that needs to be done every year. I’ve been in audit and still do quite a bit of tax work, but I’ve hit a limit in what I am even willing to learn and put up with. Simplification and consistency are needed in federal and state taxes.

      There is so much more that a graduate needs to know and a steeper learning curve that it’s not even worth the longer-term effort. Increases in pay won’t solve the issue when less difficult careers are available at similar or better salaries. At this point, every CPA student should consider law school.

      1. Seriously! I was just telling myself that the other day. I should have gone into law if being a CPA requires constant training and never ending research. Not worth it.

      2. CPA who just graduated law school. Between the other law school in town and the one I attended, about six of us CPAs decided to attend law school. An interesting fact to ponder, since so much is made of the much maligned 150 hour credit rule. At times, admittedly, I question whether it will pay off and whether being saddled with debt is foolish. However, I would a million times rather be a lawyer with a CPA license surrounded by other lawyers than be around accountants any day of the week. And, I’m a million times grateful that I had the family support and option of pursuing law school as a mid-career professional.

      3. Finally the CPA firms are getting what they deserve. They have been treating their employees like slaves and stooges. The AICPA merged with a non licensed organization – bad news!!

    2. If you are on older accountant it’s because of people like you the profession is the way it is today. You just accepted the way things were without making demands did better working conditions and pay

      1. Not quite. The rug was pulled out from everyone–even the older crowd. Luckily for the olds, they could just retire. I’m only halfway through my career and I wouldn’t continue doing this just for more money. I’m looking to terminate clients and focus in on specific industries. The olds would take anything they could get–assuming they could acquire the knowledge. Now I’m not looking to take on complex clients (too many states, anything foreign, excessive K-1 investments, etc.). I’ve noticed a growing demand by family offices, which have been poaching CPA’s from PA.

      2. People had to make a living. Speaking up in a CPA firm would destroy any chance of advancement. Don’t blame employees for greedy owners who view employees to be expendable.

    3. Finally the CPA firms are getting what they deserve. They have been treating their employees as stooges.

    4. I’ll say it – quit your whining. Those of us who have worked our backsides off to get to where we are now have no sympathy for the younger generation. They come into the job thinking they’ll become controller in 5 years, yet they have absolutely no real-world experience. And when they do get promoted, they bail the first chance they get because they can’t handle the stress. I had been working in the accounting field for 30 years before being promoted to controller. I worked my way up the ladder after starting my career as a billing clerk. I learned all facets of the job and I am still learning, while managing multiple companies.

  2. It high time these professionals vote with their feet. They’re typically smarter and more talented than half the execs, who are clueless and careless with re to what it requires to hold a fort down with the ridiculous pile of accounting and tax regulations. SOX took the life and value out the profession and there’s zero to show for it except wealthier tax, audit and law partners.

  3. I work in corporate operations accounting at a public company as an accounting director. I’d say the most difficult issue is the constant SOX scrutiny from external audit and internal audit. It’s a never ending SOX walkthrough and testing cycle.

  4. Compensation is the problem. Pay is garbage in this profession. Make pay competitive with other professions and we’ll solve the talent problem.

  5. Has anyone thought of structuring a PA firm differently? Of course the hours and pay won’t equate to the effort put in when there are hundreds of firms providing the exact same service. “Independence” is a fallacy. Partners have to grind to keep clients in a competitive market – what leverage do they really have? I’ve been in PA for 10 years and some client fees have increased less than my salary YOY on a % basis. So sure, we don’t get paid what we’re worth, but clients rape us on fees too. This industry needs shaking up! Maybe private equity is attempting this. Idk, I don’t think I have the patience to stick around and find out.

  6. I’m in my late 40s and decided it would be fun to change careers so I got an accounting degree. After my first month and a half at a big 4 firm I can say that the level of incompetence, inefficiency and lack of ethics is shocking. The disconnect between corporate messaging and work reality is huge. I don’t think management/partners realize that the younger generation understands that life is meant to be lived and your youth is fleeting. Enjoy it rather than be used by some old folks to make them rich while you can’t afford rent and food with what they pay you. I’m privileged in that I don’t need the money but I don’t know that I would pursue this if I was I young person just starting out in life.

  7. Profession have become over regulated and the amount of work expected from professionals vs what clients are willing to pay is just worlds apart.

  8. Not to mention that when firms downsized during the pandemic, the younger generation seemed to take the brunt of the hit. Since we were the youngest and least experienced in the firm, regardless of motivation and drive, we were first on the chopping block.

    Unfortunate that all of the people who fired us now want to retire.

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