October 19, 2021

Can an Accounting Firm Be a ‘Guilt-Free Zone’?

As we all know, Millennials mystify their older, non-Millennial co-workers. Their common refrain of questions range from, "Why are Millennials entitled?" to "Why do Millennials need constant feedback?" to "Why do Millennials want to work at a Parisian coffee shop 3 days a week?" to "What's with all the sexting?"

Despite the confusion, employers still want and need young employees, which is why you see a deluge of media coverage around the topic of attracting and keeping Millennial workers.

Accounting firms, to their credit, have tried like hell to shed their image of stuffy, old, white, straight guys — homely, analytical Mad Men, basically — into something that's more representative of the changing workforce. Have they been successful? Meh. A for effort, maybe.

But they're still trying! And in this CNNMoney piece from last month we encountered a new message from none other than PwC:

"We've all smartened up," said Anne Donovan a managing director at PwC and the firm's talent transformation leader.

PwC wants associates to "expect" that their team will try to accommodate their personal needs — whether it's going to a yoga every Tuesday or attending your kids' weekly games.

Bless your heart, Anne Donovan. Of course PwC wants its associates to expect their co-workers to try accommodating their personal needs. But most associates find out, quite quickly, that "try" is the operative word in that statement. They learn that the weekly yoga class is just fine but it's conditional on client demands, team dynamics, whether (s)he wants a good performance assessment and therefore a merit increase, bonus, promotion and a whole host of other things that are baked into PwC's business model. It's not binary. You can't turn it on and off when there are so many variables in play.

But never mind that. This is the best part:

"We're trying to create a guilt-free zone," Donovan said.

Accounting firms were built on guilt! It's part of their culture! Generation upon generation of partners talking about paying dues, mandatory 60-hour weeks (that doesn't include the 20 you ate!), bending over backwards in the name of "client service," timesheets and ignoring your loved ones all for meager pay. Then, if you're lucky, you'll become a partner and then you can instill that in the next crop of capital market servants. This is in the DNA of every accounting firm and it's why the small firms can't find anyone to work for them even though more and more college students are studying accounting. Small firms aren't even thinking about turning themselves into guilt-free zones let alone trying to create one.

PwC might — might — be able to pull this off, but it'll take years, maybe a decade or more. Shifting a firm's culture away from obligation towards something that more resembles Facebook's or Google's culture can't be accomplished through a PR campaign. It means fundamentally changing a firm's attitude towards its employees. And accounting firms don't have a great track record in that regard.

What do you think? Can an accounting firm be a guilt-free zone? Talk it out.


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