A Field Guide to Quitting a Job in Public Accounting

quitting public accounting

That is the look of a man who no longer bears the yoke of a Big 4 job.

Are you fantasizing about quitting your public accounting job?

It’s finally March. Busy season will start to wind down soon and those miserable hours will begin to taper off. You may catch yourself daydreaming about finding another job with more balance, less travel, and a higher salary. But, forcing you back to reality is that fact that even the thought of leaving makes you feel like your tumbling into an unknown abyss headfirst? Quitting a job is terrifying.

The doubts start circling like sharks in your mind:

  • Am I making the right decision and is the timing right so I don’t burn any bridges?
  • Will I regret it later that I didn’t stay longer? To senior? To manager? To — gasp — senior manager?
  • Do I have enough experience to venture out without the public accounting safety net?

Two weeks ago, Jason Bramwell gave you some sound advice on how to decide if the time is right to go into industry. There is a lot to consider, of course. Quitting feels like failing in any job. The profession chews lots of people up and spits them back out; it has nothing to do with you.

When you’ve decided it’s time to take the plunge, here’s what to do:

Step 1: Notice

Keep it short, sweet, and vague. While writing a letter of resignation can be very therapeutic, don’t spill your guts out. Keep it professional. Something like this will do:

April 15, 20XX

Mr. Bill Lumbergh

XYZ Accounting Firm

1234 Independence Avenue

Anytown, NY 12345


Dear Mr. Lumbergh,

I am writing to notify you that I am resigning from my position as Senior Associate with XYZ Accounting Firm. My last day of employment will be April 30, 2018.

I have enjoyed all of the incredible opportunities I have experienced at XYZ Accounting Firm, as well as your mentorship and support. I have nothing but respect for this firm and our outstanding team.

I intend to assist with the transition and will work with all of my engagement teams to ensure transfer of duties is completed without difficulties.

Very respectfully,


Sticking around two weeks is standard. If you’re lower level staff, resist the urge to stay for a month or two to assist with the hand-off of clients and engagements duties. I promise, once you start winding down your engagements, you don’t want it to drag on forever.

Decide when it would be a good time to break the news. Don’t drop it on the team right before a big client meeting. That’s just rude. Be considerate. If you’re never in the office, and rarely see your manager, emailing your letter will do in a pinch. Of course, setting up a time in person is always better. Just be sure to send it with a read receipt, or it may drive you crazy wondering if your manager got it or not.

If you’re emailing the letter, be sure to print and sign the hard copy. A handwritten signature is always best.

Step 2: Your supervisor pulls the HR trigger

Your superior has likely had training about what to say in these situations. Expect some bargaining. Maybe you just need some space and time off? Your manager will try to think of alternative ways (within their authority) to keep you at the firm. Don’t expect this to get you a big raise or anything crazy, however.

One thing that your supervisor is guaranteed to ask, one last time, is “Are you sure?” Be prepared to hold your ground if you’re serious about making the job change. Once your supervisor notifies HR, you’ll start the formal out-processing checklist and get a landslide of emails to make it official.

Step 3: Elation or sleepless nights

After you rip the band-aid off, you can feel many emotions: Pure elation; relief that you never have to step foot into your least favorite client’s office again. On the flip side, it can shift into fear and a feeling similar to buyers remorse. All those thoughts you had before you quit are not louder than ever (especially when you get ready to go to bed at night), namely “Was this a good decision?” and “Did I leave too early in my career and now it’s too late?”

Try to be helpful as you wrap things up, and leave the team member taking over for you lots of notes. It’s better to have a graceful departure than metaphorically setting a fire and walking away. Don’t forget to send out an email to your co-workers letting them know how to keep in touch. Your team may even have a going away lunch on your last day to send you off in style.

Step 4: Finding a new job

It’s always advisable to line up a new job before you hand in your notice, but it doesn’t always happen. That’s OK. I will say, however, having another job lined up will help combat the feeling you’ll be living in a cardboard box, unable to pay your student loans if you quit.

Either way, recruiters like working with people who are leaving public accounting (easy payday for them), so it’s relatively easy to assemble a team of them to help you. When your office phone rings with a cold call from one, don’t hang up right away. Ask them to send you an email. It can’t hurt to build some relationships (or at least get their contact information) before you’re ready to leave, so you know who to call when the timing is right.

Alternatively, go it alone and start searching the web yourself. Accountingfly has some great accounting jobs available. Or, you can apply to join an on-demand CPA network, such as Beech Valley Solutions, and would get periodic notifications about clients looking to staff jobs. One benefit of the latter option is you’d take back the power to say “no” as a freelance CPA.

Step 5: What’s next?

If you missed it, Jason Bramwell interviewed 14 controllers about their transition to industry last month. Now, I’m sure all of them did have “fond memories of their time in public accounting, and some envisioned they’d spend their entire careers there.” At least that’s what I would say too. No one wants to hear about your sour grapes… unless it’s anonymously in the GC Open Items. We’ll listen.

Once you turn in your laptop and have your new job offer in hand, don’t forget to space out your last day at the old job and first day at the new job (if you can swing it financially.) It’s the perfect time to take a vacation without worrying about someone from work interrupting your much needed time off. Enjoy a mojito for me!

Image: iStock/SeventyFour

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