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How To Not Tick Off Your Public Accounting Colleagues Without Being a Clown About It

Last week, Caleb linked to and provided commentary on Lifehacker’s, “How Not to be the Coworker Everyone Hates.” And while the advice provided therein was certainly accurate and useful, the piece had two glaring shortcomings as it relates to public accounting.

First, the title was misleading. Follow through on the four tips found in the article, and not only will you avoid being hated, you will quite likely adorn the cover of all of your firm’s marketing material and make managing partner at 29. Most of you probably had the same reaction to the advice that Homer did when Marge told him what he needed to do to get to heaven, “Whoa, whoa, whoa…I’m just trying to get in, I’m not running for Jesus.”

After all, not everyone begins a career in public accounting with an unwavering eye towards making partner; many set less lofty goals, which usually involve flying under the radar and advancing through attrition. What the Lifehacker article lacks is advice for the everyman; the person who doesn’t want to go through the trouble that truly transformative change entails, but that doesn’t want to be the victim of office-wide voodoo rituals either.

Second, Lifehacker fails to consider the unique subtleties of public accounting life. In our world, small teams of people spend long hours together in close quarters; putting stresses on interpersonal dynamics that are unrivaled by other industries, save for coal mining and space exploration. Thus, our work relationships are most reminiscent of a marriage; dozens of marriages, in fact. And as anyone who has endured a divorce can tell you, most marriages die by 1,000 lashes.

In other words, it’ll be the little things that you do – the idiosyncrasies that your coworkers will be forced to endure thousands of times over the course of a year– that will leave them dreaming of bludgeoning you with a ten-key. And it’s these little things that Lifehacker failed to address.

So while Lifehacker is asking you to commit to years of introspective analysis and unrelenting discipline in hopes of altering prime personality traits that, in all likelihood, are embedded deep within your DNA, I am offering a few quick fixes that are guaranteed to keep you gainfully employed until the job market improves. Don’t let the practical, lighthearted nature of my advice fool you, however; these are genuine tips gleaned from my decade-and-a-half in public accounting that you should take to heart.   

No One Cares What Time You Got In

I’ve worked for three firms, spanning four cities and five offices. Though geographically and culturally different, each experience was united by a common thread – the presence of at least one coworker who spent every day shoehorning into every conversation just how early he or she arrived to the office that morning.

Tip #1: don’t be that person.

Trust me– everyone will hate you for it. No one wants to hear that you were at work at 4 AM, and more importantly, no one cares. We’ve all got our own lives to live. Some people want to wake up and spend some time with their kids, others with a treadmill. Not everyone feels the need to race to the office before dawn for the purpose of painting themselves a martyr.

Helpful hint: If your office has someone like this — provided that person isn’t you — engage him or her in a little game. It works like so: you and a friend both strike up independent conversations with the coworker that couldn’t be less directly related to the time you both arrived at the office, and see how quickly the person can steer the conversation back to that point. Lowest score wins. For example:

You: This Chris Christie thing is something else, huh?

Person: Yeah, it’s crazy that he may have caused that traffic jam on purpose. Ugh, I hate traffic. The only good thing about coming in at 5 this morning is I didn’t have to deal with any of that. 

SCORE:  3!

When It’s Time to Go Home, Just Go Home

We work long hours. This is a fact. But if you want to endear yourself to your coworkers, when your work day mercifully comes to an end, just leave. Don’t make a big production of gathering up a bunch of files, slowly walking among the cubes, and loudly proclaiming that you’re bringing work home with you.  People hate that shit.

At 10 PM on a March Tuesday, no one admires you for bringing work home. In fact, your coworkers are sure to see you as either a one-dimensional lunatic, or much more likely, as completely full of shit. In general, people are smart enough to realize that those files probably won’t see the light of a lamp once you arrive home; instead, you’ll prop your feet up and watch Ancient Aliens. And do you know what? You deserve to.

Here’s my advice — when your work day ends, be proud of the long, hard day you’ve put in, be cognizant of the fact that you have to go back and do it again tomorrow, and quietly pack up your stuff, make like a tree, and get the f*ck out of there. 

Never Start with “Quick Question”

Unless it’s going to be followed immediately by, “Which way to the bathroom?” do NOT preface a query to a coworker with “quick question.” First off, if you don’t know the answer, who are you to judge whether it’s a quick question or not? As a tax guy, I deal with this all the time – someone starting with “quick question,” before laying some debt versus equity issue on me that hasn’t been resolved by 100 years of case law.

How’s about I let you know how quick your question was after I answer it?

Even worse, when you start a question in that manner, you established the expectation that it’s an easy question. Now, if the other person doesn’t have the answer at the ready, they’re left feeling ineffectual. That ain’t right. Just ask your question. Skip the preemptive guilt trip. 

Respect Your Coworkers

As I said, it’s the seemingly innocuous things that will make your coworkers hate you. What follows are some do’s and don’ts to consider that share one common trait — they all show your coworker some respect. Adding these to your workday habits will go a long way towards making you an office favorite.

  • DON’T send an email explaining, “I’ve attached the relevant research,” only to have that “relevant research” include 3 megs and 80 pages of documents that you haven’t bothered to index in any fashion. Narrow your coworkers’ focus; after all, he or she is busy, just like you. They shouldn’t have to spend the time parsing through a huge attachment in search of the handful of important sentences.
  • DON’T send an email instructing the other party to “see the email chain below” if that chain is any longer than two emails. If you don’t care enough to summarize the salient issues, you’re sending the message to the other party that their time isn’t valuable.  And they will hate you for it.
  • When you ask a technical question of someone higher on the totem pole, DO think about the issue independently before you solicit help. Like it or not, your job is to make the job of the person above you easier. It’s perfectly fine to ask for assistance, but make sure you’ve first invested time and effort into reaching a conclusion, and share your thought process or research with the coworker so they don’t feel like a dumping ground.   
  • When asking important questions – or any question where you may potentially “rely” on the answer – DO opt for emails over phone calls or conversations. Emails leave a paper trail that protects both parties, and allows the person providing the answer to point to the email at a later date and say, “I relied on these facts that you provided in reaching my conclusion.” Bounce an endless string of verbal questions off a coworker, and they will start to feel exposed and uncomfortable, and likely stop making themselves available to you.

Give these things a shot, and see if things get better for you around the office. If they don’t, you may want to consider the possibility that you’re just an awful, awful person.