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How Should an Associate Handle the ‘Sink or Swim’ Nature of His Small Firm?

Welcome to the can-we-trade-twisters-for-raptures? edition of Accounting Career Emergencies. In today’s edition, a small firm associate works in a sink or swim environment and he feels like sandbags are tied to his feet. Is there anything he can do to sink less?

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Back to accountant who needs a life preserver:


How do I deal with not having much support at my office? I just started around 4 months ago as a staff accountant and anytime I have a question, my boss tells me to figure it out, to bring him the financials so he “can do (my) job for (me)” or to just move on to the next audit.

There are seven full time employees here and my boss and I are the only ones working through audits. I really want to learn the entire process of performing audits, but I can’t get anyone to help me. I’ve asked around, Googled and even asked him to guide me through the process. There has not been any training as to their methodology for auditing. Is this typical for very small local firms? I’ve heard the first year is the hardest and you dont really know anything. I feel like I’m trying to drink out of a firehose! Help!

– Doing My Best

Dear Doing My Best,

To quote a Scotsman from some terrible over-budgeted spoon-fed cinema: losers whine about their best and winners go home and fuck the prom queen. Since you work at an accounting firm (where no one really wins) and haven’t been in sniffing distance of a prom dress in ages, that advice doesn’t really do you much good. Lucky for you, I’m familiar with your plight.

Small firms are enormously diverse and you’re at an extremely small firm. I started my career in a similar situation, at firm with less than 20 people. In that scenario, it was difficult to get anyone to explain anything to me, “methodology” wasn’t really thrown around much (literally or figuratively) and training was virtually non-existent. So to answer your question: your experience is common at a small firm and the first year is extremely tough.

Now, as for what you can do about it – my advice would be to really think about your questions before you ask them. If you’re running to your “boss” every five minutes with a question, it’s not surprising that they might lose patience with you. Really try to work through problems until you’re absolutely stuck on something. Small firms are fond of “look at last year’s file” as standard operating procedure and you should do just that. Most of these clients won’t have much for changes and their business shouldn’t be complicated, so using last year’s files as reference will be helpful.

If you find yourself having done as much work as possible and are at a dead end, then go to your boss and explain exactly what you’ve tried to do and why you’re stuck in neutral. If you explain to them all the roads you’ve tried to take, then they might be more willing to point you in the right direction. If he/she is still unwilling to help, then you might consider calling them out for it or request to work on something other than audits. If you don’t feel like you’re learning anything because no one has taken the time to teach you anything, that reflects poorly on them not you. If they act like they’re above giving you any guidance, then it’s pretty clear that they suck at their job.

If you manage to make some headway, you’ll start to notice that things eventually begin to make sense and year two (granted you survive) will be much easier than the first. Good luck.