Thinking about leaving public accounting? You are not alone. With burnout and attrition at an all-time high, partners will tell you almost anything to keep you on board. Often half-truths at best, the lies told to staff, seniors, and managers alike are nothing new. Here are some of my personal favorites:
Lie #1: If you leave public accounting, you will never work with the same caliber of smart people again.
I left Big 4 and now the very same partners who shared this view with me are in charge of our audit. I work with the same teams I worked with at the firm all the time. What were they saying about themselves? (Gasp!)
After several years of the no-nit-too-small-to-pick routine from all those incredibly smart people in audit who split hairs and start nerd-offs at the drop of a hat, it is nice to work with people who don’t start every other sentence with, “Well, technically speaking … (yawn).” People don’t need a CPA license or a master’s degree from a prestigious university to do accounts payable, accounts receivable, reconciliations, etc.
Lie #2: The grass is brown everywhere.
Seriously?! You should stay in public accounting because your career is going to suck no matter where you are? This one is particularly laughable given who is making the statement. Most partners never experience life outside public accounting, so they don’t know what green grass looks like.
No job is perfect, even in industry. You still have to get along with people and play politics. You might not get promoted like clockwork with everyone else in your group. Busy season happens in industry, too. However, in industry, you only have one “client,” you can invest in whatever company you want to without checking a database or letting your employer track your every trade, you can actually spend time with family and friends on weeknights, you don’t have to pad memos with pages of useless garbage just because the partner wants more CYA for the file, and busy season is still seasonal (usually). In summary, green grass.
Lie #3: You are selling yourself short taking that position. If you stay six more months, we will use the firm’s extensive network to help find a really great opportunity for you.
Finding you that great opportunity is almost always the afterthought to the much more pressing issue of keeping you around. To evaluate the likely outcome of this promise, watch how the partner interacts with clients—if anything can be kicked down the road, it will be, and there is a very good chance that you will be treated the same way or worse.
Partners who are attentive to client needs, follow up often, and are genuinely concerned with resolving issues early on are much more likely to follow through on their bargains with employees. Caveat emptor on this one though—I watched as several of my colleagues got sucked in by the dangling carrot for months or even years before realizing it was never going to happen, cutting their losses, and leaving on their own.
Lie #4: On average, you will make more money in public accounting than in industry.
This statement is predicated on the assumption that you will make partner and live out the rest of your career in constant fear of inspections and restatements. Let’s be honest, not everyone is or wants to be on partner track.
The statement also generally ignores the scenario of starting in public accounting and getting a 20% to 30% pay bump leaving between senior and manager, which is what most people come for. It also ignores stock options and the intangible value of a work-life balance equation where work does not equal life.
Lie #5: We will rearrange your schedule so you can work on the client or in the industry you want.
This one typically turns into a pipe dream pretty quickly. Sometimes the firm will follow through if your open time happens to align with a pressing need that fits your request or if you REALLY push for it and are SUPER patient.
I asked to be put on a public client at least once per quarter for two years. Our office was small, and we only had a handful of public clients, but the partners kept telling me they would “do their best to get me rotated into one as soon as possible.” My schedule didn’t change until I had a job offer in hand with one foot out the door. As the ink was still drying on that signed offer, they rushed to rearrange my schedule as a last-ditch effort to keep me. At that point, it was too little, too late.
Lie #6: If you want better work-life balance, you can go on a flex schedule.
Just say no. Deadlines don’t disappear. Staffing shortages always add stress. Unless you are really, really good at saying “no” (and let’s face it, if you are in public accounting, you probably aren’t), then a flex work arrangement equates to the firm paying you less to do the exact same job.
In the grand (pyramid) scheme of things, partners need to keep people around for the model to work. Remember this when you start the conversation with partners about leaving the firm, understand their motivation and perspective, and always take whatever they tell you with a grain (or a two-ton boulder) of salt.
About the author:
C.P. Aiden is a former Big 4 assurance senior manager who bounced between public accounting and industry three times during the past 15-plus years. After leaving public accounting for good, he wrote and self-published The Good Audit (sequel coming soon), a satire about a first-year audit engagement that pokes fun at the work, life, and culture inside today’s largest public accounting firms.