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Promotion Games: When Your Responsibilities Don’t Match Your Title

accounting firm promotions

It’s performance review season, and promotion announcements are starting to trickle in. PwC just announced their new partners last week.

As exciting as this time of year is, it’s anti-climatic since promotions in public accounting are very prescribed and follow a consistent timeline:

1. You must work at the firm X number of years (typically 3) to get promoted from associate/staff to senior.

2. You must trudge it out another X number of years and be rewarded with a promotion to manager.

3. And so on until partner.

Some firms say they offer early promotion. I never saw it happen in my time in public accounting. Never. Especially not for a campus hire. No manager wants to set that precedent and have a single lucky first-year staff leapfrogging another staff to senior for fear of discord within the ranks.

Sure, experienced hires might be promoted without waiting for the normal time to elapse. But again, I never saw it.

Mix that with a high turnover rate and — the result — you see auditors and other advisory/attestation professionals who perform the role without the title (or the commensurate salary). Since I didn’t deal with tax teams very often, I’m not sure if their promotion cycles line up the same way, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

For example, it’s common to see lower level staff auditors listed as the “in-charge” staff. This auditor has to take on the role of a senior without the official title to jazz up their resume. It’s already a thankless job to be a senior, even with a title. No one really wants to be stuck being the main point of contact for the client, to lead the status meetings, or to have to review workpapers from the global resources (aka the outsourced client work). It’s much easier to just show up and color with your red pen.

Am I the only one who thinks this is ridiculous?

Many people think titles, especially without an increase in pay, don’t mean anything. I disagree.

Do job titles really matter?

The short answer is yes. Why is everyone telling you to stick around until senior or manager before quitting? Lifehacker has some sage advice:

Your title only makes a significant difference when distinguishing a regular employee from a manager and when you leave your job and have to stick it on your resume.

In public accounting, most people are varying stages of getting ready to jump ship. If you haven’t thought about it yet, you will. So, which title you have when you leave public accounting matters and hiring managers will judge your dedication — and ability to endure busy seasons — by looking at that title. It may not be fair, but it’s a fact.

Fine, you commit yourself to staying until [insert job title here] before you kiss busy season goodbye and look for greener pastures. One problem, firms figured this out too and are capitalizing on it.

Performance review season retention gimmick

Dangling the promotion — i.e. announcing over the Summer but not actually awarding it until the Fall — is one of the Big 4 firms’ sneaky retention tactics. I recall that my performance at KPMG was measured from my start date in September through sometime in April. My performance review took place in July and promotions were announced. Any titles and raises were not doled out until the new fiscal year on October 1.

All “soon-to-be-promoted” auditors end up working above their title for the next couple of months until they are actually promoted, and their pay caught up. My beef: the job duties and responsibilities don’t transition abruptly as the end of the fiscal year, so you’re stuck doing higher level work for less money and no title.

Plus, the performance from May 1 – September 30 of the current year didn’t get acknowledged until the following year. Theoretically, if I did “outstanding” work on an audit in June 2017, it wouldn’t factor into a promotion until October 2018. It’s really hard to be a “high performer” and be eligible for larger percentage increases in base pay with that type of lag.

Again, am I the only one who thinks this is bogus? And, do you think the title you resign with matters when you leave public? Discuss.

Image: iStock/AndreyPopov