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Did a PwC Auditor Work Herself to Death?

Pan Jie was a 25 year-old auditor in PwC’s Shanghai office, starting her career with the firm last October. She died of acute cerebral meningitis on April 10th, having “ignored the illness until a fever surged,” after catching the flu on March 31st. Reports have stated that Jie told a friend that “she had been working up to 18 hours a day and about 120 hours a week,” prior to her death.


A doctor quoted by one of the reports explained the cause:

Dr Wang Guisong, an expert in the neurosurgery department at Renji Hospital, said overwork can make people more vulnerable to infections. “Based on her symptoms and her low white blood cell count, it’s reasonable to conclude that overwork led to a weakened immune system, which makes her more vulnerable to infections,” Wang said. “When an infection worsens over time, people can develop acute cerebral meningitis.”

According to the story, PwC has denied that Ms Jie died from work-related fatigue but it’s hard to argue that her fatigue was caused by anything else. The firm is providing psychologists for employees, has sent a “team” to comfort Jie’s family and has even offered to assist with the cost of her funeral and this kind of outreach is admirable but the overarching culture within Big 4 firms is really what is of concern here.

Fatigue from overworking is not uncommon in the Big 4 life but when someone dies as a result of the fatigue, that’s will obviously get some attention (even if it’s just for a little bit). At some point it became acceptable for sleep – and health in general – to become of secondary importance when it comes to having a successful career. If you don’t believe me, look around you; everyone is exhausted and that’s part of the life inside a Big 4 firm. The pressures of performance in the name of client service are so great that people regularly come to work when they should be in bed or, in some cases, an emergency room. Of course there’s the macho contingent inside these firms that say “sleep is for the weak” and that’s the kind of attitude that perpetuates the culture of “getting the job done.” How is this acceptable? Not only can lack of sleep kill you, it doesn’t really do much for job performance. We’ve all seen people make big mistakes when they’re lacking sleep and yet no one considers the root cause. If you think skipping a few hours of sleep a night is worth to a few thousand dollars a year (at best) then you’ve got some seriously fucked up priorities.

I admit that people aren’t dropping left and right inside these firms due to lack of sleep but let’s quit pretending like working hours upon hours, putting your health at risk and coming into work looking like – pardon the expression – death warmed up is some kind of badge of honor.

Are Accountants Really That Depressed?

Apparently! Health.com churned out “10 Careers With High Rates of Depression” and lo and behold, Financial Advisors and Accountants made the list of “fields […] in which full-time workers are most likely to report an episode of major depression in a given year.”

Stress. Stress. Stress. Most people don’t like dealing with their own retirement savings. So can you imagine handling thousands or millions of dollars for other people?

“There is so much responsibility for other people’s finances and no control of the market,” Legge says. “There is guilt involved, and when (clients) are losing money, they probably have people screaming at them with regularity.”

Over at CPA Success, Bill Sheridan writes, “That strikes me as a simplistic and overly dramatic conclusion, with no mention at all of the opportunities CPAs have to help their clients improve their personal and professional lives. But what do I know?” We agree with Bill, that the write-up doesn’t really portray accountants accurately, some might say, “bullshit” but stress is part of your job. Does that mean everyone feels like running into sick room and sobbing every day? Well…maybe some of you. There are plenty of people that thrive on the stress and then there are those that bottle it up until they finally quit with a melodramatic sendoff.

Everyone knows that working long hours for weeks on end can eventually get to even the toughest of white-collar warriors but your run-of-the-mill stressed out accountant typically has methods for dealing with the the busy season blues. Some people exercise; some people get their religion on; some people drink/smoke/snort themselves into oblivion. Do those things work? Sure, sometimes. But we’ve all worked with that person who you expect to suddenly not show up. Are there more of those people than there used to be? Hard to say. Maybe we should talk about it. Let it out; it will feel good. Plus, we’re cheaper than a therapist.

Annoying Busy Season Problem of the Day: Streaming Video of Live Sporting Events Is Under Attack

From the Twitbag:


For those not fluent in all things Internet, Atdhe and many other live sports streaming sites are being taken down like Mubarak the Nixon Administration. The Department of Homeland Security is all over this, having seized ATDHE.net but apparently they’ve relocated here. All of this uncertainty has our reader concerned:

If you’re suffering from a similar malady, please advise below how you plan to deal or merely suggest an alternative prescription for making busy season more bearable.

KPMG’s Latest “Green Initiative” Has One Employee Demanding Sherpas

[caption id="attachment_24110" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Clearly a KPMG auditor; all the supplies are blue."][/caption]

As many of you are aware, schlepping around a laptop, supplies and God knows what else is standard operating procedure for many Big 4 employees. If you work in New York, this annoyance is compounded by the fact that you have to coordinate all this stuff in an awkward balancing act in order to walk (at least partially) to your desired location. Even if your engagement budget allows you to take a cab, the annoyance factor is high.

Unfortunately, this has now been made worse (never mind the slick sidewalks for two), according to a tipster who has a beef with the New York office of KPMG’s latest attempt to save the planet:

I don’t know why this set me off the way it did, but this really made me very angry so I thought I’d send it in to you to post for open internet mockery. Now in addition to carrying around a laptop, printers, the new second monitors, binders etc all over the city, KPMG expects me to strap a MUG to myself and heaven forfend I use a “Guest Mug” because then how will I compete in this swell “Original Mug Contest”?

I’m 115 pounds, I don’t have the body mass to deal with what is gradually turning into some sort of fully equipped mountain climbing expedition. KPMG needs to start handing out sherpas. Immediately after this email went out, about three different conversations involving stockpiling paper cups in various drawers started around me. What is 500K cups anyways, about half a tree? My free cup of crummy coffee in my paper cup that requires next to no effort to get is the high point of my day, so screw you KPMG Green Initiative.

Here’s the email describing the initiative (sorry for the disjointed look, we had to clip it twice) that caused our tipster to fly off the handle.

So not only does insufficient auditing space have their unforeseen repercussions, the quantity of stuff that auditors are asked to drag with them is reaching critical mass. No lives appear to be in danger yet but one has to wonder where the breaking point is. Your concerns and reactions are welcome at this time.

Nightmare Audit Rooms Have Their Consequences

The following post is republished from AccountingWEB, a source of accounting news, information, tips, tools, resources and insight — everything you need to help you prosper and enjoy the accounting profession.

With no place to work in the office of the housing authority of a major city, the audit team was provided tables and chairs in the hallway of a renovated apartment building that connected the swinging front door with the elevators. In the middle of winter in a city located on a bay, the wind swept into the hallway driving temperatures to near freezing. Clothed in parkas, scarves, wool hats and gloves, the audit team struggled through the engagement.

Auditing rural hospitals, CPA firm personnel were ordinarily assigned to a patient room for workspace since there was no room for them in the hospital office. This year there were no patient rooms available so they were assigned to the morgue! Steel tables and high stools were their accommodations. Formaldehyde, dead bodies draped in sheets and the medical examiner’s buzz saw greeted them each day.


The auditors of a plumbing contractor were assigned a dark, damp room in the basement for workspace. The room was two flights of stairs and several hundred yards from the accounting office.

Two auditors were assigned workspace at a desk adjacent to and facing the controller. The controller smoked, they didn’t.

I could relate more true stories on and I suspect you could add your experiences to this list of inadequate fieldwork workspace. Here are some obvious questions:

1. Did any of these scenarios increase time charges on the engagements?
2. Who had responsibility to correct or prevent these circumstances?
3. When should corrective action be taken?
4. What actions should have been taken?

Question 1: Of course time charges were increased! The auditors of the housing authority said the audit required almost twice the amount of time it should have. The hospital auditors lost numerous hours going for fresh air and to the restroom to vomit! Going back and forth to the accounting office wasted enormous amounts of time, although the team did lose weight. Not only was the health of the non-smokers impaired, they wasted time leaving the room to discuss audit issues and securing all working papers and electronic equipment every time they left the room.

Question 2: The in-charge accountants on these engagements had responsibility to run the fieldwork but their “stick” wasn’t big enough to get the managements to change their workspace. It was the engagement leaders’ responsibility to speak with managements to correct the situations.

Question 3: If the workspace could not be improved internally, a nearby motel room, a recreation vehicle parked outside a client’s facility or an electronic air filer could be remedies. The cost of these alternatives is likely far less than the unbillable wasted time.

Question 4: This is a planning activity! Proper workspace should be arranged by the engagement leader before the fieldwork begins. Engagement profits can be increased considerably by using foresight and arranging for proper workspace!

(UPDATE 2) Outlook 2011: How Will the 9th Circuit Rule in Campbell v. PricewaterhouseCoopers?

~ Update includes oral argument date included in third paragraph

~ Update 2 includes correction of the spelling of “Stepan Mekhitarian” under the list of amicus briefs for the plaintiffs.

One of the stories that we’ve covered with interest since the launch of Going Concern has been the wage and hour lawsuits in California. For those needing a refresher, these are suits that were brought by non-licensed associates against various accounting firms (list of cases at bottom of this post) included who believe they were misclassified under California law as exempt professionals and are due overtime and other benefits due to non-exempt empltle differently, “I worked a ton of hours during busy season and all I got was sleep deprivation, a fat ass and I still don’t have a CPA so, pretty please, I’d like a little more money.”


Every once in awhile we get asked about the status of these cases and since it’s been a few months almost a year since our last post, we thought we’d update you briefly. You may remember that the main case, Campbell v. PricewaterhouseCoopers, is currently with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on interlocutory appeal over the issue of whether “learned professionals” can be defined as an exempt employees.

We recently spoke with a source familiar with the defense’s strategy in this case and learned that the two sides are to give oral arguments before the court sometime early this year on February 15th, after which, the Court will likely render its decision in the latter part of 2011 (everyone’s hoping, anyway). Regardless of the decision in the 9th Circuit, the case will go back to the trial court, so get comfortable.

While the developments in the case have been slow, it is interesting to note that both sides are both confident in their chances of victory in the 9th Circuit and make no mistake, it’s an important ruling. If the 9th Circuit were to rule in the favor of the plaintiffs, it could very well be a quick resolution, as the plaintiffs’ attorney, Bill Kershaw told us in July 2009, “the likelihood of the case resolving itself prior to trial would substantially increase,” although, our source disagreed with this sentiment, so we’re counting on a battle.

Something else worth noting (that we may have glossed over in prior posts) is that there are suits brought in both state and federal court. The main difference being that at the state level, once a suit is classified as a class-action, individuals are classified as plaintiffs until they opt out while the cases at the federal level are “collective action” where once a particular group of people are identified as plaintiffs, they are given the chance to opt in to participate in the lawsuit. In other words, employees of a firm who are thought to be non-exempt under California law, are automatically members of the class-action in state court while in federal court, potential plaintiffs have to choose to participate voluntarily. This makes the federal cases broader in scope geographically but trials at the state level will have a larger number of members in the class-action, which could mean a larger settlement.

Finally, some additional new information that we have to pass along are the organizations that filed amicus briefs on behalf of both parties. Here are the groups that filed amicus briefs on behalf of both parties; the notables being the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AICPA for PwC:

Organizations Filing Amicus Briefs in Support of PwC

1. Employers Group, Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America, and California Chamber of Commerce (one brief)

2. American Institute of Certified Public Accountants

3. California Employment Law Council

Organizations Filing Amicus Briefs in Support of Plaintiffs

1. California Employment Lawyers Association

2. Former Commissioner of the California Industrial Welfare Commission (Barry Broad) and Former Chief Counsels of the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (Miles Locker and H. Thomas Cadell) (one brief)

3. Brandy Blaske, David Lee, Julia Longnecker, Stephan Stepan Mekhitarian, and Svetlana V. Murphy (all are Plaintiffs in Mekhitarian, et al. v. Deloitte & Touche, a proposed class action involving D&T’s Tax line of service)

So while it will be some time before we’ll see a ruling in Campbell this year, not to mention a resolution at the trial level, you can bet lots of unlicensed PwC employees will be working plenty of hours this busy season.

Wage & Hour Lawsuits

Some Clarification on the Bathroom Situation at E&Y Jericho

Yesterday, we shared a story with you that probably caused you to thank your lucky stars that you don’t work in Norway (especially if you’re a woman). In that post, we called back to our old report from January about the secure lavatories at Ernst & Young’s Long Island location in Jericho.

You may have been under the impression that someone within E&Y was responsible for the lockdown, however, thanks to an enterprising E&Y employee, we now know who the keymasters really are:

I don’t work in the Jericho office, but got shipped out there for random clients for most of this summer. The bathrooms are in the common areas shared by all tenants of the building, so the keyed entry to the bathrooms is mandated by the building management, not EY (not that I’d put it past the partners to come up with something like this, though).

Also, while there are keys for each bathroom, there are also entry codes you can use instead. So you can grab one of the communal keys (kinda gross), or remember the terribly difficult four digit code (0001 if I remember correctly).

As a side note, I remember the admin mentioning that the original set of five keys for the men’s room was down to two. I’m wondering why someone would make off with these nasty over-sized germ farms.

Okay, so the missing keys aren’t news but what’s it going to take to get some extras made? And, again, who’s making off with the keys in the first place?

And while it’s good to know that the E&Y brass in Jericho aren’t actually the ones putting the clamp on the johns, would it kill them to spring for some private restrooms that non-E&Yers don’t have access to? It’s one thing to have to schlep to the front desk to get a key every time; it’s entirely another to be sharing a bathroom with the entire building. What is this, Penn Station?

Seriously, how much time and cost would it take to throw in some pots, sinks, urinals and XLERATORs®? It’s a health issue for crissakes.

Now That Busy Season Is Long Over, Are You Still Killing Yourself for the Sake of Productivity?

Many of you and your fellow accountants are doing more with less these days. Your company has had cutbacks, people have bolted for (presumably) greener cube farms and you’re left to do the heavy lifting. You’re miserable but dammit, you’re not happy unless you’re unhappy, amiright?!?

Besides, you’re doing an awesome job, as Tony Schwartz writes at the Harvard Business Review blog The Conversation, “Americans are working 10 percent fewer total hours than they did before the recession, due to layoffs and shortened workdays, but we’re producing nearly as many goods and services as we did back in the full employment days of 2007.”

He cites AG’s archenemies Ben Bernanke as saying these are “extraordinary” gains in productivity by you, the American worker.

Except there’s one small problem with this, Mr Schwartz notes:

[I]t’s called fear. If colleagues around us are being laid off and cut back, we can’t help worrying that our jobs may be next. Our survival instincts kick in, and we push ourselves harder, so we’re not the next one to go. We get more done, which sounds like good news and certainly explains higher productivity…

…Americans already put in more hours than workers in any country in the world – and that doesn’t include the uncounted shadow work that technology makes possible after the regular workday ends.

Here’s the bigger point. Just as you’ll eventually go broke if you make constant withdrawals from your bank account without offsetting deposits, you will also ultimately burn yourself out if you spend too much energy too continuously at work without sufficient renewal.

Sound familiar to anyone? No one really thinks that you’re working like a mad(wo)man because you love your spreadsheets that much. You know what? Try giving the shit a rest. You can ask E&Y; they’ll tell you. Mr Schwartz mentions “A comprehensive study by Ernst & Young showed that the longer the vacation their employees took, the better they performed.” There it is! One of your own has proof that you’re better employees if you took a break.

Whether E&Y has translated these findings into mandatory vacation for its employees is unclear. Regardless, there are those hopeless souls who consider their presence indispensable and simply won’t take time off to recharge or – God forbid – enjoy doing anything besides working. Sigh. Unfortch, As long as face time (i.e. the billable hour) rules then this will likely continue, unless TPTB wake up. “Stop measuring your people by the hours they put in, and focus instead on the value they produce.”

The Productivity Myth [The Conversation/HBR]

Pictures of the Day: One Idea to Help Keep the Utilization Up

As you well know, it’s key for all of you to stay as fully utilized as possible this busy season, and sometimes little things make all the difference.
A reader provided us with the following idea:
bathroom23.jpg
The strategically placed marker board will come in handy when all those great ideas pop into the grey matter.
bathroom3.jpg
Or you can just memorize Giants statistics.


bathroom10.jpg
Say what you will about the impracticalities of this set up but at least you won’t have to chase down a key.
We strongly encourage you to submit any chicanery that you might cook up this busy season. We’re here to help you stay sane.