Most people who leave public accounting have absolutely no intention of going back. These days public accounting would probably take you back in a heartbeat if you changed your mind. But if you feel like you could use another “drink from the firehose” to help propel your career forward and provide you a missing experience or an additional skill set, maybe you should consider the boomerang. In public accounting, the boomerang is that glutton for punishment who left public accounting for industry, only to return for another round.
After three rounds in Big 4 audit, I’m living proof that you can always go back.
The first jump out
After the mass layoffs of the Great Recession, morale at Big 4 firms tanked. The work was “evenly spread around” to those of us who were still employed (in other words; everyone left got dumped on). I started looking to get out in September 2009 after receiving news that my raise would barely match pace with inflation, even though my annual performance rating was “exceeds expectations.”
The economy was tough, but by mid-December, I had a great offer from a promising energy startup, complete with equity and a great pay bump. I came back from Christmas vacation and put in my two weeks’ notice. The partners told me that if I left them high and dry right at the start of busy season that I would never work in public accounting again (turns out, this is another lie told by partners to try to get people to stay).
The first boomerang
Fast-forward 10 months. The startup did not pan out. Our CFO made payroll out of his own pocket. One day I asked him how much more he would invest before pulling the plug, and he told me $1 million. We burned $350,000 of cash per month, so I knew I had three months to find a new job.
Side note: No matter how much equity a company gives you, it is pretty much worthless when the company is about to go belly-up.
The partners at my old office laughed in my face when they heard I needed a new job. They were desperate for seniors, but they wanted nothing to do with me. The thing is, when one Big 4 firm is desperate for seniors, the three other firms usually are, too. Enter Deloitte. They saw the timeline on my resume and completely ignored it. In fact, they gave me a pretty nice signing bonus to come back.
The second jump out
I knew I needed to be more patient this time and get something more stable when I left—I couldn’t risk a startup flopping on my resume again. Even after finding fraud at a client, and having my entire summer ruined as a result, I wasn’t really looking to leave right away. As the engagement wrapped up, the partner told me to take some time off, take my wife to a nice dinner that I could run through, as long as it stayed under $50. After eight consecutive 65-plus-hour weeks in the middle of summer and my team earning the firm almost $400,000 in additional fees as a result of us discovering fraud, this felt like a slap in the face, so naturally I took my wife and some friends to dinner (and did not keep it under $50). One of the friends at the dinner worked in finance at a local publicly traded company. He told me they were hiring for a financial reporting role—an opportunity I could not pass up.
Acknowledging what I’d been through that summer, the partners begged and pleaded with me to stay, offered to find me a better role in six months (and every other lie listed in my article from a couple weeks ago), gave me an 18% raise, and offered me a $10,000 retention bonus to stay another year. The other company came back with a strong counteroffer. I jumped ship again.
The second boomerang
A few years later, the public company I had gone to work for was bought by a private equity firm in a take-private transaction. For the second time in my career, I survived mass layoffs, but my new role was more of a “special projects” position. I was pigeonholed. While I had been given decent pay raises, my boss would not promote me to a manager role citing lack of management experience.
Side note: You can’t get management experience unless you are given management experience along the way, which never happens if nobody will let you do it because you don’t have management experience. The progressive experience handed to people at regular increments is one of the most valuable benefits from public accounting.
One long and boring day, I received a call from a recruiter looking for people with former Big 4 experience to join a consulting firm as “managers.” I jumped, but very quickly realized that that firm’s model was to farm people out to collect huge hourly rates, while the companies we were farmed out to treated us like glorified contractors. I still wasn’t given any real management opportunities.
I started applying for other jobs, but without manager experience and with several hops on my resume, I was rejected over and over again. Then I discovered that my old firm (EY) was hiring (in a different office than I’d started in). They offered to let me come back if I would start at a Senior 3 level. I swallowed my pride and took the job.
My last hop out of public accounting was explained in last week’s article. I now work at an amazing pre-IPO tech company as the director of financial reporting and technical accounting and have never been happier in my entire career.
Why go back?
The first time I boomeranged was out of desperation. I needed a job, and the Big 4 needed people. It worked out alright for both of us. It was a safe landing spot for me to reset my bearings and move on. The second time provided the experience I needed to break into more senior roles in industry.
A trip back through the public accounting grind is not for the faint of heart. Although I believe there is a lot to fix about the culture, work environment, unrealistic expectations and demands of public accounting, I truly believe that the additional experience and the network I built during my return visits propelled my career forward and provided opportunities I would not currently have if I hadn’t gone back.
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. He is also currently publishing a series of short stories entitled, The Best of the Worst: True and Stupid Stories from My 8 Years in Big 4 Accounting.