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The Toll of Travel: An Interview With a Former Big 4 Advisory Road Warrior

A recent CNN article on “The Dark Side of Business Travel” outlines the downsides to frequent business travel, including mental illness, family problems, and a plethora of other health issues –- including radiation exposure from frequently flying too close to the sun.

To someone who's never traveled extensively for work, business travel seems so glam. See the sights! Collect frequent flier miles and free hotel stays! Dine on the company's dime! But for Big 4 advisory and audit personnel whose specialty often requires traveling to on-site client work, hotel living and airport food can become downright draining. Going Concern wanted to learn the real deal behind Big 4 business travel –- do the pros of extensive travel outweigh any potential cons?

A former Big 4 advisory employee whose schedule was 85-90% travel for nearly three years agreed to an email interview with me to discuss the reality behind those Big 4 “business travel is so glam” recruiting brochures.

Leona May: Did the pros of traveling extensively (airline miles, hotel points, career experience, professional networking) outweigh the cons (crappy airport food, economy class, randomly traveling to odd locales last minute, etc.)?
Big 4 Advisory Road Warrior: It's about 50/50. I did get to go to some pretty cool places, but then there are the not-so-nice ones that involved multiple layovers and a long car ride, resulting in traveling all day Sunday and not returning home Friday until after midnight, leaving one day for errands, laundry, etc. before shipping out again. I also often was not able to attend office functions which affected my visibility to partners. I performed well and my managers from other offices were happy, but ultimately I don't feel it got translated very well to my home office. I was told it did not impact my performance ratings, but I never believed it. And because I don't feel I was thanked/appreciated for all the travel I did (as evidenced by my constant middle-of-the-road "you're doing exactly what we want you to do" ratings), I felt I was just expected to do it and that saying "no" would hurt my career.

LM: Do you think the extensive travel helped you get a better idea of what you wanted to do next with your career?
B4ARW: Not really. The experience I gained on clients while traveling was experience I could've gotten if I was put on local projects. The biggest reason why I left was that I didn't have control over my life, not just my career. I asked once to be put on local projects for a short time so I could have a travel break, and [the Firm's] response was to loan me to a local external audit client where I'd be working 80+ hour weeks. I figured I might as well be traveling since I'd never be home in that situation either, and I also wouldn't be getting experience I wanted for my chosen career path; therefore, I declined.

LM: Ultimately, did the traveling tie into your decision to leave public for industry?
B4ARW: Indirectly, yes. I actually like to travel a lot and enjoyed getting points so that when I travel for leisure, I often did it for free or minimal cost. The hardest thing for me to deal with was not having control of not just my work schedule, but of my life. I couldn't commit to anything during the week (i.e. concerts, sporting events, appointments, etc) without taking PTO just so I could stay in town. I didn't get the quality time I needed with my [spouse], and frankly, the effect of traveling and the distance it created between me and my [spouse] was a factor that led us to divorce.

LM: What advice do you have for young accountants who are traveling extensively?
B4ARW: Unfortunately, if you want Big 4 on your resume, you just have to deal with it. Very rarely is Big 4 concerned with retaining first/second years that can easily be replaced with the next batch of fresh college graduates. If you've been around for a few years and become someone [the Firm] value[s] as opposed to just another tickmark slave, and you actually do have time to spend getting a director/partner on your side, then you might have a shot.

LM: Finally, could the firm have done anything differently that may have made the traveling easier on you?
B4ARW: I felt other associates got preferential treatment as far as staying local vs traveling. Because I (and others) didn’t have children or a family, us singles inadvertently had to "pick up the slack" for those that did have families and wanted/needed to stay home. It's just the nature of the beast and how Big 4 firms have to operate in order to retain as many resources as possible. I have been asked many times if there was anything that [the Firm] could do to make me stay. My answer remains the same… if I could control the projects/experience I was getting, the amount of travel I did, and the outside-of-the-office career development opportunities I attended rather than it all being chosen for me, I would have stayed. But what Big 4 in their right mind would do (or even be able to do) that for me or any of their thousands easily substituted resources?

For those of you who travel on business, have you had a similar experience? Does your firm tend to schedule travel opportunities evenly among its associates? Do you think the pros of frequent business travel outweigh the cons?

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