Employment-at-will. It’s a lovely sentiment; if you don’t like it, quit. Easy. But, all jobs require you to do things that aren’t your cup of tea. Once you sign an offer letter at your accounting firm of choice, your schedule will be decided months in advance by the scheduling overlords (i.e., whichever unlucky partner or senior manager gets saddled with the undesirable task.)
Consider this: You get a call/email saying that the firm just landed a new client. You’ve been put on the client to start ASAP. (Oh, lucky you!) You must pack your bags and be in another city on Monday morning to begin fieldwork. It’s all very unexpected and extremely inconvenient given you already have dinner plans with a friend and a doctor appointment on your schedule that will need to change.
Of course, you can say no. That’s always an option, I guess. But, it’s not really an option. You don’t want the reputation of being difficult to assign or perceived as having a bad attitude. You don’t have that much of a choice.
As expected, if you do bring it up to your manager, the response will be less than accommodating. Your manager will probably say, “Oh, you have plans this week? So sorry, that’s too bad. I’m sure you can reschedule. I promise this is such a great opportunity for your career! You’ll be the in-charge on the engagement and you’ll be broadening your skill set.”
I’ll borrow a term from the military: Voluntold. Military.com defines voluntold as “an assignment that is technically voluntary but understood to be mandatory,” and accounting firms have their share of them. Let’s look at a few.
Situations you’ll reluctantly say yes to in an accounting firm
Out of town clients
Everyone knows that jet-setting to other cities is glamorous and very enjoyable until it’s for work. It gets old when you have to pack up to go somewhere every single week. You can’t really make plans in advance since you’re not sure if you’ll be in town. Frequent flyer miles and hotel points are great, but all you want is to sleep in your own bed.
Firms love recruiting and it makes complete sense: it is in the firm’s best interest to keep the pipeline of fresh recruits healthy. The firm accomplishes this by keeping the events stocked with happy associates to get recruits drinking the kool-aid early. It’s hard to trust an associate telling someone how great their work-life balance is when they’re “typically the ones that get voluntold to be at the events talking to students,” according to this Reddit comment.
Community service and giving campaigns
All firms dabble in philanthropic activities since it’s the “right thing to do.” So, as an ID-card holding firm member, you will be taking part. For example, Deloitte has an Impact Day that employees are encouraged to participate in. Interns and new hires are prime targets for this type of activity. The further along you are in your accounting career, the more likely it will be a monetary donation rather than one that involves you offering up your time. Again, it’s frowned upon to say no. You’d be a horrible, stingy person if you said no.
Inconvenient client meetings and inventory counts
Working with a client in another country, well you’ve just been voluntold to lead the status meetings — at 5:30 AM. Or, want to ring in the new year partying with your friends? Scratch that, you’ll be doing an inventory count. Who needs friends anyway? Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Clients above your skill set and professional experience level
This might be the most common. With the level of turnover in the industry, you are almost guaranteed to be sent out to a client woefully unprepared. Maybe the client will not notice? That’s the hope. But, rest assured your manager will. Be prepared for the aftermath.
Here’s a real-world example from a Big 4 alum:
When I was a senior associate, I was assigned to do a massive count — essentially a comprehensive inventory — of securities at an investment bank. These were alternative investments, however, meaning documentation of them wasn’t necessarily great or easy to pin down. My client contact was some middle manager who was cordial but easily irritated. I had to meet with him weekly to discuss progress and things were never progressing fast enough. Making matters worse, this “security count” had never been done before so I had to figure out the scope without the benefit of prior year work or a manager or partner who could advise me on how best to approach the project.
At first, I thought it was an opportunity since that’s how my management team pitched it to me. Only after working on it for a few weeks did I realize that it was basically a suicide mission. If I succeeded, it wouldn’t be seen as much of an accomplishment since the client just needed it done for some internal compliance exercise. If I failed, I was expendable. The result landed somewhere in the middle; I completed the project with the help of a merry-go-round of associates who could assist me when they had downtime, but when my performance review came around, I was blamed for mismanaging the project. It was a real treat.
A stretch assignment is one thing. But, many times it’s not just out of your comfort zone. It’s a living nightmare. Sure, some people can make the best of any situation… until you can’t.
Again, consider the real world situation we mentioned above. Even after many sleepless nights and undue stress, it wasn’t even worth it:
My best recollection of the feeling I had while I was working on this project was constant dread. I dreaded the meetings with the client. I dreaded giving status updates to managers. I dreaded people asking me how the project was going. I dreaded not knowing how I was going to complete it. There never seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel. And then by some miracle, the project was completed, but instead of gratitude or credit, I got a heap of shrugs and blame. It was morale-shattering.
The danger of all voluntold situations is an ongoing cycle of what Harvard Business Review calls the setup-to-fail syndrome. One or two unexpected voluntold assignments with a bad performance review (for whatever reason) can lead to bigger, more systemic issues:
By creating and reinforcing a dynamic that essentially sets up perceived underperformers to fail. If the Pygmalion effect describes the dynamic in which an individual lives up to great expectations, the set-up-to-fail syndrome explains the opposite. It describes a dynamic in which employees perceived to be mediocre or weak performers live down to the low expectations their managers have for them. The result is that they often end up leaving the organization—either of their own volition or not.
In time, because of low expectations, they come to doubt their own thinking and ability, and they lose the motivation to make autonomous decisions or to take any action at all. The boss, they figure, will just question everything they do—or do it himself anyway.
And what if you are one of those people who doesn’t mind these voluntold opportunities? You feel like you are getting some great experience and can rise to the challenge, whatever it is — don’t think there isn’t some severe backlash for you, too:
The set-up-to-fail syndrome also has serious consequences for any team. A lack of faith in perceived weaker performers can tempt bosses to overload those whom they consider superior performers; bosses want to entrust critical assignments to those who can be counted on to deliver reliably and quickly and to those who will go beyond the call of duty because of their strong sense of shared fate. As one boss half-jokingly said, “Rule number one: if you want something done, give it to someone who’s busy—there’s a reason why that person is busy.”
Since there’s no escape from being voluntold at least at some point, be mindful of the varying levels of difficulty and long-term side effects. In sum, recruiting events are mostly harmless (even if they’re testing your honesty) and usually offer free food; lots of unexpected travel can impact your relationships and your health so it can be negative if not balanced with some office admin time; but it seems that saying no to giving campaigns and bombing on “set-up-to-fail” assignments can be hazardous to your career. Be careful out there.