Dear GC:In social settings, I often get asked what I do for a living. I have found that this is difficult to explain to the layperson.I'm an auditor. "Oh, do you threaten to audit people like in that movie with Will Ferrell?"I'm an accountant. "Oh, so you're good at numbers, and can help me with my taxes?"I work to gain reasonable assurance that financial statements are fairly stated. "Oh…that's nice."I work at McGladrey, it's a major player in the financial industry. "Oh cool, so is that like Wall Street? What kind of stocks do you invest in?"So how does one go about explaining their work to a girl at the bar? I've found that "professional Zippo repairman" works well. At least that doesn't awkwardly end the conversation and has the benefit of making you sound somewhat interesting….Sincerely,Style
Once again we dig into the ol' mailbag to answer a question that has plagued one of your fellow capital market servant colleagues. If you have questions on anything from appropriate footwear to choosing the right tickmark from the supply room to handling awkward sexual advances by a coworker, email us.
Thank you for your question. This is a common malady among many accountants, but auditors specifically, since the word "auditor" carries a negative connotation. As you've already stated, when people hear it they automatically assume that you're some government drone that gives the financial equivalent of a full rectal exam. While your clients may partially agree with this assessment, it's hardly the description you want to give to "a girl at the bar" or a garden-variety bro who will both be judging your professional chops.
When describing your career choice, I do like that you've gotten creative with "professional Zippos repairman," however I can't condone its use because it is, simply, a complete fabrication. Now, if you are an audacious liar then this is fine; however, you wrote us an email asking for advice, so it seems you'd like to be truthful. The tricky part is doing it in a way that doesn't cause a person's eyes to glaze over or cause them to walk away abruptly. Luckily, there are a number of approaches you can use independently or in combination to make your "auditor" explanation a little easier to swallow.
1. Take the idealist approach – You might say something like, "I serve the capital markets by assuring that the companies we invest in are producing fair and accurate representations of their financial positions, their profitability (or lack thereof), and cash flows." It's important that you sound as earnest as possible, so to make your job sound bafflingly important. Your recipient will be so impressed that (s)he will feel inadequate and will quickly change the subject.
2. Relate it to sports somehow – This is especially useful when you're engaging an inquisitive dude. Go with "I'm the quarterback/captain/fearless leader of a team that double-checks the 'score' that a corporation keeps for itself." If you still get a blank look, then try incorporating Xs and Os on a whiteboard.
3. Keep it at as vague as possible – Surprisingly, "I help businesses with their numbers," sometimes will suffice as an answer. However, it's important to gauge the sincere interest of your target. If you suspect that (s)he is simply opening their pie hole because they can't stand the awkward silence, then it's completely acceptable to provide a shallow answer to a shallow question.
4. Only name drop if it helps you – Generally, the Big 4 firms enjoy name recognition (even you, KPMG!). Yes, the largest accounting firms are fairly well known among the rubes of this fair land and many of these unsuspecting citizens are marginally impressed by these firms. Simply mentioning who you work for will sufficiently impress some people because they know that it's "business stuff" and won't ask too many more questions. If questions persist, refer to #1-3. Unfortunately for second-tier firms, this does not work. It's not thing personal but "McGladrey" sounds more like a poor man's of Paddy's Pub.
5. The prostitute comparison – A go-to for those of you that have a cynical outlook on your jobs. This can be easily incorporated into your explanation when nothing else seems to be penetrating your target's brain. It's especially effective because it equally describes your awful working conditions but also works as an appropriate job description – professional services whore.
Remember – you have to know your mark before picking a narrative. Believe it or not, the occasional rando will actually be interested in your profession, so don't sell yourself short if the person is showing genuine interest. And finally, generally speaking, mentioning that you're a career underachiever probably won't go far in making an impression. Just a hunch.