September 15, 2019

Accounting Had a Toxic Culture Before It Was Cool

In February 2013, one unfortunate former Big 4 intern asked his manager for Saturday morning off to rotate his tires.

Instead of addressing the intern’s “noobish” request for time off on a Saturday in busy season, his managers forwarded that email to every.last.accountant.on.the.planet, and to Going Concern because -– “LOL, he needs time off during busy season. Stupid N00b.”

A co-worker forwarded me that unfortunate intern’s email. Scrolling through the long list of recipients, I realized that the email chain had even made it to China. I laughed at the email, too. Stupid N00b. Everyone knows you don’t get time off during busy season. Then when I showed the email chain to my husband, he said, “It’s pretty sad that you’re all making fun of the new kid for asking for time off on a weekend. Nice culture.”

Two years later, not much has changed. As “The Great Email Chain of 2013” demonstrates, the public accounting workaholic culture has spawned a whole bunch of work-obsessed, white-collar monsters. Overtime and work obsession has become the norm rather than the exception. And now, The New York Times article “A Toxic Work World” points out that overwork has become a full-blown crisis:

Workers across the socioeconomic spectrum, from hotel housekeepers to surgeons, have stories about toiling 12- to 16-hour days (often without overtime pay) and experiencing anxiety attacks and exhaustion. Public health experts have begun talking about stress as an epidemic.

The article also notes that we attach prestige to those ridiculously long hours. It’s true. The long hours have become ingrained in the twisted accounting culture.

I once asked my manager, “It’s one in the morning. Why can’t we just go home?”

He responded, “It won’t look good.”

Don’t expect the firms to change their overwork culture any time soon, either. You over-worked, billable peons make those partners a lot of money. But hey – maybe if you’re lucky, PwC will pay $1,200 (before taxes) a year toward that mountain of student loan debt you acquired while earning the credentials for that coveted, 85-billable-hours-a-week, white-collar gig. Maybe. That is, if you’re “lucky” enough to land one of those Big 4 jobs in the first place.

Wait, we’re “lucky" to land an accounting job? Not possible, considering the staggering shortage of accountants in the marketplace. According to a March 2015 survey, “More than 70% of accountancy employers say they are affected by a skills shortage.”

Barring illiteracy or a complete breakdown of professional ethics, you’re almost guaranteed a job. So -– the market desperately needs CPAs, but here we are billing 85 hours a week and jumping at $1,200 a year (before taxes) in loan repayment benefits? What a joke.

This reminds me of the good ol’ swag bags that the firm sends its new hires. “Tell the ‘lucky’ new hires what they’ve won, Vanna!” 

“Well, Pat, the magnanimous firm has gifted each ’lucky’ new hire with a firm-branded luggage set, as they’ll be living out of a suitcase for the next six months assessing internal controls until 3 in the morning. A $78 value (before taxes). Enjoy!”

We don’t speak out against this despicable, work-obsessed culture because, an accounting firm tells its employees, “You’re replaceable. If you don’t want to work on Christmas Day, we’ll find someone who will.” The firm has plenty of firm-branded luggage sets in the swag closet. They’ll replace you at the next on-campus recruiting event. After all, you are “lucky” to have an accounting job despite the shortage of accountants in the job market.

Public accounting culture has -– and probably always will — lauded the CPAs who bill 100 hours per week. It has -– and probably always will — mocked the folks who don’t care to check emails after 8pm or the unfortunate intern who, God forbid, needs a tire rotation on a Saturday in February. Stupid N00b.

Where is the outrage for the frazzled, overworked senior manager who wakes up at 3am to finish her review notes? Nowhere. She can shut up and pack her firm-branded luggage set if she doesn’t like the workload.

Where is the outrage for the unfortunate intern who needed a Saturday morning off during busy season because he had non-audit related shit to do? Nowhere. We forwarded that intern’s email to every.accountant.on.the.planet and then to Going Concern, and laughed about it. Stupid N00b. Then we took back his firm-branded luggage set and replaced him with another new hire. Nevermind that we all could have used a day away from the firm to catch up with laundry and eat a meal replete with vitamin C.

White collar professionals are facing a real crisis. The same crisis we faced and laughed off two years ago. Forty-hour workweeks no longer exist, and unpaid overtime has become expected. Work-life balance has become a pipe dream for many, and the firms try to buy us off with cheap firm-branded luggage sets and a pittance of a loan repayment program.

Maybe, some day, white collar professionals will begin demanding a culture that rewards, rather than mocks, work-life balance. Probably not, though. Not in our profession. Not if “The Great Email Chain of 2013” serves as any indication.

A Toxic Work World [NYT]

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