In the blood-thirsty world of public accounting, people will do anything to get ahead. While there are a few out there who realize that a life of cubicles, impatient clients, out-of-date laptops, and elaborately designed pivot tables does not constitute life or death, there are many people who spend years of their lives believing otherwise.
And I'm not saying there's anything wrong with taking your job seriously or being ambitious. Ambition is good. All capital market servants have ambitions of one sort or another but some of the behavior is downright belligerent. Assholey, if you will. This is manifested in a number of ways but one of the most common acts of blind ambition is working unnecessary hours. You see, somewhere along the trajectory of the public accounting profession, someone decreed that long hours = good performance. This idea spread like wildfire to firms large and small and it still dominates the profession today. It has engrained itself into the accounting industry DNA to such a degree that many people working in it today feel guilt – GUILT! – when they leave after a ten or eleven-hour day. That, my friends, is a travesty.
Now, we all know that public accounting is NOT a 40-hour workweek* career. This is a deadline-driven business so logging longer hours to meet those deadlines becomes necessary. The problem is that so many people are of the attitude that longer hours define your performance, and ultimately, your career. This is bullshit. Christ, there's even a recent study that says as much. Yes, firms set chargeable hour goals as a metric for your "productivity" but that is misleading because there is no measure of actual output. It's a timecard that shows what clients got the pleasure of your exemplary service.
Why oh why do people cling to the billable hour like Queen Elizabeth clings to life? A recent article in the New York Times by Robert Pozen tries to answer this question:
From the law firm’s perspective, billing by the hour has a certain appeal: it shifts risk from the firm to the client in case the work takes longer than expected. But from a client’s perspective, it doesn’t work so well. It gives lawyers an incentive to overstaff and to overresearch cases.
Firms that bill by the hour are not alone in emphasizing hours over results. For a study published most recently in 2010, three researchers, led by Kimberly D. Elsbach, a professor at the University of California, Davis, interviewed 39 corporate managers about their perceptions of their employees. The managers viewed employees who were seen at the office during business hours as highly “dependable” and “reliable.” Employees who came in over the weekend or stayed late in the evening were seen as “committed” and “dedicated” to their work.One manager said: “So this one guy, he’s in the room at every meeting. Lots of times he doesn’t say anything, but he’s there on time and people notice that. He definitely is seen as a hard-working and dependable guy.” Another said: “Working on the weekends makes a very good impression. It sends a signal that you’re contributing to your team and that you’re putting in that extra commitment to get the work done.”
The reactions of these managers are understandable remnants of the industrial age, harking back to the standardized nature of work on an assembly line. But a measurement system based on hours makes no sense for knowledge workers. Their contribution should be measured by the value they create through applying their ideas and skills.
By applying an industrial-age mind-set to 21st-century professionals, many organizations are undermining incentives for workers to be efficient. If employees need to stay late in order to curry favor with the boss, what motivation do they have to get work done during normal business hours? After all, they can put in the requisite “face time” whether they are surfing the Internet or analyzing customer data. It’s no surprise, then, that so many professionals find it easy to procrastinate and hard to stay on a task.