How to Survive and Thrive During Your First Years at an Accounting Firm | Part 3: Promotions and the Workplace Environment


In part 1 of this series, I talked about how to have the right mindset and obtain your CPA license. In part 2, I went over understanding the importance of engagement budgets and their impact on partner performance.  In part 3, here are some additional thoughts on navigating the workplace and how you can leverage yourself for promotions and keeping up with typical public accounting company culture. 

Keep a to-do list for all of your jobs and share it with the appropriate senior or supervisor 

While at your firm, you may be working for a variety of seniors, partners, managers, and firm personnel. For your tasks/assignments, I would suggest using a Google document / Smartsheet or some other type of shared collaborative document that keeps track of what you are doing and allowing your supervisor access to the document. Supervisors can check in with your progress as needed and will be unable blame you if the supervisor failed to effectively delegate.

Additionally, if you are asked by a manager for a last minute project and are in the process of working on a project for a partner, you can truthfully state, “I need to check with Partner X to see if it’s okay to prioritize your work.”

Understand the finished product you are to provide

Firms will provide training as to work paper documentation and other firm audit/tax procedures. Prior to beginning your work, obtain the best possible understanding of the completed product that you are to provide by looking at the prior year work papers and/or similar engagements. 

Once you complete your work, your supervisor will write up review comments. After the supervisor’s comments are cleared, the work paper goes to the manager and the manager makes comments, which are cleared by the staff/supervisor. By the time the engagement documentation makes it to the partner, the work papers have been reviewed several times over. Do not take review notes as criticism; rather, use the comments as a way of improving yourself for future engagements. You do not know everything and if you think you do, you should be a politician or in law school.

Before turning in any work, be mindful of firm documenting formats and perform a self-review. If you are turning in a document hastily and have errors do not relate to the substance of the work (such as spelling, grammar and formatting), this will be reflected on your evaluations. 

Engagement scheduling

Partners and managers are generally responsible for staffing client engagements. Partners need to bring in the business and ensure that their client will be receiving the best possible service or their client will leave. Even if partners are not “directly scheduling” staff time, partners can have a great influence as to what staff goes onto particular engagements. 

Therefore, as you are progressing within the firm and gaining additional experience, develop strong relationships (by working that much harder and smarter) for those Supervisors/Managers/Partners that you enjoy working with. If you do a great job, they will choose to have you come back or come onto a particular engagement. Compare this to a coach selecting players to take the field: if a Partner who has a significant number of clients or “pull” within the firm wants you on their engagements, more than likely, you will be staffed onto their engagements.  

Colleagues of mine who have ended up staying in public accounting have generally reflected the primary reason why (which is not surprising): they enjoyed working at the firm. Sometimes the workload was challenging; however, by working with the right people, my colleagues ended up staying at the firm that much longer. 

Know how you are going to be evaluated

As an auditor or tax professional you may be working on multiple engagements with multiple partners/managers/supervisors. Understand the firm’s policy with regards to evaluations. When I was in public accounting, I received a separate evaluation for every single job that I worked on. Therefore, it’s important to understand the evaluation criteria. This will provide a guide as to what you are going to need to do in order to get to receive a promotion.

Once you understand the evaluation process, take the time prior to every engagement to sit down with your supervisor and get an understanding as to what they are going to expect from you. After 18 months of average / poor reviews while in public accounting, I turned it around by talking with my supervisor prior to every engagement. I asked what I needed to do in order to obtain an “excellent/outstanding” rating and then followed through. My evaluations became better immediately. If I had received a poor evaluation, the supervisor would develop or further a reputation as being unfair and biased. 

Obtaining new clients

A part of every evaluation should be what are you doing as a staff member / supervisor / manager to obtain new business for the firm. 

This is by far one of the most challenging parts of public accounting, and as a new staff member you will have minimal, if any, expectations placed upon you. However, if you are able to get new clients or new business, this can lead to a bonus and reflect positively on your ability to be promoted. The majority of firm employees become partners not by servicing the existing book of firm clients, but by bringing in new business. 

Ways of obtaining new clients is to give existing firm clients the best possible service. Often client CFO’s and/or CEO’s are asked to refer auditing / tax firms to business colleagues. Generally, they will refer potential clients based on the level of service they are currently receiving from your firm. 

Becoming involved in a not-for-profit, charitable organization is often rewarded by accounting firms. If you have a genuine interest in the not-for-profit, this will be reflected in your interactions and may lead to future business referrals. Other avenues for networking include  joining an affiliate of the Junior Chamber International, the local chapter of the Institute of Managerial Accountants, and/or your university alumni network. By going to these events and meeting other professionals, you are building your network that will ultimately assist you in obtaining client relationships. New clients do not come about in a day; rather, they are built upon trust over long periods of time. 

Socializing with firm personnel, internet usage, and keeping your personal life personal

All businesses/organizations have social events with their employees to increase camaraderie in the workplace. The more employees get along with one another greatly enhances business productivity. 

Accounting firms are no different. You may have holiday parties, business lunches, recruiting events, and/or offsite parties to attend. Similar to the recruiting process, you were evaluated as to how you behaved at these types of functions. Now it’s slightly different as your behavior may dictate your ability to get promoted. If you are going to drink, I would not do so during lunch and only moderately at other firm events.

Also, remember your two best friends: Uber and Lyft. With cellphones, pretty much every one of your activities can easily be potentially documented. An intoxicated person is much more entertaining than someone sober. 

Almost all business firms monitor internet and email activity. Assume that all of your communications and your internet usage will be fully monitored.  If you are going to be on social media, I would recommend doing so off hours. If you are with a client and streaming Netflix, you may have a problem. 

You will make friends with your co-workers and will more than likely bond with them, much more so than your superiors, as you are going through a similar experience, . Part of the reason is that your supervisors evaluate you and your co-workers will not. However, always be careful of sharing personal information about yourself to co-workers or your supervisors.

If you are dealing with a political office environment, co-workers may seize upon information to use something in your personal life against you, especially when it comes to promotions. Avoid “trash talking” fellow employees. Assume what you are saying is being recorded and can be heard by everyone. Firms may be large, but they are also at the same time very small and an entertaining story can spread like wildfire. 

Other articles you may find interesting

5 Ways to Kick Start Your Accounting Career This Summer
How to Set the Foundation for a Sturdy Career 
How the 2017 CPA Exam Will Benefit Your Test-Taking Strategy & Career 

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