How to Survive and Thrive During Your First Years at an Accounting Firm | Part 4: Transitioning and Relationships


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, I dissected navigating the workplace and how you can leverage yourself for promotions. In the last and final part of this series, I’ll go over how chances are at some point in time, you will be leaving your accounting firm for other opportunities. However, your firm relationships will stay with you forever. 

We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when….

These opening song lines perfectly encapsulate the one thing that has astounded me during my personal and professional career: people I grew up with, went to school with and worked with in the past, I end up seeing in the future. Most recently, the wife of a fraternity brother from 25 years ago is now the Upper Division Player Agent for my son’s Little League and a former supervisor from 20 years ago is dating one of my wife’s friends.

Throughout your personal and professional life, treat others as you would want to be treated. I would treat clients and your fellow firm employees with respect and find ways to assist whenever possible. As an auditor or tax associate, you will have a significant amount of client interaction: this is one of the factors that make our profession so unique. Do not be the associate that walks into the client’s office acting like you the business, putting on Beats headphones and your feet up onto the client’s chair. Rather, use this as the beginning of your network building (LinkedIn is great for this, Facebook / Instagram / Snapchat / Twitter should be used for personal / personal / personal / elected officials). Once you add someone to your network on LinkedIn, you may be surprised to see how many other professionals you both know. 

When you leave your firm, do so with the proper notice, making sure you give a proper transition to the new associates that will be taking over your work. Employers can fire you at will with or without notice. However, as an accountant, if you leave without notice or leave a work roadmap, you are only going to do a disservice to your own professional reputation. 

Do not sue your former employer unless the net amount you’re going to receive is going to entitle you to not have to work for a very long time

When I was the Chief Financial Officer for a publicly traded company, I wanted to bring a former co-worker to become the Chief Executive Officer (CEO). The interviews between the Board and CEO went great. However, when they found out that the CEO had a lawsuit pending with his former employer, they walked away immediately. My co-worker is now working as a real estate developer.

Remember the only constant winners in lawsuits are attorneys. Reputable employment attorneys are expensive. You have a long career ahead of you. Unless you have a YouTube video of being dragged around your firm by a Chicago airport security official and a claim that a reputable attorney would take on 100% contingency, I would suggest moving onwards rather than staying at the current firm. Remember, as an employee for a future company, your background check will reflect legal activity–especially as CFOs or financial professionals employers run much deeper background checks on potential firm personnel.

Being punctual and time off

One of my favorite joys of teaching is receiving the excuses (and photos) as to why a student could not make it to class and/or complete homework on time. Even though I will almost always excuse the absence or extend the homework due date, I always ask for a reason. Here are some of the better ones that I have collected over the years: “The changes in the weather have really thrown my immune system out of whack”. “I had a neck injury and had to stay in bed for a while”. “My stomach has been acting up all night and I just made myself throw up right now”. “I had emergency situation today. I had to go to EMR due to my friend’s emergency case”. And last, but not least, “Some car troubles came up within the family today so unfortunately I won’t be able to make it to class.” 

If you are not going to be going into work, make sure you know how to alert your supervisors to this fact as quickly as possible. Do not delve into details; rather, just state the facts: “I’ll be coming into work today at 10AM and will work until 7PM.” As long as you get your work done, you should be left alone. If you are going to be constantly late or leaving early, this needs to be a broader discussion so that you have an understanding with your employer. 

If you run into vehicle challenges, remember Uber and Lyft. If you are ill, see a doctor. I would also schedule your time off as early as possible and not during busy season. If you are working on a publicly traded company that is a non-accelerated filer with a December 31st year-end and insist on taking three weeks off in March, you’ll soon be looking for a new job. Try to determine when your downtime will be and schedule vacation for that time. 

When you are working at a client’s, you are billing hours. If a client notices you coming in late they will take notice and potentially share this with the partner and/or manager. Therefore, be sure to come in earlier or at the same time as your supervisor to the client.  

After the CPA license is obtained…

Once you have your CPA license, really start to further consider your longer-term career goals. If you have been going to various networking events, use this time to converse with other professionals that are in fields/positions of interest to you. Do you want to open your own firm or work at a smaller/larger firm? Do you need to obtain additional education or licenses (MBA, JD) for your ultimate job? Do you have an interest in working at a government agency? The CPA license base is probably one of the best base careers for starting out in business it almost successfully translates into any business. 

Calls from recruiters 

Once you hit the magical age of at least one year at the firm, if not sooner, third-party recruiters (executive search or an accounting firm’s worst nightmare) will begin calling you. Companies like hiring from accounting firms as accounting firms provide great training. These contingency-fee recruiters are paid, through their client, about 30% of your first year salary. Also, in-house recruiting departments of accounting firms may contact you. As a firm employee, you may receive a bonus for referring a friend to the firm. 

Recruiters tell you what you want (and possibly deserve) to hear, especially after a rough busy season: “You are awesome! You should only be working 40 hours per week, and need additional paid holidays.” Recruiters generally are more concerned about their fee rather than whether or not the job they are recruiting you for enhances your professional career. While not all recruiters are like this, the compensation for recruiters is geared this way. Similar to Part 2 of this article series, The Importance of Client Knowledge and Time Budgets, perform your due diligence on the prospective employer and recruiter.

If you do decide to interview, never put too much pressure on yourself as you will come off as completely desperate. Rather, use every interview as an opportunity to learn about the employer’s business and make a future connection. Do not fall into the trap of wanting to leave the firm after a particularly bad day or week. You want to make sure you plan your departure thoughtfully.

Leave on the best of terms and no, the firm will not collapse

When you do decide to leave the firm, be sure that there is nothing that could be changed to make you stay at the accounting firm: working from home, more time off, working with certain managers/partners and/or higher salary. If given the opportunity, the firm may decide to give you a significant raise or meet your other terms. Logically, this may be more cost effective than paying a recruiter to hire a new employee and to then train that employee to be a supervisor. However, more than likely, this will not happen as firms do not want to set precedence for caving into employee demands. However, by giving terms, you have given your employer the to opportunity to retain you and are thereby leaving the door open to future employment at the firm. If the firm convinces you to stay by promising that you will work only with certain personnel or from home, ensure these benefits are kept quiet to avoid the wrath of office politics. 

Many people think that when they leave, the firm will collapse. This is simply not true, unless you are at the level just below partner with a large book of business and take the business legally with you. As a staff, supervisor, or manager, you can be replaced. Remember, you are now a licensed CPA with an extremely bright future ahead of you with endless career possibilities. Also, you have just received the best possible business training and are now an accounting firm alumni with a lifetime of connections.

Oh, the places you will go!

Other articles by Bennet Tchaikovsky, CPA
Accounting Professor Helping Students Jump Start Their Careers
The Structure of Accounting Firms & What They’re Looking for in Candidates
Jump Starting Your Accounting Career: The Interview Process Part 1

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