Pros and Cons of Working for the Big 4 and Other Top Accounting Firms
In a few weeks, we'll be releasing our new Vault Accounting 50, a ranking of the top accounting firms to work for. This year, more than 8,000 accounting professionals took our Accounting Survey, the results of which are used to calculate our rankings. Along with giving us quantitative ratings, survey respondents gave as qualitative comments on areas such as salary, benefits, hours, work/life balance, and training. This year, among the qualitative results, several common themes emerged about life at the Big 4 and other top accounting firms. Below, we've compiled these themes (both positive and negative) about working in accounting, as told to us by the thousands of accounting professionals who took our survey.
1. The people are great
The most common "best" aspect about working in accounting today is "the people." Nearly unanimously, across all firms, accounting professionals rave about their coworkers, calling them highly intelligent, motivated, caring, considerate, supportive, and willing to step in if you need to take care of something outside of work. Indeed, the accounting industry seems to attract not only bright and talented individuals but friendly ones as well. This makes the sometimes very long workdays (we'll get to that in a minute) much more enjoyable.
2. Flexible schedules
"Flexibility" was a close second when it comes to best aspects of working in accounting. Today, most accounting firms offer employees the ability to work when and where they want, as long as their work gets completed well and on time. There's a caveat: a lot of times you'll be working on site at a client's office; during these times it can be hard to take advantage of this perk. It can also be difficult to take advantage of it during the busy tax season (from January to April). But outside of tax season, and when you're not working at a client, you have a ton of flexibility. This means outside commitments, like family responsibilities, can be met much of the year. It also means those who like to work at home or at their local coffee shop will be quite happy much of the year.
3. Good benefits
Although benefits vary from to firm, for the most part accounting firms offer above average benefit packages these days. Many firms offer very good parental leave (the Big 4 firms are national leaders in maternity leave) and most offer a 401(k) match, good health benefits, some sort of gym reimbursement, and a casual dress policy (when you're not meeting a client). Of course, some firms are better than others in this regard. For example, some insiders complain that their 401(k) match is dreadfully low, and some firms don't offer gym reimbursements. But in general, accounting firms go to lengths to make sure their employees are getting a full suite of benefits.
4. Excellent learning and growth opportunities
Another industry-wide pro are the many growth opportunities that come with a job at a top accounting firm. Hundreds and hundreds of accounting professionals told us this year that they're very pleased with the informal and formal training they get, the mentoring and coaching they receive, and the hands-on experience they get—from day one on the job. Many professionals also rave about working on challenging assignments for interesting clients, as well as the senior management and leadership access they're offered.
1. Busy season is getting busier
For years, ever since we began surveying accounting professionals, accountants have cited "the busy season hours" as the main con of working in accounting. The busy season, right before the April tax filing deadline, typically lasts from January through mid-April. This year, accounting professionals again cited this as the worst part about their jobs, while adding that busy season is now getting even busier, with some telling us that 80-hour workweeks are the norm at this time of year, and others saying that weekend work is common and even expected during the busy season. In addition, many professionals told us there are other times of year (leading up to other filing deadlines) that can be nearly as busy as the typical winter busy season. All of which means that accountants are inching their way ever closer to banker hours, at least during a big chunk of the year.
2. Firms are understaffed
Closely related to #1 above, numerous accountants pointed out that their firms have a staffing problem. And that problem is there aren't enough people to do the work that needs to be done. This can be both good and bad. It can be good in that it provides professionals with a lot of experience and a lot of job safety (business is booming in accounting). But it can be bad in that it makes an accounting job more stressful and more of a grind. And employee morale is suffering as a result. Of course, the extent of this con varies from firm to firm, but accounting firms should take note and beware of employee burnout.
3. Compensation could be better
Also related to the busier busy season, many professionals expressed dissatisfaction with their salaries and bonuses. Many told us that they can earn a lot more if they didn't work in public accounting but "in industry," which is accounting speak for working in an accountant department (or as a CFO, say) for a company that doesn't just provide accounting services. Many professionals in big cities also told us that their salaries are far below those who work in technology, which makes it difficult to live in or even near places like San Francisco and New York that have high costs of living and high housing prices.
4. Promotion policies could be clearer and improved
This con varies quite a bit from firm to firm, but it was a common gripe we heard from numerous accountants. For the most part, accountants desire a chance to be promoted based on their work, not on the length of their employment. They're ambitious and want to rise the ladder as fast as they're able to, if they show that they can do the work. They also want transparency. They want to know what it'll take to get promoted. So, a note to the accounting firms out there: Be as transparent as you can with your employees, and if you can, allow the most ambitious and talented a chance to move up quickly. It will likely help retention and morale, as well as your bottom line.