Disclaimer: This article is meant to share my experiences during my first year in public accounting and is not meant to express any negative opinions on any individual or company. This is my experience and my experience alone, which does not reflect everyone’s experience in public accounting.
In the Beginning
When I graduated from college, I started out my career at a small/medium-sized accounting firm. And like most recent college graduates, I had no idea what I was doing. True, I had prior internship experience, but that experience mostly involved scanning and entering basic information into excel templates.
Little did I know, this is exactly what was required of me. I spent the greater part of my first year scanning and properly formatting documents – client code, year-end date, name of client, account number, and account name.
It felt strange being paid like a salaried employee to do exactly what I was doing as an intern, but let’s be honest, I didn’t know anything at this point. I figured I would do the dirty work for a year or two and then develop the skills necessary to be a full-fledged accountant.
Trial By Fire
There was no official training policy other than throwing people into projects and letting them figure it out themselves. The term they coined was, “trial by fire” and they were particularly proud of it.
Trial by fire was essentially the same concept as sink or swim – the best way to teach a child how to swim is by throwing them into the deep end of a pool. This might have worked for some but it wasn’t meant to work for all, and that was the intended outcome.
To properly determine the good employees from the bad employees you needed to throw everyone into the deep end and see who swims to the top and who sinks to the bottom. Promote the swimmers and fire the sinkers.
My Trial By Fire Story
My first year I had little to no formal training. I was given a variety of work and was told to check last year’s data. As you can imagine, this was frustrating. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, I just thought that because they did it last year it must be correct – but then again, whomever did it last year was fired, so how right could it be?
I found myself becoming familiar with the work of prior employees – their handwriting, their initials when they signed off on work papers, their excel formatting, and their reputation among other employees.
“Oh that’s a ‘Cristobal’ client? (not a real name) Good luck with that!” or, “Cristobal did this last year so I wouldn’t trust anything they did.”
This got we wondering, what if I’m the next Cristobal? What if I’m just perpetuating the legacy of having no idea of what I’m doing and getting fired? Will another person review my work papers wondering if I had any idea what I was doing? “Oh that’s Jeremias’ work… I wouldn’t trust those.”
So essentially I fumbled my way through the first year with Cristobal being my guide. Everyone else was too busy with their work and the most common response I got to my questions was “check what they did last year” – so that’s what I did.
The Twilight Zone
The hours were long and the work was complicated, but I eventually made it through my first tax season. But then I noticed something strange – people were leaving without a trace. It all started when the person in front of me was visited by HR, was asked to sign something, and then left mid-way through the day.
I was naïve at the time and just assumed he had to leave early for the day and was asking for time off. But then his name tag disappeared so I made the assumption that he found another job. “The Monday morning meeting will clear this up” I thought.
But the Monday morning meeting came and went and nobody brought up the fact that there was one less employee at this particular meeting; and every other meeting going forward in fact. So I just assumed he found another job – they would tell everyone if he was fired right? The only way I knew he no longer worked at the firm was because of a single email from HR that said “Juan Carlos no longer works here.” (Again, not a real name).
A few days later, HR came walking around the office and stopped at the cubicle next to mine. The same process – please sign here, grab your things and I’ll walk you out. It happened again and this time I knew why.
“They have to talk about this now, you can’t just fire two people in such a short period of time without explaining why, right?” I thought. Again, I waited for the Monday morning meeting for the explanation. But the meeting came and went, one less body at the table, but the same outcome. Nothing was said and everyone walked around like nothing ever happened. Once again the only trace of their existence was a solitary email, “Kanye West is no longer employed by the firm.”
Was I next?
The proceeding days were nerve-wracking and I was afraid I was next. I could tell another employee began to feel the same way because anytime HR passed our cubicles we would glance at each other with a sense of fear.
The emails continued to come in, “So-and-so no longer works at the firm” and again no word as to why. But then one day HR decided to walk to my desk. The employee said, “Hi Jeremias,” with my stomach in my throat I responded with a faint hello. They then proceeded to walk to the cubicle behind me and you can assume what happened next.
The person in-front of me, to the side of me, and behind me were all fired in a matter of days. It wasn’t until that had happened that a manager pulled myself and one other new employee into an office and explained, “don’t worry, you’re safe.”
The Final Verdict
Eventually I got the story behind why these employees were let go: public accounting wasn’t for him, she was just a bad employee, he just wasn’t putting in the hours. These are all understandable, but there seemed to be a lack of communication or general empathy in the way they fired these employees.
The story has somewhat of a happy ending for some employees that were let go: one person already had a job lined up and was waiting to put in his two weeks’ notice, and another person wanted to spend more time with their kids and was considering going part-time anyway.
But it’s safe to say that my first year in public accounting was eventful. It was frustrating, confusing, and downright terrifying. I still work in public accounting, albeit at a different firm, but the lessons I learned will continue with me though the rest of my career. I just wonder if someone out there is looking at my work papers thinking, “Jeremias had no idea what he was doing.”
You could not have explained it better. I have been through this scenario before and it is extremely stressful. I have noticed the “trial by fire” way of doing this is pretty much at every place I have worked at. Nobody is going to walk you through a whole return and waste their own time when they themselves have a laundry list of to do’s.
I hear the same complaint from most people starting out in public accounting. It’s frustrating and I’ve always wondered if there was a better way. Glad you appreciated the article!
I seriously just finished my first year and this exact same thing happened to me. I specifically searched for this exact topic. Thank you so much for sharing, you have no idea how much it helps!