Corporate Vs Public Accounting: Tax Edition

This morning, I had a red light flashing on my phone. New message. It hadn’t been there when I left yesterday, so it could only have come after hours.

When a new message appears over night, it is almost always the same thing: a recruiter whose out fishing late at night.

This caller was no different. Another recruiter, trying to lure me away from my comfortable corporate tax job to return to the life of public accounting.

What was different about this call, though, was the salary. It was high. High enough to make me pause before my standard dismissal. High enough to wonder if my corporate tax job is really that good. High enough to make me consider selling my soul back to the public accounting gods (typically referred to, in the vernacular, as “accounting partners”).

Public Accounting

Like around 40% of new Public Accounting hires, I had flashes of partner aspiration when I started in the biz. Those lasted about a month, tops, before my coach took me aside and told me I’d only make partner if I was willing to sacrifice the thing most most precious to me on the altar of my career.

For most people, it's their sanity.

For most people, it’s their sanity.

Even without wanting to make partner, Public Accounting has a valuable role, career wise. Those long hours and the variety of clients is as quick a way to learn real life accounting. Yes, all those college classes I took covered some esoteric information, but very few people are going to remember it until seen in practice.

If you can soak it all in, the quicker you’ll move up the public accounting ladder.

Those hours, though, are rough. Managing clients, cleaning up messes, fighting with the IRS, etc., late into the night take an emotion toll. And if you believe the comment section of Going Concern, the salary is a pittance compared to the effort applied.

Worst of all is the eventual realization that public accounting firms don’t really want accountants; they want salespeople. At least if you expect to make it the highest level. Considering that our industry consistently makes the Final Four of the Blandness Tournament, many new hires are shocked to discover that their introverted personality does not fit the accounting lifestyle as much as Hollywood had led them to believe.

To summarize, public accounting is a place to learn. If your aggressive, you can make it a career. Otherwise, conventional wisdom says it’s a place to get what you need, then GTFO (the F stands ‘Flip,’ of course. I don’t even know why I had to clarify)

Corporate Accounting

I jumped ship to the corporate world earlier than planned. An opportunity came up that had almost everything I wanted, and I was lured away by the shiny offer.

What surprised me more than anything was the speed of the corporate tax world. In public accounting, personal conversations were allowed on a limited basis, in specific designated areas. Chatting with coworkers throughout the day was certainly allowed and encouraged, but social convention (and death stares) limited any discussions of the world outside to a few polite minutes.

Corporate accounting was nothing like that. I’ve had almost entire days wasted chatting about the weather (again, something that we were unfamiliar with during public accounting busy season). What I considered as “working late” moved from at least 9 pm in the public world to 6 pm here.

And I discovered that the sun does still exist during busy season.

And I discovered that the sun does still exist during busy season.

The actual work done is about the same, but on a much smaller scale. It’s like working on a single, really large public accounting client. Yes, I’m still learning and growing, but at a much slower pace. It’s like wading slowing into the ocean rather than being tossed from a helicopter with instructions over a megaphone that the shoreline is to the north.

And the pay is nice. My overall salary increased a bit, but my effective hourly wage skyrocketed.

There are two main downside to the corporate world. The first is that it can get boring. I’m learning all kinds of fascinating things about this one organization, and that information helps me serve it better than I ever served any one public accounting client. But the particulars rarely change more than a bit year from year. I’m okay with boring, at least right now, but it can be a tough transition that some people can’t make.

The second, more serious issue is the promotion possibilities. Public accounting is an industry built on turnover. One year, there’ll be so many managers that the firm can’t handle a single more. The next, the company will be so desperate for manager help that they’re scour the Monster.com message boards for a replacement. Corporate accounting is generally aiming for stability, which means that manager position may not be available until the person in front of you quits, retires, or dies.

So Would I Go Back?

That same coach who gave me the advice on making partner was one of the reasons I switched to the corporate world: he’d jumped ship, and his company needed another tax employee. After we’d worked together in the new company for a few months, we both agreed that we’d never go back to public accounting.

I still mostly feel that way. My public accounting experience was like a petri dish: a great place to grow, but stifling, stressful, and overly subjected to the whims of the guy looking over me. Plus out next big pay bump was always waved just in front of us like a horse trying to grab the carrot on a string.

I certainly couldn’t go back to where I was, or even a similar environment. Maybe someday, but not any time in the foreseeable future.

A Middle Way?

What I’ve yet to see is some sort of middle way. I’ve had the stressful life of the big public accounting firm, and the much more laid back life of the corporate world. What I don’t know is if there’s a middle way. A public accounting firm that has reasonable hours, where no blood offering is required. That may exist. Maybe this recruiter that called me had that kind of position lined right up. I dunno.

If that were to exist, I might consider it. That might be the kind of place to make an actual career.