Because I worked in both KPMG and Deloitte to Senior Management level I often get asked what the Big 4 environment is like from the Graduates I coach every Autumn. They do get the bells and whistles presentations at college and the fancy websites and brochures to read but we all know those are selling hard. The Big 4 enter a huge competition every Autumn fighting to attract the very best candidates to accept their offers. Many top Graduates with excellent academics and placement experience will have the pick of 4 offers if they attend all 4 interviews. So be under no illusion that these firms aren’t selling with every line they write and every word they utter on campus and in videos. So how do you as a Graduate read between the lines and really understand what it is like to work in a Big 4 firm?
Firstly, there are people like me who can give you an excellent and unbiased account of the firm’s dynamics and then there are the anonymous accounts on Glassdoor and other company review platforms, though they can be taken with a pinch of salt, as more often than not it is the grumbling review of someone who didn’t make the cut past their traineeship.
Here are my top eye openers for you to understand what environment you are targeting.
1. There are no guarantees you will make it through the traineeship. If you fail in your exams repeatedly and for no good reason you will not be kept on. If you are applying for an Audit position you will be sponsored to take the Chartered Accountancy exams, the ACA, if you are targeting Tax it will be the professional Tax exams. The Big 4 are a great place to study and work as they get the best exam pass rates. They have excellent training in place to support your studies and you get regulated study leave to give you plenty of time to grind before exams. But outside of study leave you will also be expected to work long hours and study in your spare time too. This can be quite taxing in the busiest parts of the year such as Winter for Audit and Autumn for Tax.
2. You will be expected to work in teams and to enjoy working in teams as the firms are keen on keeping high staff morale to prevent turnover. If you do not enjoy team work you will not enjoy a Big 4 environment.
3. You will be expected to work long hours when required. Sometimes Auditors find themselves working through the night into the early hours of the morning. If you are in the Corporate Finance team this can include several long nights of work in a row and weekends. There really is no such thing as 9-5.30pm in these firms. But saying that, in the summer, when it is quieter, a lot get to leave early on a Friday and holidays/time in lieu are mostly fully taken.
4. A Big 4 firm can be a political environment. The further you go in a firm past Manager level the more competitive it gets. Accountants bill their clients in time units so the more an individual is billing the more chance they have of getting to Director and then Partner level. But to get to Director is tough, in a high numbered team, and not everyone will get there, which creates a level of attrition at Senior Manager level when a lot opt out and move into industry roles.
5. Getting to Partner is very difficult in a Big 4 firm. Only the very best will make it. They will make it by bringing in clients at Director level by doing business development. That means hard core selling. They will engage in contacting companies by ‘cold calling’ them and presenting to them. They will be competing with other firms for this business, so it can also involve excellent charisma and charm and a good deal of contacts in the right decision-making roles. If you don’t like the idea of selling you will not enjoy being a Director and you will not get to Partner level.
6. Partnership is structured into different levels of hierarchy too. There are salaried Partners which is one step up from a Director and the work is very similar, it’s just that they are paid more money than Directors and will have bigger bonuses. Then there are equity Partners, not every salaried Partner will be invited to be an Equity Partner. You get invited to Equity Partner level by bringing in huge clients that generate more fees than salaried Partner employees. They ‘buy in’ to the practice by purchasing equity in the firm. Often a loan arrangement is organised, which they will pay off over a number of years from their earnings.They are technically self-employed.
7. Equity Partners also have a hierarchy depending on the firm and the different amount of equity put into the firm. They will have voting rights and decision-making rights on who gets promoted to Director and Partner level. But the most important thing to note is that if the firm incurs any significant losses the Partnership is expected to bail out the firm using their own funds.Equity Partner earnings differ greatly depending on the billings of the team and so it is vital for them to have large corporate clients and to keep them happy. A Partner will do a lot of entertaining of Clients at C Level after work and at weekends to help keep them happy and as clients. They will also work long hours but not as many as the lower levels in the firm.
Hopefully, some of these ‘eye openers’ will be illuminating. It is vital to enter any role after graduation with your eyes open and I know that at lot of the above is a mystery to most going through the milk-round, particularly those who have no family or friends in one of these firms to talk to.
Please let me know if you have any questions by emailing me
Here is more information on my Big 4 Graduate Interview Coaching.
Recruitment practices ebb and flow with the changes in technology. Sometimes they are organised brilliantly and seamlessly, depending on the intellect of the Talent Acquisition team but unfortunately, they can sometimes be a broken-down dysfunctional mess. A few years ago, that bastion of all that is ‘best practice,’ i.e. Google, decided to start a trend called ‘Pipelining’.
Pipelining, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, means that an internal corporate recruiter can see maybe up to 12 months ahead when particular teams will need to recruit. Their data analytics lets them know roughly how many hires will be required depending on promotional rounds, attrition rates and business growth. For example, a company can hypothetically predict in January that a Sales team will require 10 new hires in September, based on relevant factors so they start advertising roles way ahead of schedule. Before pipelining came along recruitment teams would have waited until maybe 6-8 weeks before hiring in September to begin their candidate search with the expectation that a candidate would have a month’s notice, that would give them another month to source and then time to interview and offer the candidates. Pipelining pre-empts that by sourcing the candidates maybe 3-6 months out, sometimes even longer. The recruiters in the sales hiring example above will start pipelining and sourcing candidates in February, advertising the roles on their website and Linked In and other platforms inviting applications. Then come July they will start interviewing the banked candidates that loaded into their database back in February, so they don’t have to do things at the last minute. It sounds like a good idea doesn’t it?
Why Pipelining Doesn’t Always Work
Unfortunately, there are good and bad pipeline practices everywhere. The main problem arises when the employer doesn’t notify the candidates that they are being pipelined. The candidate thinks they are applying to a live role that is hiring imminently and the candidate would logically expect interviews to happen in the next few weeks. But what is happening is they aren’t being contacted at all to let them know what is happening. Once they have hit send on the application there may be a 6 month wait until they are called to interview. In the meantime, the candidate gets frustrated and annoyed at the lack of contact. They may feel that the role has been filled so they give up their hopes of moving to that company and instead look at other roles, that may not be pipelining, in other companies, and they move on to a new job. All before the first company has contacted them about the ‘pipelined’ job! What a big mess!
Why is this happening?
The reason this is happening is that many companies forget they are not Google. They are not sexy in any way shape or form, Google is like a Super model in comparison to most other companies. Google can afford to pipeline candidates because people are desperate to work there. Also, most of the time, they let the candidates know that they are pipelining, admittedly mostly after the fact than before it, after all they want to create a buzz and get applications in. But at least they manage the candidate’s expectations that they won’t be back in contact for x months.
All the other companies have lost the plot in my humble opinion. They are operating an amateur version of 'Pipelining' and disrespecting their candidates through the lack of communication.
What can you, as a candidate, do about this?
If you are desperate to move jobs, or are out of work, don’t put all your eggs in one basket, you could be waiting a long time for that job. Don’t feel you don’t have a voice, ring up the recruitment team and ask the question, ‘am I being pipelined or is this role interviewing in the next few weeks?’ Few candidates bother to pick up the phone these days, so you won’t be hassling the recruiters to call them on this.
If you are being pipelined, then it is up to you whether to continue holding out for that job or continue your search elsewhere.
Be sceptical when applying to jobs at most large companies, pipelining is a huge trend now, so if you manage your expectations that you may not hear back for some time you won’t get anxious or paranoid that the job has gone.
For more help or advice on this and any part of the application and interview process please don’t hesitate to book in for coaching. All my coaching is completely tailored to your individual needs.
It is Big 4 graduate interview season and if you are fortunate to be invited to all Big 4 interview rounds, congratulations!
Clare Reed is a leading global expert Interview Coach with over 20 years global interviewing and coaching experience.