Toxic workplace pollutes accountancy firms

Toxic Substance
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In a profession still wrestling with the destructive always-on work culture, 55% of chartered accountants consider their workplace to be toxic.

New research from the chartered accountants’ charity CABA is grim reading. The toxic work environment goes deeper than the always-on long working hours, with half the 2,000 chartered accountants surveyed complaining of communication issues, cliquey colleagues, and bullying.

Granted, toxic workplaces are not confined to the accountancy profession. But while all jobs come with some element of stress, the accountancy profession by its very nature of serving clients has bred unrealistic working hours as the norm.

But it’s not just the always-on working life and cliquey colleagues creating this toxic working environment, chartered accountants endure jealous or competitive peers (13%), people sabotaging one another (12%) and a lack of accountability (12%).

This is not a situation consigned to the accountancy history books, as 76% of the respondents have suffered at the hands of a toxic workplace in the last year.

And it’s the younger generation taking the brunt. For 80% of those aged 18-34, this toxic environment is an everyday reality, with one in four of these respondents believing it was due to people sabotaging one another.  

This toxicity abates as chartered accountants get older with 29% of those aged 55-plus thinking they work in a toxic environment compared to 60% of 35-44-year olds and 35% of 45-54-year olds.

An ongoing crisis

Worryingly, this research covers similar ground to other recent explorations into the effects of the always-on culture in the profession, with the most recent of which finding that 40% of senior accountants are stuck in a rut and hate their job.

The always-on culture was one of the biggest instigators of another CABA survey in May which found that a third of accountants feel stressed everyday. The finger of blame then was pointed at emails, struggling to maintain a work-life blend and office politics.

Perhaps a reason to explain accountancy’s toxic workplace dilemma is answered by another survey coincidentally released this week by recruitment consultants Randstad where almost a quarter of accountants (24%) wanted to quit their job to escape poor leadership.

The result of this poll of 9,000 workers across the UK cements the fact that “having the wrong manager can make your working life a lot less enjoyable,” said Ruth Jacobs, the managing director of Randstad Business Solutions.

Equally concerning for CABA’s service director Kelly Feehan is that this type of culture can take its toll on employees’ mental health, leading to an unproductive and unmotivated workforce – which is almost going unnoticed by the oblivious ‘leaders’.

“Leaders must recognise the signs, whether that’s unrealistic expectations, a clear lack of communication or unsupportive colleagues so that measures can be put in place to turn a toxic atmosphere into a productive and happy one.

“It won’t happen overnight, but it’s important that both employers and employees are involved in stamping out toxicity within an organisation. If it’s not tackled head-on, it could lead to increased absenteeism and high staff turnover which will be felt by the whole business.”

A real-life scenario

Mental health issues caused by the stress of the job are becoming an all too common topic on AccountingWEB. Among the latest VAT conundrum or accounting software recommendation, Any Answers is often used as a refuge for accountants suffering from a toxic work environment.

In one example from December last year, an AccountingWEB reader recounted their challenging few months at work where they had no support, worked long hours with unrealistic demands and co-workers not acting as a team.

The result of this was as described in the CABA research. “I got to the point where I was so stressed out with the job, that I ended up having panic attacks and threw up,” wrote the anonymous AccountingWEB reader.

Despite seeing their GP and being signed off work on sick leave for three weeks, their employer wished them well by asking whether they could take phone calls to assist with work.

The qualified accountant reluctantly said yes but they really don’t want to be disturbed while they mentally recover. This real-life example shows how the toxic environment of a mounting workload and an unreasonable boss are a genuine threat to accountants' health.

But like many others, the isolated AccountingWEB member would rather put work before their job to avoid the consequences. “I do feel quite scared of the prospect of going back. I am also dreading the prospect of being roasted and possibly fired (my top boss is impatient). 

“When I recover, I will go back and see how things are. I suspect a lot of the work won't be covered and I will have a huge workload to deal with again.”

Have you worked in or are you currently working in a toxic work environment? What must the profession do to shake off this toxicity? 

About Richard Hattersley

Richard Hattersley

Richard is AccountingWEB's Practice Editor. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.

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01st Aug 2019 10:54

I worked in a Practice where the No. 2 saw me as a threat (I was qualified and he wasn't). I had just come to work there and I think he assumed I was going to usurp him.

He would pull junior staff off of my jobs without telling me (I'd only find out 2 days later) I'd then end up having to do the work in my own time to meet deadlines. Once he asked me to save up work to give to staff for the following week as he had nothing for them, which I did, only for him to pull them off my (becoming) urgent jobs to give them his 'more important but with a longer deadline' jobs.

The Senior Partner didn't want to know as the guy was a good friend and his No. 2 so I was left to put up with his carp.

The daft thing was that if they guy had bothered to check with me, he'd have found I had no intention of being a threat to him, having no ambition to stay on at the firm beyond my 1 year contract (the job was a stepping stone to somewhere else).

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to LostinSuspense
05th Aug 2019 11:23

Understood. I have this myself as a lot of managers are not qualified, also but ACCA do find out. It is bad management and I often wonder how some managers get their jobs.

A lot of staff can see it, but wont get involved as they have mortgages to pay and don't want to lose their job. But it should not occur from the start.

I blame the manager for allowing it. I was in a practice where one colleague was swearing to the managers all the time but getting away with it. in some places nepotisim is rife.

The trouble is now there is no discipline in a lot of jobs as the managers are under 35 in a lot of places so think they can do and treat people how they like.

They judge you on their own behaviour as a lot do want to shoot up the career ladder but not everyone.

I do understand how you feel and have dealt with it.

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05th Aug 2019 10:03

HMRC's increasingly harsh penalty regime is undoubtedly a major factor here. If a client gets a 150% -200% tax geared penalty (which these days can apply in the absence of any kind of fraud etc. and for just missing a deadline by one day) they will of course blame you regardless of whether it's your fault.

The unintended consequence is that tax advisers will simply decline to work for certain types of clients due to the risk of being sued for such things.

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01st Aug 2019 11:27

I worked in a contractor's accountant firm a few years ago (didn't really suit me - I call it conveyor belt accounting with no job completion and limited client contact) which had is toxicity, particularly with regards to sabotage.

Whilst i didn't get particularly stressed by it (I'd made my mind up I was leaving by the time I'd found evidence), I can understand why some would, especially if they have limited options available to them.

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By Dandan
to SteLacca
06th Aug 2019 13:22

I have been using the word: "conveyor-belt accounting" for many years now when criticising the way work is being organised at my workplace.

It is very sad when there are managers who are incompetent and yet bullies. You then get juniors who get burnt out very quickly.

As for partners, they don't care . They lost touch a long time ago.

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By DJKL
01st Aug 2019 12:42

"And it’s the younger generation taking the brunt. For 80% of those aged 18-34, this toxic environment is an everyday reality, with one in four of these respondents believing it was due to people sabotaging one another. "

At this point I think I am supposed to shout "snowflakes".

Actually ,I think, from all of life's experience, that what often is cited as people trying to sabotage is in reality a reflection of those individuals more being incompetent and inept.

We always seem to want to see the worst in the motives of others rather than the reality that far from being super Machiavellian villains they are usually more inept incompetents and you are mere collateral damage within their disorganised world - for some strange reason these days the dramatic explanation seems to take the place of the more mundane reality and we all start shouting "Infamy, infamy, they have all got it infamy".

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to DJKL
05th Aug 2019 11:28

It may be the younger generation taking the brunt, but it is them creating it, as 20 years ago the work place was a lot more enjoyable and people loved their jobs but stayed put for decades. Managers would not tolerate all this toxity in the office and people where made to get on or you lose your job. There was no right fit fiasco or salary expectations you get at interviews today. Older people were more dedicated to their jobs and worked far harder and are far more respectful.

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to Louise Elizabeth Pepperall
14th Aug 2019 15:56

I suspect the change in the 'job for life' view that used to exist has meant a greater deal of uncertainty and hence the additional stresses it brings.

For me, one problem I had in the past was that I was often too helpful and polite, which maybe meant some people would take advantage and dump stuff on me. Again the worst offender was the 'least professional & traditional' practice I worked in, although ultimately the problem was contained to two individuals, one of whom would easily loose a battle of intellect with Pooh.

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By ColA
02nd Aug 2019 10:01

After qualifying with first-time passes in articles, leaving the firm in which I qualified after a derisory salary offer and further time 'handcuffs', then two years with a national/international firm in one of their provincial offices I decided the treadmill of professional office life was not for me.
Branching out into industry, commerce and the public sector has kept me well satisfied over the decades.
Stresses, yes, but largely under my own control, the ability to gauge them and preserve my health.

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02nd Aug 2019 10:03

I have worked at a large firm were it was dog eat dog and the partners fostered this to get more free work out of staff. Partner questioned my commitment, and did not take kindly to being asked 'if I get full recovery on my 7 hour day and John gets 50% recovery on his 10 hour day, why should I be like John?'

Thankfully joined a smaller form as manager and from the get go I said I am here to work 9 to 5 and go home. No issue with additional work now and again and January, but as long as it was not the normal practice.

Been here 16 years now and I expect the same from my team. Work hard then go home. Other than the few who did not make the grade, 10 other staff all here for 6 to 14 years and counting.

Clients know we are 9 to 5 unless an actual emergency. Difficult when you are younger but as you get older you realise just a number and not worth your health.

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By seeroo
to why always me
02nd Aug 2019 16:57

Firms should follow this example. Happier, less stressed employees are more productive.

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to why always me
05th Aug 2019 11:30

Very true I agree 100%.

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to why always me
14th Aug 2019 16:10

I am in a position where I now work because I need to yes, but I have a good standard of living without having to flog myself half to death (almost happened, I was taken quite ill at work). I left practice behind because I found myself working almost twice as many hours as a couple of friends but on half the money.

I am not a King, I prefer to be more a Duke of Warwick type person.

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02nd Aug 2019 12:05

Whilst not wishing to dismiss the survey as there is an element of truth in it, its worth noting that the younger generations are significantly more likely to complain about it than us oldies. Reason?

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to martinhayward
02nd Aug 2019 14:51

Perhaps the younger generation are more willing to stand up for themselves and not accept the status quo?

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By seeroo
to martinhayward
02nd Aug 2019 16:53

I don't agree, I've been in practice for 20 years now and I have definitely noticed a change since I started out.

It seemed to change most around the recession when everyone was worried about their job. Everything became about hyper efficiency and staff were pushed to work for free to meet budgets.

It's not just employers though it's clients as well. I feel there has been a loss of respect for the profession and they are way more demanding wanting answers 24 hours. Partly due to others at the firm responding out of hours so the clients know we're always there.

I understand your comments about the younger generation they are quicker to complain and usually when they have been egged on by someone else. They don't seem to have a problem with something until someone tells them it's wrong.

I do feel that we're failing them a little though and using them to churn out accounts cheaply without putting much time and thought into their training and development. I know they have always been used for cheap labour and that is part of the bargain for training them but we have to actually train them. Part of the reason for the lack of attention to their training is that we're all too busy to spend time with them.

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05th Aug 2019 09:59

I can relate to everything is this article and it was definitely a lot harder the younger i was

I've worked at firms, where there was no on the job training or feedback on real world work, too often there was a reliance upon formal training, which in my opinion only gets you so far.

Typically partners and managers are not interested and show little regard for the duty of care they should have towards all staff (except a few favourites!) to prevent a culture where people feel either bullied or worthless in their jobs, let alone any training to help improve and get things right first time....which would benefit everyone

i think a lot is down to training, how many managers have just been promoted for getting qualified, but have no skill or training in managing people, I've certainly been put in that position and felt pretty helpless, so it works both ways

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05th Aug 2019 11:04

A lot of this is much the same as it was in the 1980s when I started out. Younger people are much more vulnerable to this sort of culture - insecure in their abilities as just learning all this stuff, less income and assets to fall back on if they should lose their jobs, and so on.

Hence it is much easier for more senior people to get away with what is in effect bullying and harassment, which is inevitably going to increase problems for the younger staff members bearing the brunt of this.

As you get older, you are more likely to be in a company where you feel like you fit in, have a stable family background, higher income and solid asset base to fall back on if it should all go a bit wrong.

If you are an older, successful accountant reading this I encourage you to cut your junior staff a bit more slack.

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05th Aug 2019 11:37

Yes I started in the 1980's as well and can see where you are coming from but alot of managers only want younger people and pay them less. So until that changes, it won't improve. More discipline needs to be applied as well for all along with training.

Not all older people have secure lifes, some are divorced, struggling to pay a mortgage and also finding it hard to get back into work after bringing up a family or caring for a relative.

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