Carol McLachlan is the Audit Agony Aunt, a fully qualified accountant and ex-Director of Resources for Ernst & Young for 18 years. In this column, Carol answers your career questions.
If you have any careers, skills development or promotion questions, please send them to Carol, who will endeavour to answer them.
There may be the odd occasion that Carol cannot answer due high demand for her time, but you can post your question on the CareersinAudit.com Facebook Page or our LinkedIn Group and discuss current issues with other auditors and audit jobseekers from across the world.
Promotion to Manager
"I am a qualified accountant from Australia working as an auditor with the current mid-tier firm since 2 years. Before that I was employed in a small firm. It seems I am getting stagnant in my position and role as a senior accountant (auditor). I have tried asking the management about when I can be assigned duties of an audit manager, but the management remains silent. I am confused about this situation and was aiming to be a manager before I switch to another firm. What advice you could give?"
To figure out what’s happening here, I suggest that you investigate the situation from two angles:
- Yourself – as in your current and potential contribution to the organisation; and
- The Business case – as in the commercial needs of the firm
Let’s start with you. How has your performance been appraised? Are you meeting the competencies of your current role? To get to manager, you not only need to be meeting expectations in your current role but you also need to be going that extra mile and exhibiting your potential to reach the manager competency framework. We’re talking about things like showing initiative, solving more challenging problems, managing and coaching team members and managing projects, as well as taking commercial responsibility for meeting and exceeding targets and contributing to firm-wide endeavours, over and above specific audit-job responsibilities.
Your HR department or your line manager should be able to appraise you of the specific competencies for a manager in your organisation. You can then seek out opportunities to assume the manager role on smaller jobs and also work with your current managers to see which of their responsibilities you can start to shoulder.
As for the Business case – this could be why management are remaining silent. It may simply be the common scenario that there is no business case for another manager at this point. This could well be exacerbated by low staff turnover and a stagnant market place which means that there just hasn’t been any movement in the pyramid to make space for promotions.
Management may be silent because they don’t want to admit this and run the risk of losing you. But you could tackle it head on, asking outright about the business case. Their response will at least allow you to make a decision with regard to biding your time until space becomes available or seeking your promotion elsewhere.
Either way – business case or personal skills and experience – I would suggest that you do tackle management again to get to the bottom of this impasse. It will help to ask some more specific questions based on the suggestions above and their responses will allow you to design a focussed strategy on what to do next.
"My line manager is criticising me in front of my peers, with personal attacks which aren’t particularly helpful. I feel like they are undermining me but what can I do?"
Workplace is bullying is worryingly widespread, with Trade Union group Unison claiming that a third of workers experience bullying in the workplace. Sometimes this type of behaviour can be characterised as simply stern management, but often they do feature humiliation, offence, and abuse, which can ultimately lead to detrimental effects for those who put up with it.
The important distinctions to make about behaviour involve whether the attacks are personal. It’s somewhat acceptable for a manager to communicate displeasure with actions or behaviours which can be changed, but attacking personality traits such as laziness or clumsiness should be is an abuse of power.
Complaints about an employee or their work should be specific, with examples. General statements should be avoided by professional managers, as they should tell employees specifically what the problem is. Complaints or criticism should always be constructive. Managers should attempt to improve performance and behaviour, both for the development of colleagues and the fulfilment of business objectives. Focussing on how things can improve should stop managers causing employees discomfort or stress.
Feedback is good, even when it is unfavourable. A complaint is a gift, as it allows you to understand how to improve. You should learn to respond positively to bad feedback, applying it to your work, but if it is your personality or character which is being criticised then there is little which you can do. This type of criticism should be factual, immediate and confidential. Criticising an individual in front of many of their peers is totally unacceptable, and amounts to workplace bullying. There are several effective ways of helping to reduce the stress caused by this type of attack and calmly manage the situation.
Find someone to talk to about it. Whether it’s a colleague, friend or family member, a problem shared is a problem halved. Their perspective might help you deal with the problem, or help you to understand why it is happening. Many employers offer free confidential counselling to their employees which could help, and there are also bullying helplines to assist. Alternatively you could address the problem head on and talk to the line manager in question. Arrange a meeting rather than distracting them at their desk, and explain how their approach is impacting on you. Don’t accuse a manager of bullying, but simply suggest more efficient ways of communicating her needs. If you want a positive result then be positive, and being angry or emotional is unlikely to yield the desired result. Be specific about your complaints about their behaviour while avoiding personal attacks. It might simply be that the manager doesn’t realise the effect he or she is having on you.
If you decide to make formal complaints about a manager then make sure you have plenty of details about your specific complaints; what was said, to whom, why, when, where, etc. Keep a diary of upsetting incidents to assist you in lodging these complaints. Bullying can take a number or forms so think clearly beforehand about how you can best communicate your treatment.
Senior Manager Career Development
"As a senior manager at a large company I have enjoyed a successful career for many years. Now, in my mid-forties I’m feeling a lack of career progression, unless I ascend into my boss’s job or similar. His job doesn’t look that appealing but as an older person concerned about my professional development, I feel that I should strive for an escalation up the career ladder, and definitely don’t want to be left behind, but my boss’s job doesn’t appeal to me. What should I do?"
It’s easy and common to assume that constant ascension through the ranks is essential to staying in employment, but often this is a flawed presumption and can hold you back. Many employers want employees to grow into positions and offer more and more in the same job role. These assumptions can hold us back, and stop us from growing. They often become self-fulfilling prophecies as we become less and less sure of our value or usefulness.
Key to happiness and fulfilling is finding out what you really want, excluding those expectations and assumptions which make you feel that you should be promoted. Take into account your passion, interests, natural abilities, skills, qualifications and experiences with your career development plan devising where you want to be in 5, 10 or 20 years. You shouldn’t feel that have you have to be promoted into a certain job if it doesn’t interest you.
Everybody is different with a different set of priorities. For some people money is everything, while others of us value quality of life, the type of work we undertake and our working relationships, as well as having strict expectations in terms of pay.
As an older employee, your concerns are understood, so having an honest conversation with your boss or line manager about your career progression is probably the best way to go. There might be some examples of older colleagues who have changed jobs within the organisation without necessarily going “up” the company hierarchy. Never doubt your value to the company, there will always be a place for people with skills and experience.
Finding a USP
"I’m a qualified candidate with skills and experience, but how can I differentiate myself from my peers?"
Firstly detail your objectives. Why do you want to be noticed, and what for? It could be for promotion or employment, and this is an important distinction to make. Identify what an organisation is likely to value in candidates and employees. Think about the competencies and skills which are expected of you, and how you can over-deliver in each of these areas. Speak to colleagues and other potential mentors who have succeeded in differentiating themselves from the crowd, and think about ways that their success in this area can apply to your situation. An outsider might even have some perspective which might help you to see how you can outperform your peers.
Do a SWOT analysis on the company or institution you are talking about, detailing your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Then line these up next to your skills and experiences. You are looking for a USP (or Unique Selling Point) which can help you to appeal to employers and recruiters. Unfortunately you might find that your passions, interests, qualifications or experience are not particularly valued at the company in question, and in this instance it might make more sense to look for a job with a new employer.
Remember that you don’t just have one USP. Each individual is multi-faceted, and there a range of ways in which you are different from the flock, whether it’s in terms of communication, negotiation, conflict resolution, leadership, quality or working under pressure. You could even find some circumstantial technical skills help you to offer more than other candidates in a particular role.
The hard bit is making an employer understand your uniqueness. In job interviews or on applications it is easy to spell out your qualities, but when working for an organisation sometimes it can be hard to get noticed as the uniquely skilled individual that you are. Rest assured that there is always a more suitable and rewarding role out there for you, but finding it or having the nerve to follow through with it can be tough.
Asking for a Pay Rise
"This year the company I work for have gone from strength-to-strength, but it doesn’t seem to be translating into increased remuneration for employees. How can I go about pushing for a pay rise?"
Basing your salary on the fortune of your employer is a good association to make, as asking for a pay rise during times of shrinking growth are likely to be met with refusal. The important thing is making a link between your specific roles and responsibilities and that effect.
Consider carefully the official policy and procedure on pay rises. Many organisations have flexible approaches to salary reviews, but most have one or two review points during the year, usually relating directly to a performance appraisal and personal development plan. This doesn’t mean that you can only ask your pay to be reconsidered during this time, but you are more likely to be pushing for a raise at your next appraisal. If you need an immediate pay rise then talk to someone who has achieved it outside of a formal appraisal in the past, and model your approach on theirs.
If you contact your manager to have this kind of discussion, make sure you are prepared. Don’t be emotional or push too hard, but make a detailed, measured and rational argument about your value to the company, and negotiate a deal based on this supported argument. Nobody “deserves” a certain salary, but you can validate your requests by putting it in context.
Understanding what is valued at a senior level in the business will help, as developing your own skills or responsibilities are only beneficial if the company value it. Always frame your usefulness or worth within larger business objectives or goals. A boss or senior manager should be able to tell you what needs to be achieved in order for you to earn a pay rise, including how to demonstrate development in skills.
In terms of the meeting itself, focus on coming across well, staying focused on important objectives, building empathy and asking the right questions about what you need to do. Ultimately your pay rise is out of your control, but there are some steps you can take to confirm what a boss wants from you and how to fulfil or over-deliver on those expectations.
New Graduate Seeks Audit Job
"As a Biology graduate I am perhaps not the ideal candidate for graduate audit positions, but despite this I would like to know what I should be aware of in my final interviews for audit positions."
While those who have studied accountancy-related degrees might be better suited to audit positions, interviewers are usually much more interested in your learning potential rather than your knowledge. Recruiters in this sector are often happy with non-related degrees as long as a high level of achievement is obtained.
You should have a keen interest in business, so keep up-to-date with business news and stay in touch with the economy. This is especially important for candidates without an accountancy degree. Most interviews and assessments are designed to measure key competencies required for a job, and so they will vary depending on the position.
Likely things to be assessed include communication skills, teamwork, ethics, attention to detail, problem-solving and working to deadline. Much of this can be provided by applicants with qualifications in other subjects, but employers are likely to look for enthusiastic, ambitious candidates with leadership potential. If you can demonstrate these qualities in interview then your chances of being offered a position are much greater.
If you haven’t studied auditing or accountancy before, showcasing a practical understanding of the job will help your application. Show that you understand the day to day activities of an audit professional in that organisation, and if you could talk to a member of staff at this company or a similar one to help you to understand what is expected. Interviewers are likely to ask some very practical questions requiring a combination of common sense, problem solving and knowledge. Stay up to date with industry news and ensure you have a good understanding of the role you are applying for.