Bucking the System

I started my illustrious career as many high-achieving would-be accountants do by seeking membership as a staff accountant in one of the Big Six (now down to four). One of the lucky few, I joined my peers in the indoctrination of “how things are done” in public accounting.

One of the first things they teach the new recruits is that you should always be working. And of course, billable. That’s the job of the staffers who really know nothing. We’re there to learn, do grunt work, and earn our keep. Of course, that was fine by me because: 1) I was there to learn, 2) I didn’t mind the grunt work, and 3) I was damn proud to be working in such a prestigious firm.

If you didn’t have a project that you were currently working on, it was your responsibility to be proactive and find something billable to do. I was taught that I needed to walk around from cubicle to cubicle and ask for more work. Since I didn’t know squat and was often given 15 minute projects at a time, I was looking for work quite a lot.

So in the early weeks, I would spend hours each week just shuffling around from one cube to another, demurely asking for work. I think part of the point was to get to know the other individuals in the department, but I felt the interaction was somewhat limited.

Me: Do you have anything I can help you with?
Them: No, not right now.
Me: Ok, thanks.
{on I’d go to the next cube}

Time after time, the answer was always the same… no, in the past 15 minutes, no new work had magically appeared to be delegated to me. And there was no new work for the other two staff people bouncing around the tax department floor also looking for work.

One day I had an idea.

I thought maybe I could streamline this process a bit. I sent an e-mail to everyone in the tax department in my office. It went something like this:

Subject: Will Work for Food

Body: No, I’m just kidding… I don’t need any food. But seriously, I do need work. If you have any outstanding projects that you need help on, please let me know. I’m at Ext. XXXX, and I’m in Cube XXXX (the one with candy on the desk).


The results were fascinating.

One senior manager came and talked to me saying that she was surprised to be receiving joke e-mails so soon after my hiring until she realized that it wasn’t a joke e-mail. She didn’t have any work, but she introduced herself and took a piece of candy.

One senior who was in international tax (not my designated “specialty”) asked two or three times if I was serious before giving me a sizeable project to help out on.

Very few applauded my resourcefulness.

I believe the vast majority could not believe my audacity, and I definitely got a “frown” vibe. I should have been walking around looking for work just like they were trained to do. I was just a lowly staff person; I mean, what made me think I could send out an e-mail like this to everyone?  It was certainly not the norm.


Everyone in the office knew who I was after that, and I had to replenish my candy jar often. The Managing Partner was a frequent guest.

And I don’t remember ever having to go look for work again.  And of course, that was the whole point, after all.

Sometimes it’s difficult to break out of the mold or to try new things, and you may not be popular (at least initially) for doing it.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, and it might just get you the results you want.