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Big Four Accountants Have Prestige, Not Quality of Life, Survey Says

If you’re an accountant, you likely want to work for one of the Big Four: PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte, KPMG and Ernst & Young. Beware believing the grass is greener, though. According to a new survey of accounting employees from, your quality of life and work/life balance may suffer a bit, unless you work at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The list of best accounting firms to work for, as judged by 8,000 accountants who took part in this year’s employee survey, features all the key names in the industry. The Big Four accounting firms are each ranked in the top six, with PwC taking the top spot for the first time in the five-year history of the annual survey.

Respondents were asked to give a numerical ranking, between one and 10, rating their firm in 25 separate categories, including culture, work/life balance, compensation, overall job satisfaction, business outlook and formal training, among others. They were also asked to rank the prestige associated with firms other than their own. It was left up to respondents to interpret what prestige meant to them; they were asked only to rate firms with which they were familiar. The survey took place from December 2012 through February 2013.

The top 10 of this year's Vault Accounting 50:

1. PricewaterhouseCoopers

2. Deloitte

3. Grant Thornton

4. Ernst & Young



7. McGladrey

8. Rothstein Kass

9. Moss Adams

10. Plante Moran

Delving deeper into the data behind the rankings, the bigger firms lose a bit of luster. The prestige ranking is heavily weighted, accounting for 40% of the overall ranking of a company. The Big Four hold the top spots, and it’s not all that close. PwC, Ernst & Young and Deloitte each average a prestige rating above eight on a 10 point scale. No company outside the Big 4 earned above a 6.5 rating.

Clearly, accountants working at smaller firms look up at their Big Four brethren. Eyeing other metrics that aren’t as heavily weighted but that are more critical to an employee’s happiness, the table’s turn in favor of many of the smaller firms.

In the employee satisfaction category, PwC is the only firm of the Big Four to break into the top 20, finishing seventeenth. The same can be said of firm culture, work/life balance and compensation categories, with PwC barely cracking the top 20. doesn’t disclose where Deloitte, KPMG and Ernst & Young ranked in these categories, only that they didn’t finish among the top 20.

Smaller accounting firms like Rothstein Kass, Berdon, WithumSmith+Brown, Grant Thornton, Plante Moran, Moss Adams, Dixon Hughes and Friedman scored considerably better in many of the quality-of-life categories. Rothstein Kass, a New York firm specializing in the hedge fund industry, dominated several areas, finishing first in work life/balance, firm culture, benefits, internal mobility, supervisor relationships, informal training and green initiatives.

“Rothstein Kass truly cares about its employees’ career development and offers numerous training opportunities to help its staff grow professionally,” said Derek Loosvelt, Vault’s senior finance editor. “It also offers generous perks and benefits, including significant vacation time and flexible work arrangements.”

To its credit, PwC earned the number one overall ranking by improving in several workplace categories over the last year. “Amongst the Big Four, PwC has done the most to improve the work satisfaction of its employees,” Loosvelt said.

PwC finished in the top 20 in 24 separate categories.

“I am surrounded everyday by people who make me better at my job and whom I truly enjoy spending time with,” said one unnamed PwC employee.

The other three firms appear to fall short in these areas, at least when compared to smaller rivals. When asked to list the “downers,” or cons, of the firm, Deloitte insiders offered answers like “no work/life balance at all” and “reputation for chewing people up.”

Phrases attached to KPMG include “cutthroat policies,” “used car salesman” and “perception of KPMG by other Big Four firms vs. market results.”

Employees at Ernst & Young, meanwhile, said the firm tends to overwork its employees and provides “unrealistic expectations of time and budget by managers.”

The Big Four did better in workplace categories like benefits, diversity, business outlook and hiring process, but failed to rank highly in any of the employee satisfaction categories.

“Historically, small firms have better workplace satisfaction,” said Loosvelt.  "The bigger firms are improving, though.”

Outside of PwC, the progress appears slow. If enjoying your workplace is a key career goal, smaller accounting firms are likely to provide the better options.

AUTHORBeecher Tuttle US Editor
  • fi
    24 July 2013

    There is definately no work life balance at the big four! We have come to call our work/work balance

  • le
    leroy leblanc
    18 April 2013

    as someone who has worked at 3 of the big four accounting firms (and a partner at 2) I can attest to the fact that the typical person at these firms are rather mediocre, while there are some truly standout performers

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