Sébastien Stenger, a research professor at ISG, member of the ISG Interdisciplinary Research Group (GrIIsG) received the “Le Monde” award for academic research on: “Why do we work in a Big Four audit firm? Functions of the ‘up or out’ system: control, competition and social prestige”.
He explains how large firms (the ‘Big Four’), which imposed their Anglo-Saxon model on the audit market, also imposed their organization of work. This influences career development as well as the nature of the profession substituted for the image of the professional accounting expert, that of an elitist entrepreneur more motivated by considerations of prestige.
How is the management model of these entities unique?The Big Four, the leading international consulting firms (Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers) offering a multitude of services to large companies, have considerable economic weight in France and abroad. One of their specificities is their management model, “up or out”: it consists in selecting the best employees every year to take them to the next level. The listeners are thus classified in relation to each other. The best go up in the hierarchy while those with poorer performance are invited to leave the company. This particular management system can create motivation with a very structured hierarchy, but it can also cause anxiety, uncertainty and frustration. What are the effects of such a work organization?To succeed in these practices, technical skills are important, but some other skills are equally essential. Internally, this organization of work promotes a courtesan life, even more marked than in other enterprises. To succeed, you have to be noticed, have a good reputation and build solid relationships. One of the perverse effects is that these firms are paradoxically not the best companies to flourish in the early years as a professional passionate about auditing. The elitist culture that prevails there means that the content of work becomes secondary to the taste of competition and commercial relations. Has the attraction of the Big Four diminished among young graduates?There have always been fashions. Auditing was very much in vogue in the 1990s, then consulting and finance starting around 2000. Today, entrepreneurship is very in vogue and young professionals desire launch prestigious start-ups. However, this does not call into question the economic weight of these audit firms. They can also adopt these new codes (more flexible work schedules, teleworking …) to recruit, but they are the ones who always “circulate” the elite employees. Their weight and attractiveness are still very strong, and the bridges remain: for the disappointed entrepreneurs whose start-up has not taken off, these firms constitute an important channel to return to a big company. What does this function teach us about the current economic system?These firms are important because they guarantee confidence in our economic system. My thesis emphasizes that certain aspects of the imposition of this Anglo-Saxon model (compared to a French model made up of small firms dominated by these major global players) can weaken the professional ethics of auditors. The high degree of division of labor, the commercial orientation and the importance of hierarchical advancement tend to push employees to behave like players and competitors, at the expense of their real job and these stakes. More broadly, this promotes reflection on the economic elites and their relation to work, in a context where the distrust of them has never been more important.