Big Four: When talent prefers tough, competitive management systems

Sebastien Stenger, HEC Paris PhD - January 24th, 2017
Big Four: When talent prefers tough, competitive management systems - Sebastien Stenger - ©Fotolia-jozefmicic

The largest international accounting firms have no trouble attracting applicants despite the intense workload and stressful selection process. In fact, quite the opposite: the up or out  system may well be the key motivating factor for employees. Sébastien Stenger explains the inner workings and outcomes of this managerial approach.

Sebastien Stenger ©HECParis - JM Biais

Sébastien Stenger earned his PhD in human ressources management at HEC Paris and his Master’s in philosophy from Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne. His doctoral thesis (...)

In 2013, a trainee in a major investment bank died after spending several sleepless nights working on his case files, re-igniting the media debate about the pace of work in top companies. Despite the tremendous burdens put on staff, investment banks and accounting and consulting giants find it easy to attract applicants. This is especially true of the Big Four,  with the global leaders regularly featuring among the ten most popular employers for students and recent graduates in the Universum rankings . But what really attracts young people to join these firms and encourages them to stay? Is it because the Big Four act as a calling card? Because the work is interesting? Or because of the salaries? To answer these questions, Stenger argues, you need to analyze the up or out system. 

Social skills are more important than professional expertise 

Technical ability and accounting know-how have become secondary skills since the introduction of standardized methods of auditing. Firms hire non-specialist graduates who are not always particularly interested in the job per se but are keen on pursuing career opportunities, elitism and prestige. Interpersonal skills then become more important than professional expertise if you want to make progress: you need to make sure that you are selected, work with the right people and develop good relations. This political aspect, which can be found in many companies, is even more striking in the Big Four since the “up or out” system organizes competition into a formal framework. Co-workers are ranked against each other on an annual basis, separating employees who are allowed to pass to the next grade from those who are asked to leave.

The social interactions create an internal market that puts a price on the reputations of individuals. This is used to identify "cooptable" profiles (who will be promoted) and exclude others, such as women who have had children. Mothers are asked to undertake assignments less often, their power relationships are diluted and it is not long before they stop making progress. In spite of certain initiatives to encourage equality (such as crèches and coaching), no more than 17% of partners on average are women with children.


"Being snowed under" is a sign of social superiority

Work as a competitive sport

The managerial approach in the Big Four is both highly structured and highly structuring. As well as being a source of motivation, excitement and rivalry, selection generates anxiety and frustration. It is a demanding and sometimes exhausting process, which auditors often compare to sport. The interviews conducted by Stenger show that motivation does not simply boil down to the salary, interest in the work or career ambitions; it is rooted in the desire for recognition. The experience is valued for itself because it generates the feeling of belonging to a select elite. This membership group is not defined by the profession itself but by submitting to a challenging and competitive system. Prestige is derived from the competition that serves as the basis for the group’s superiority. The ability to withstand stress, fatigue and a substantial workload helps determine the value of the experience. "Being snowed under" is a sign of social superiority in the same way as "pulling an all-nighter" is regarded favorably. Anyone who refuses to bow to the pressure is punished and pushed aside. As a result, the group tends to turn in on itself, and the social existence of the auditors becomes dependent on their place in the firm. 

Life after the firm 

Once an auditor has been asked to quit a leading firm, he or she usually joins the finance department of a top company. Many feel as though they have suffered a loss of status. In any event, former auditors have an ambivalent relationship to their old firms: they might have an emotional pull towards this intense period of suffering and stimulation at a time in their lives when they were forging strong relationships. Nevertheless, most tend to remember it as an abnormal existence, which they describe as "not being like real life". Stenger demonstrates how the relationship to work is reconfigured according to gender and social background after an auditor has left a firm. He distinguishes three different character types in this conversion: the "integrated-detached" (who accepts that opportunities for promotion in the firm are finished without too much dismay); the "withdrawer" (the auditor who suddenly removes him or herself from the competition); and the "true believer" (whose self-esteem is heavily dependent on his or her position in the firm and who sees the end of promotion as a failure).

The individuals who do best are those who manage to retain an alternative set of values to the firm’s together with a social life that bolsters their self-esteem and whose family, spouse or other relations do not set great store by their experience in the firm. It should be clear that an auditor’s perspective is heavily shaped by their previous educational experiences, mostly in preparatory classes and in the Grandes Ecoles where intelligence is associated with quick thinking and a thirst for work for work’s sake, regardless of concrete outcomes. In such a context, an auditor’s professional rationale, or her valuing of her own independence and expertise, may take second place to and be weakened by commercial and social rationale.

Based on an interview with Sébastien Stenger and his thesis: "Pourquoi travaille-t-on dans un cabinet d’audit ‘Big Four’? Fonctions du système ‘up or out’: contrôle, compétition et prestige social", presented at HEC on June 30, 2015 under the supervision of Françoise Chevalier, Associate Professor of Human Ressources Management.

His research was awarded Best thesis by « Le Monde » in December 2016.

Practical Applications
Practical Applications

Understanding the consequences of the “up or out” system contributes to the debate on the role of auditing in our society. The Big Four are extremely influential players, often presented as ensuring that global capitalism and the markets function smoothly. Since these firms also prescribe systems of management and supply CAC 40 companies with co-workers, their “up or out” model is found to varying degrees in numerous multinationals. Naturally enough, in occupations where it is not possible to measure performance objectively, reputation plays a greater role when it comes to assessment. We would all benefit from thinking about the impact of these management models in terms of our own work and engagement.


Stenger’s research was based on two field surveys he carried out during his thesis: a three-month participant observation as a trainee auditor followed by 38 semi-structured interviews with current or former auditors. The sample consisted of roughly 50% men and women and equal numbers of working and ex-auditors.