Auditor PTSD and thoughts from the other side

I just had the most visceral flashback to my EY days and it triggered all sorts of feelings…Stockholm syndrome, PTSD, nostalgia and gratitude, all mixed up in my gut somewhere in the vicinity of the spot that cramped up before I had to go be an auditor every day.

The story? A first-year staff auditor from my company’s chosen audit firm emailed me the most sweetly formal email with a question that was so far off in left field, it wasn’t even really in the same ball game. I took a look at her thoughts/question and remembered that awful, sickening feeling of having to talk to the client on a workpaper I didn’t even remotely understand…that sort of nausea that comes with being so far out of one’s depth. I emailed her back quickly, and she asked to chat. I offered to call her, and she explained: “The cube they have me in doesn’t have a phone – so here’s my cell phone to call me on.”

That right there was where it really started…that feeling of “omg holy shit, I know how you must be feeling and where you’re coming from.” My company is a big-deal client to this Big 4 firm, and I know the staff on it are considered the best and brightest…or they lucked onto it due to serendipitous scheduling. That, to me, was always such a big deal…to be staffed on the “cool” jobs. Then I went into the world of healthcare and insurance audit, and all the jobs were so inherently uncool nobody wanted to be on them at all.

And yet this girl is sitting in some sad cube somewhere in a corner that doesn’t even have a phone in it. It made me think of my least favorite audit room…the one at the big insurance client in the suburbs where the audit room was in the sub-basement. Not even the straight up basement, the basement BELOW the basement. It literally contained a door that opened into the desk chair graveyard. The room itself was tucked under a pair of escalators, and every six seconds or so, one of the escalators would shriek out a whiny squeak. Like clockwork. By the end of the first week, I thought that squeak would make me insane. By the end of the second, I had headphones in almost all day to drown it out. By the end of the third, I didn’t even hear it.

So my boss and I called her on her cell phone, and tried to explain the complex control question she had in terms that wouldn’t totally intimidate a first-year auditor. She talked in circles and questioned herself on the phone repeatedly, and I flashed back to a moment on my first big busy-season job…trying to understand a reserve system when I didn’t even really understand what the reserve in question was for. The woman I was talking to was ex-public herself, and at one point goes, “This is how I would document it: you say blahblahblah and that will be enough to provide adequate explanation in your workpaper.” And I stood at this woman’s desk and wrote it down, as near to verbatim as possible. The workpaper made it through review…but I didn’t necessarily entirely understand what I had reviewed, even then.

As this little staff auditor talked, I felt that bittersweet pang of pity and understanding for where she was coming from, and found myself uttering the same words that the woman at my old client had: “If I were going to document it, I would explain it this way…” before launching into a simplified but comprehensive explanation. Not too wordy, not too technical, but exactly right to outline the question and issue in an appropriate way for an audit workpaper. Her relief was palpable, and the fifteen seconds of silence so predictable…although my non-ex-public boss gave me a look like “What is going on?” with eyebrows raised. Her sudden “I’m sorry, I’m just writing that down” was as familiar and expected to me as oxygen.

We hung up after her profuse thanks, and I knew in my heart that the sweet staff auditor didn’t entirely understand the complicated inter-system process I had distilled for her. I did know, however, that I had been kind and gracious, and hoped that would be a bright spot in a day that, at 2pm, wasn’t even half over. And I almost choked on the memory of ordering 7pm delivery dinner, of the Pavlovian conditioning to hate and fear review notes, of the complete stir-craziness that descended most nights around 10pm, still at client sites. Of managers who gave me nightmares and partners who were distant and inaccessible. Of the morning I woke up at 6am, dry-heaved for two minutes at the stress of having to be an auditor for another day, and went to brush my teeth only to find my toothbrush still wet from the 2:30am bedtime brushing.

Then I thought of how much I’d learned…how to talk to any professional without feeling awkward or juvenile. How the friendships I’d made still last today. I thought of instant-messenger conversations consisting solely of hundreds of GIFs and solidarity. Of managers and partners who genuinely cared that we were learning and having some fun along the way.

While my time in public accounting was definitively traumatic in a lot of ways for me, I looked back in gratitude for how much I’d learned in the two and a half years I spent in that world. Even if given a do-over, I think I’d do it again…wet toothbrushes and reserve accounts aside. Hopefully when this staff auditor looks back in 2, 5, 10, or 15 years, she feels the same way.