Becoming a professional auditor in the ‘tenties’
- A delineation of trainee auditors’ first year struggles
Marlies de Vries
Nyenrode Business Universiteit
Nyenrode Business Universiteit
Ivo De Loo
Aston Business School
SUBMISSION TO THE IPA CONFERENCE 11-13 JULY 2018, EDINBURGH
This research seeks to further our understanding of socialisation processes of early career
auditors, and the uncertainties they face in their daily work. Bourdieu´s concept of hysteresis
is used to understand which difficult, and oftentimes stressful issues professional junior
auditors typically encounter in Dutch auditing firms, both Big4 and non-Big4. Thereby, the
paper responds to various calls in the literature to produce more research on what auditors
actually do and experience. We draw on empirical material collected between 2012-2017 in a
summer course, in which audit trainees were offered the possibility to discuss their personal
struggles that they had experienced working for a professional audit firm. We conclude that
the commercial orientation and attitude of auditing firms very much dominates the
socialisation process of auditors. In addition, we find that in the eyes of first year audit
trainees, getting a good job appraisal after the first year is essential to survive in their new
working environment. The centrality of the job appraisal puts pressure on the trainees'
socialisation process, which may make them do things they find hard to accommodate.
Nevertheless, some trainees start to develop an attitude to ‘just follow the senior’ even if their
behavior may be at odds with what is typically expected from auditors in the public eye.
Socialisation, struggles, hysteresis, audit trainees.
In the accounting literature, in response to the financial crisis and the many scandals, frequent
calls have been made for a further demystification of the audit profession (Carnegie & Napier,
2010; Power, 2009; Sikka, 2009). Nowadays, the commercialism of the audit profession can
be seen as accomplished (Cooper & Robson, 2006; Dirsmith, Covaleski, & Samuel, 2015).
But moreover, it seems from recent discussions that society tends to ask for a change to the
other side: back to the traditional accountant, who favour the public service ethic. The audit
profession is currently undergoing a period of profound crisis (Dirsmith et al., 2015). Its
commercialization still stands (Hanlon, 1994), but the belief that accountants and auditors are
“professionals” who are autonomous and independent is increasingly often questioned in the
public arena. External auditors, rather than upholding professional values, have generally
seemed to let their personal or commercial interests prevail, looking the other way when they
must have known or suspected that illegal practices were carried out (Carnegie & Napier,
2010; Dirsmith et al., 2015; Sikka, 2009). As a result of various scandals that have come to
light and the financial crisis, there has been an increase in regulation concerning auditors and
the audit profession. Still, it must be borne in mind that the audit profession has survived
many crises and resisted many pressures, mainly by maintaining a strict silence in the public
debate and by presenting –top down- formal types of controls as an answer to crises, such as
training programs, formal guidelines and professional standard setting. But, what actually
happens when audits are performed, and how proposed formal types of controls are
implemented within audit firms stays unclear from the perspective of outsiders. Also
accounting researchers encounter difficulties in getting access to audit firms. This led to
discussions in the literature to gather an understanding of what actually happens when audits
are performed in order to demystify the audit profession.
What actually happens during audits is researched in the accounting literature through the lens
of socialization processes. Socialization expresses the process whereby individuals learn the
ways of thinking and behavior which are generally considered as ‘the appropriate way of
doing things’ in a certain social environment. Thus, becoming an auditor implies the
possession of technical knowledge, and on top of this the internalization of what it means to
be a professional auditor (Anderson-Gough, Grey, & Robson, 1998a, 1998b; Empson, 2004).
Hence, socialization within audit firms encompasses an important informal learning
component, where trainees learn ‘on-the-job’ within their audit teams what it means to be an
auditor. Consequently, audit firms can be seen as sites of socialization where the meaning of
being a professional auditor is constructed through what happens when audits are performed
within audit firms (Cooper & Robson, 2006). Audits are performed by individual auditors or
people who want to become one, who work together in teams to serve the clients for the audit
firm they are affiliated with. Thus, early career trainees learn from more senior trainees and
certified auditors what it means to be a professional and what professional behavior entails.
The seminal studies on the socialization processes of auditors recognized that trainee auditors
informal learned that the commercial orientation of auditors (Hanlon, 1994; Willmott &
Sikka, 1997) dominated the public service ethic (Anderson-Gough et al., 1998a, 1998b,
Anderson-Gough, Grey, & Robson, 2000, 2001, 2002; Coffey, 1993, 1994; Fogarty, 1992;
Grey, 1998; Hanlon, 1994). In order to understand socialization processes the seminal studies
focused on trainee auditors because they found themselves in the learning process of
becoming an auditor.
Socialization can be understood through the concept of hysteresis (Bourdieu, 1977).
According to Bourdieu (1977, 1990) the phenomenon of hysteresis is the inability to process
and evaluate difficult situations in consonance with earlier formed schemes of perception and
interpretation. Via this definition Bourdieu recognises that although the habitus1 is enduring,
situations can occur where earlier formed schemes (and behaviour) do not function anymore.
In situations when an individual does not know the appropriate way of ‘doing things’ in a
(new) social environment the concept of hysteresis comes into light (Bourdieu & Wacquant,
1992, p. 130). Individuals, who have been working in the accounting profession for a while,
already became more socialized and are probably not surprised (anymore) about what actually
happens when an audit is performed and what it means to be a professional. In order to
understand the socialization process, you actually need a shock. In this study the concept of
hysteresis is used for this. Hence, based on the definition of hysteresis it’s a logical
consequence to look at first-year trainee auditors in this study. Because first year trainees
have just had their double entry (Coffey, 1993) to the audit professions, meaning that they
have started a combination of both studying (at a university) and also working for an audit
firm. It can be assumed that first year trainees in general have no idea what the 'appropriate
way of doing things' is in their new environment. By using the concept of hysteresis we
connect our study to the emerging literature in accounting which investigate the audit
1 Habitus express socially learned ways of thinking and behavior which are generally accepted as ‘the appropriate way of ‘doing things’ to
survive / succeed in certain social environments in which an individual participates.
profession in the 21st century via different non-mainstream theoretical traditions (Dirsmith et
al., 2015; Malsch & Salterio, 2015; Power & Gendron, 2014).
The present study is an attempt to empirically shed light whether the meaning of being a
professional auditor has changed compared to the mid-nineties of the last century. We do this
by an examination of struggles, which trainees (those who want to become a professional
auditor) encountered during their first year working for an audit firm. Although the seminal
studies on socialization processes were done in the UK, it can be assumed that the differences
between countries are marginalized given the internationalization of the audit profession (e.g.
via the global audit firms and international standards) (Cooper & Robson, 2006; Suddaby,
Cooper, & Greenwood, 2007). On the one hand, given the recent developments within the
global audit profession and its regulatory environment resulting in a call and also legislation
for a shift in professional behavior amongst auditors to a more public service oriented ethic, a
change of what it means to be a public auditor might be expected compared to the mid-
nineties of the last century. But, on the other hand it might also be expected that this meaning
remained unchanged, as what actually happens when performing an audit in audit firms
appears reluctant to change (Anderson-Gough, Grey, & Robson, 2005). Given the hierarchical
up or out culture within audit firms whereby ‘one either fits in or gets out’ (Carter & Spence,
2014; Dirsmith et al., 2015; Grey, 1998; Kornberger, Justesen, & Mouritsen, 2011) it can be
assumed that auditors who were trainees in the mid-nineties and still work in the audit
profession successfully incorporated the formal and informal rules of behavior which they
informally learned at the times they were trainee. Moreover, these auditors have attained more
senior roles in their audit teams whereby they have taught new trainees what it means to be an
auditor on their jobs based on what they have learned. So, what actual happens when an audit
is performed by audit teams and what it means to be a profession thereon is produced and re-
A common denominator of the research on the professional socialization of auditors is the
difficulties that researchers encounter for getting direct access to audit firms and people who
work in the audit profession. Audit firms often appeal to client confidentiality in order to
deflect inquiries into what actually happens when an audit is performed from a sociological
perspective. Therefore the earlier socialization studies were based on interviews with trainees
(not only audit, but also tax and insolvency) within –at a maximum- 2 regional offices of a
Big N firm. With this study we take another route and we draw on data gathered during a
three-day summer course at the university for early career auditors with one year of work and
study experience. All participants of this study are studying to become a certified auditor and
work for an audit firm (Big 4 and non-big 4). The classroom setting, away from current
employers but together with peers (no immediate competitors), can be regarded as a safe
haven. Students discuss the uncertainties they experienced during their first year working for
an audit firm. After this course they were asked to write a self-narrative on the topic. The
course has been offered since 2012 and is followed by an average of 120 students per year.
Participants from the 2012-2017 programs have allowed us to use their work for this research
project. The described encountered struggles are used to delineate a picture of what it means
to be a professional auditor.
Our study contributes to the literature on the professional socialisation of auditors. By
delineating a picture of the struggles experienced by early career auditors (who have just
entered the audit profession) with regard to the appropriate way of behaviour (via the scarcely
used concept of hysteresis) during their on the job experience within audit firms in the
Netherlands. For this study, hysteresis is pivotal to our understanding of the socially learned
ways of thinking and behaviour which are generally considered as ‘the appropriate way of
doing things’ to survive / succeed as an auditor. Hysteresis can occur when an individual
enters a new unfamiliar field, initiated by social mobility. As individuals move between
different fields it is apparent that they plunge into fields with a different habitus compared to
the habitus they have attained on previous fields that they were active (primarily family and
school). As said, the early career auditor needs to internalise the formal and informal rules of
behaviour and has to learn what it means to be an audit professional (Anderson-Gough et al.,
1998a; Coffey, 1993, 1994; Empson, 2004; Grey, 1994, 1998). Previous research showed
that during their on-the-job experiences early career auditors learn what it de facto means to
be an auditor (Anderson-Gough et al., 1998a). In other words once they have started to work
for an audit firm early career auditors have to learn and incorporate with oneself ‘the
appropriate way of doing things’ in order to be successful. The actual way of working and
behaviour in an audit firm could both differ from the known ways of behaviour that the early
career auditor has learned in earlier stages of his/her life and with the expectations they have
formed with regard to their new environment and their (societal) role within it (Major,
Kozlowski, Chao, & Gardner, 1995). In these cases the early career auditor does not know
‘naturally’ what the appropriate way to behave is. This can lead to struggles, which can be
described as ‘feeling out of sync’ within the new environment, this is where the concept of
hysteresis comes into light. Our research question is: What struggles do early career auditors
(in their first year) experience during their ‘training on the job’ within audit firms in the
Netherlands? The aim of this study is to gather an understanding what it means to be a
professional auditor in the ‘tenties’ (second decade of the 21st century) by delineating a
picture of struggles, which came upfront in the first phase of socialization at an audit firm. In
order to do so we will focus on struggles concerning uncertainties about the appropriate
behaviour, which early career auditors have encountered during their first year.
The remainder of this paper develops as follows: in the next section we provide a theoretical
overview of socialization of auditors and the link of hysteresis to new entrants in this study. In
the third section we outline our methods. Furthermore we will elaborate on the situation in the
Netherlands whereby audit firms have proposed and are in the process of implementing
measures to improve the quality of audits and restore the public trust. This is followed by a
description of our fieldwork and our findings. Finally, the last section draws conclusions and
2. Theoretical background
2.1 Socialisation of auditors
The seminal socialisation studies in the accounting literature (Anderson-Gough et al., 1998a,
1998b, Anderson-Gough, Grey, & Robson, 2000, 2001, 2002; Coffey, 1994; Coffey, 1993;
Fogarty, 1992; Grey, 1998; Hanlon, 1994) view socialisation as a continuous project; it has no
fixed end point. It expresses the process whereby individuals learn the ways of thinking and
behaviour which are generally considered as ‘the appropriate way of doing things’ in a certain
social environment. In general socialization takes place from an early stage in life and it
envisages to contain three stages (Anderson-Gough et al., 1998a). The first stage is primary
socialization, which means that a child learns how to fit in its family. This is followed by the
second stage whereby the child goes to school and is thus faced with a new extended social
environment. The third stage (which is a continuum) contains adult socialization. Hereby the
individual learns to be an employee, volunteer, partner (spouse), parent, and so on.
Professional socialization is one aspect of adult socialization, which is required for
individuals who wish to become a member of a profession. An individual has to gain
sufficient technical knowledge accompanied with the development of a moral competence to
become a member of a profession. Thus learning what it means to be a ‘professional’
encompasses a formal and informal learning trajectory. Becoming an auditor implies the
possession of specialist technical knowledge (or at least the ability to convince others), and on
top of this the internalization of what it means to be a professional auditor or to display what
is considered appropriate behavior (Anderson-Gough et al., 1998; Empson, 2004). Anderson-
Gough, Grey, & Robson (2001) argue that the internalization of the values of the audit
profession (classified as formal and informal norms of conduct) is key for a successful
auditing career. For new entrants, training in technical accounting and audit procedures is one
thing, but they also need to learn what it means to be a professional through experience. This
experience is for built within the organizational setting of the audit firm.
According to Grey (1998) socialization processes within audit firms are aimed at turning new
recruits into professionals. Socialization processes include for example the formal structures
of recruitment, appraisal and training, but also informal structures such as the formation of
peer groups, coaching groups and social contacts. On the basis of previous research, Empson
(2004) summarized known aspects of socialization within audit firms by defining
characteristics of what it means to be a professional auditor. When socializing into audit firms
trainees have to learn to internalize these characteristics in order to be successful in their new
working environment. Key characteristics for being professional as a public auditor, which a
trainee learns on the job are (i) the internalization of high performance levels (in terms of
performance evaluation, with a strong focus on meeting the client expectations), (ii) a focus
on passing exams instead of expanding technical knowledge, (iii) a reluctance to adopt a
critical view on the actual way of working during audits, (iv) strong loyalty among peer
groups, despite individual focus and strong peer competition in terms of work and study
progress, and (v) a commitment to work and studies, a commitment to spending spare time
working during evenings and weekends, and a commitment to work-related social activities.
The meaning of being a professional auditor is established by the dominant power group
within professional organisations, and as described earlier heavily influenced by the values of
commercialisation (Anderson-Gough et al., 2000).
The first studies in accounting on the socialization process of auditors were focussed on the
early socialization process (Anderson-Gough, Grey, & Robson, 1998a, 1998b, 2001; Coffey,
1994; Coffey, 1993). Coffey (1993, 1994) followed a cohort of ten new entrants of a
professional service firm; the study focussed on the centrality of time when audits were
performed. Anderson-Gough, Grey, & Robson (1998a, 1998b, 2000, 2001, 2002) interviewed
70 trainees (within two different regional offices of international audit firms) somewhere in
the first three years of their training period in the UK. Both studies also included tax and
insolvency trainees. Furthermore they were all based on data gathered in the mid-nineties of
the last century stemming from early career auditors in the UK. The main argument for the
focus on early career auditors is that they form the lowest layer of the hierarchical audit firms.
It was supposed that there is minimal contact between partners and junior auditors. As, audit
firms are known for their pyramidal hierarchical structure, implicating that in order to be
successful an auditor moves up the hierarchy or out (Anderson-Gough et al., 1998a;
Kornberger et al., 2011). Early career auditors have to learn what the appropriate behaviour is
which corresponds with their status. They interact with clients, but they are not involved in
agreeing fees, setting deadlines and internal budget calculations. So, in this line of reasoning
to delineate a picture of the what actually happens when an audit is performed within audit
firms it makes sense to look at how and what early career auditors informally learn during
their work to become an auditor. More recent studies (of which most have a gender
perspective and focus on women in the audit profession) to understand what happens when an
audit is performed they used data from other groups such as women, managers and partners
(Carter & Spence, 2014; Haynes, 2012; Kornberger et al., 2011; Lupu, 2012; Lupu &
Empson, 2015). Most recently there is emerging literature about the impact of young
accountants on the audit profession, in which the assumed one-directional socialisation
process (through the master-apprentice relationship) is being questioned (Brouard: Bujaki;
Durocher; Neilson, 2017; Durocher, Bujaki, & Brouard, 2016). In their study of the
socialization of ‘millennials’, Durocher et al (2016, p.1) suggest based on their analysis of
company websites (Big 4 and non-Big 4) as well as interviews with recruitment managers and
experienced auditors2 that ‘a bottom-up socialisation process’ is taking place. In that sense,
accounting firms adjust the workplace in response to future employees’ expectations.
Although, today accounting firms are mainly recruiting a new generation (i.e. ‘millennials’ as
opposed to ‘generation x’) with possibly different values and beliefs, trainee accountants are
still quickly socialised by firms on how to behave as professionals (Brouard: Bujaki;
Durocher; Neilson, 2017). Within our study we consider struggles of new audit trainees
aiming to delineate a picture of what it means to be a professional auditor. It could be that
“meeting millennials’ expectations” is only expressed discursively, but not acted on by the
2 The interviewees had on average 20 years of working experience within auditing. Varying in function from audit partner to senior staff.
audit firms. Meaning that the actual ways of working within audit firms remain unchanged.
As what actually happens when an audit is performed within audit firms appear to be the
result of reinforcing formal and informal processes that serve to uphold the existing roles, it is
interesting to understand whether the meaning of being a professional auditor identified in the
90s of the last century through the eyes of early career auditors (and their socialization) still
hold in this date and age. Specifically given the discussion in academia as well as in practice
with regard to the (questioned) functioning of the audit profession, this study focuses on early
career auditors (big 4 and non-big 4) in their first year working in public auditing only (so,
excluding non-audit services such as tax and insolvency).
Socialization can be understood through the concept of hysteresis. Hysteresis can be defined
as the inability to process and evaluate crisis in consonance with earlier formed schemes of
perception and interpretation (Bourdieu, 1977, 1990). As such, hysteresis reflects the first
phase of adult socialization, an individual feels out of sync (as a fish out of water) and does
not know what the appropriate behaviour is in the new (or altered) environment. This is
followed by mimesis (Bourdieu 1977, 1990) an individual will copy the behaviour of
successful individuals in his social environment. And finally after recurrence of this new
behaviour it can be assumed this will lead to incorporation into the cognitive schemata of an
individual (Bourdieu, 1988, 1990). In other words the individual attained the new habitus and
the appropriate way to behave feels like a second nature (as a fish in the water). So,
individuals have internalised the predominant way of working and behaviour of their new
Hysteresis can occur on the macro level and on the micro (individual) level (Sieweke, 2012).
As the focus of this study is on the individual level (when individuals enter the audit
profession) this section will focus on the micro level of hysteresis, which can occur when an
individual enters a new field, initiated by social mobility. As individuals move between
different fields it is apparent that they plunge into fields with a different habitus compared to
the habitus they have attained on previous fields that they were active (primarily family and
school) and were socialized. Unfortunately, Bourdieu did not further conceptualise this
concept throughout his work. The scarce studies (all over different academic disciplines) that
used hysteresis left out supplementary concretization of Bourdieu’s conceptualisation. As the
best of our knowledge only one academic study (Dumenden & English, 2013) addresses
empirically the hysteresis that occurs when an individual enters a new field, due to social
mobility. Dumenden and English (2013) examined the experiences of a refugee student and
an international student, which were enrolled in the Australian mainstream schooling system.
Although they have theorised their study around hysteresis they did not further conceptualise
hysteresis for their empirical analysis. Consequently, it might be useful in order to use the
concept of hysteresis within this study to conceptualise hysteresis and to name criteria that
can be seen by event and on the individual level if hysteresis occurs or not. First of all, there
are different ways of experiencing and responding to an even. Hence, a particular situation
will lead to hysteresis for one individual and not for the other. Being said this, the
conceptualisation of hysteresis leads to the following characteristics: (i) Hysteresis is related
to a single event and occurs when the individual experiences a tension between different
perspectives. (ii) It affects personal views and involvement of the social environment. (iii)
The individual feels out of sync, which means that the individual experiences feelings of
‘otherness’ and does not feel part of the group. (iv) These feelings lead to a greater or lesser
degree (depending on the individual) to feelings of uncertainty with regard to the appropriate
way to behave. All the characteristics of hysteresis as described above must be met in order to
be able to actually speak of hysteresis. As stated, not everything that an individual opposes in
a new environment is hysteresis, the extent of which the feeling of "out of sync" occurs, can
vary per person. It is not illogical to expect that when an individual enters a new field, they
form a set of expectations with regard to the new environment and their role within it (Major
et al., 1995). Then, hysteresis can be related to feelings of presuppositions. The relation to
feelings of presuppositions is certainly not a compulsory criterion for hysteresis; it is more an
indication for it.
In the literature there have been debates about incorporating the thinking tools as described in
the ‘theory’ of Bourdieu into accounting research 3 as well as the role of the individual
thereon. The often-heard critique is that the individual is considered as a ‘puppet on a string’,
meaning that the of role rational decision-making4 (Brubaker, 1985; Jenkins, 2002; King,
2000) is misrecognised. The social world is in the theory of Bourdieu a world in which
3 Whilst using Bourdieu we take into account the translational gaps as addressed by Malsch, Gendron, & Grazzini (2011) as well as more
general criticisms of Bourdieu’s ideas (Nicolini, 2012; Jenkins, 2002 ; King, 2010). Since the first application of the theory of Bourdieu in
the accounting literature (about 20 years ago) researchers are still experimenting with his ideas (Malsch et al, 2011). Nevertheless we believe
that his work can be useful for understanding the dynamics within the audit profession as seen from the perspective of an individual.
4 Although Bourdieu explicitly dissociates with structural functionalism, his theory of practices shows many similarities.
Which is mainly caused by Bourdieu’s assumption for field and social spaces (within his theory of practice) is one of fixity.
Social change barely occurs and it is difficult to account for (Jenkins, 2002, p.90).
behaviour has causes, but leaving no (or limited) room for the individual reasons of agents
(Jenkins, 2002, p.97). More recent studies have begun to argue that there is room for a
different interpretation of the individual (namely self-conscious and rational); especially the
concept of hysteresis opens avenues to highlight this (Yang, 2014).
The design of this study is based on the conceptualisation of hysteresis as experienced by
trainee auditors during their first year working for an audit firm in the Netherlands. The
discussions about their struggles during their first year are framed within the characteristics of
hysteresis as described earlier. Based on Empson (2004) we know what characteristics a
public auditor must possess in order to behave professional. During their socialisation within
audit firms new trainees have learn to adopt this behaviour and have to internalise these
characteristics in order to be successful. These characteristics of being a professional auditor
will be the basis in this study to analyse and understand the hysteresis (if any) encountered by
first year trainee auditors in the Netherlands.
3.1 Data collection
Given the difficulties researchers experience for getting access to audit firms for sociological
studies to examine what happens when audits are performed (Anderson-Gough et al, 2005)
this research is an attempt to move beyond this. The data for this study was collected during a
three-day summer course for trainee auditors with one year of work and study experience.
Trainees are enrolled at the university in a weekly one-day programme; during the remaining
four days, they work for an audit firm (Big 4 or non-Big 4). Summers are used for multi-day
programmes, including this summer course. Its classroom setting, away from current
employers but together with peers (no immediate competitors), can be regarded as a safe
haven. During this summer course, students discuss the uncertainties they experienced as
trainee auditors, after which they have to write a self-narrative on the topic. In addition, they
are asked to visualize (via a picture or drawing) their struggle. The course has been offered
since 2012 and is followed by an average 120 students per year. Participants from the 2012-
2017 programmes have allowed us to use their work (papers and posters) for this research.
Self-narratives are considered by researchers as powerful instruments for understanding
uncertainty about the appropriate behaviour (Ashfort, 2001; Ibarra & Barbulescu, 2010) .
Therefore in this study we use this method in combination with the concept of hysteresis. In
this research we consider the self-narratives of participants as a reproduction and reflection on
the experienced uncertainties about the appropriate behaviour when they entered a new
environment. According to (Andon, Free, & Sivabalan, 2014, p. 91) the possibility for
reflexive self-awareness is most likely to occur when an individual is moving between
different social environments in which one is active. This connects to the concept of
hysteresis in that sense that when an individual encounters an unfamiliar field, this can not
only generate a change of habitus, but also can lead to individual feelings of uncertainty about
the appropriate behaviour (Reay, 2004). So, when there is a ‘mismatch’ between habitus and
the social environment (which is the case when an individual encounters hysteresis) whereby
one does not know ‘naturally’ what the appropriate way to behave is, this can trigger the
‘awakening of consciousness’ (Yang, 2014). Hence, when individuals encounter hysteresis
they are consciousness of the mismatch and they may very well adjust their behaviour
strategically (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992, p.131).
In order to delineate a picture of encountered struggles of trainee auditors the design of this
study is based on the conceptualisation of hysteresis as experienced by them during their first
year working for an audit firm in the Netherlands. The discussions about their struggles
during their first year are framed within the characteristics of hysteresis as described earlier
within the literature section. The data used in this study is based on self-narratives5 (a
reflection) of first year trainee auditors, in which they were asked to describe a situation
whereby they felt out of sync (or as a fish out of water), and which they encountered during
their first year working for an audit firm. The framing of this assignment is based on the
conceptualisation of hysteresis whereby the ‘situation’ is concretised as a situation by which
the trainee experienced a tension between different perspectives; this involved a combination
of at least two of the following perspectives: personal, firm and societal. In addition, it was
important trainees had felt uncertain about the appropriate behaviour in that specific situation.
With regard to the type of method, and given the subject of this study, elaborate care was
taken to secure the consent of individuals. First of all we provided all students with a
supporting letter describing the objective of the study and an explanation of the contexts in
which the data will be used. Furthermore guarantees of confidentiality were given. In
5 Given the aim of this study to delineate a picture of daily audit practices experienced by junior accountants we did not perform a narrative
analysis because our level of analysis is the level of junior accountants and not the level of the individual.
particular we asked participants for their written (and signed) approval to use the data
anonymous. Where permission was not granted, the participants of the course were taken out
and were not under consideration for this research project. Table 1 provides information of
the participants, which range over six years. As the aim of this research is to delineate a
picture it is not a problem that a large number of participants did not granted permission,
because we are not aiming to generalise our findings. All the participants, of this study were
working (at the time they followed the summer course) for an audit firm6. Initially, we asked
for permission after the course via email. But, the handling of these permissions turned out to
be very time-consuming. Therefore we asked as from 2014 signed permission on a hardcopy
form on the last day of the course. We assume that it was probably also easier for participants
to give permission on a form instead of email, so this might declare the relatively higher
number of granted permissions. Several steps were taken to protect the identity of the
trainees. First, in the text we do not link self-narrative excerpts with the corresponding
individuals. Second, we do not disclose office identification. When defining sources of quotes
we only use the year in which the participant followed the summer course. All self-narratives
underlying this study were in the Dutch language. During our writing process we have
translated the quotes into English. In some cases the Dutch terms were preserved to clarify
Summer course participants
Number of participants
No permission / no reply
Working for tax author
Participants of this study
3.2 Data analysis
Our analysis is centred on the characteristics of what it means to be a professional auditor
within audit firms (Empson, 2004), which were established prior to the data analysis. We used
NVivo for coding our data. In order to enhance the structuring of the context during our
analysis, these features were concretised by the introduction of sub-codes, which emerged
6 Big 4 and non-Big 4 firms. A minor group works for the Dutch Tax Authority / Ministry of Finance. These participants are
excluded for the analysis (see table 1).
often in our data. These characteristics about what professional behaviour entails in order to
be successful in audit firms based on previous research were as follows: (i) the internalization
of high performance levels (in terms of performance evaluation, with a strong focus on
meeting the client expectations), (ii) a focus on passing exams instead of expanding technical
knowledge, (iii) a reluctance to adopt a critical view on the way of working during audits (iv)
strong loyalty among peer groups, despite individual focus and strong peer competition in
terms of work and study progress, and (v) a commitment to marginalize personal life. During
several meetings of our research team we thoroughly discussed our sub coding themes that
emerged after the first rounds of coding. Every theme has been discussed and analysed within
the team. Table 2 shows an overview of the themes (based on Empson, 2004) and the
emerged subthemes (based on our empirical analysis) that were used during our data analysis.
As explained in the theory section, not everything that an individual opposes in a new
environment is hysteresis. Furthermore the extent, of which the feeling of "out of sync"
occurs, can vary per person. In some cases participants did not experience hysteresis (based
on the conceptualisation in paragraph 2.2.), these participants were –after a discussion within
our research team- not coded in this study. The described experienced uncertainty did not
meet the criteria that different perspectives were at stake. As an illustration, we had a situation
where a trainee described whether or not to account for a provision for doubtful debtors
according to the accounting standards. Moreover it seemed that experienced uncertainties of
trainee auditors could be categorised into more than one (sub) theme. For instance, when a
trainee was confronted with a situation whereby the deadline had to be met and it was
implicitly expected of the first year trainee to come to work during the weekend. Moreover
for that weekend the trainee had already made plans to go out with friends. This struggle is
coded in the subtheme ‘budget and deadlines’ as well as in the subtheme ‘balancing all
Coding themes for the data analysis
objectives and strict self-
In auditing there are high performance standards. Given the up
or out culture a good appraisal is essential. It is important that
the expectations of the clients are met, and that this is within
budget. An individual is ought to continuously improve oneself.
interest of the
2. Learning is passing
To climb up the ladder it is more important a trainee passes the
exams (“zesjescultuur”) than that one really dives into the
3. Reluctance in critical
Asking (critical) questions or speaking out might be seen as a
pain in the ass, which consequently can influence ones appraisal
or the way the others think (and talk) about a trainee.
on the job
4. Peer group loyalty
This concerns contact between colleagues (excluding senior
auditors (‘managers / opdrachtleiders) and up).
5. Work is number 1;
marginalisation of personal
A trainee has to learn to make choices that put work on the first
place. These choices might harm one’s personal life (family,
friends, and hobby’s) and study.
4. Empirical analysis
The following section discusses our empirical findings. We do so by separating the analyses
into sections that are in line with are theoretical framework of the known characteristics of
being professional that an auditor informal learns on-the job (Empson, 2004). But first, we
start with a short description of the research setting of this project, which is the audit
profession in the Netherlands. After this we continue with our analysis per theme and sub
theme (see table 2).
4.1 Research setting
Although the literature mentions general differences in the development of professions
between Anglo-Saxon countries and continental Europe (Burrage, 1990; Dirsmith et al.,
2015), it can be argued that the development of the auditing profession in the Netherlands
shares many similarities with stages distinguished in the development of the audit profession
in Anglo-Saxon countries. The Dutch founder of the audit profession in the Netherlands was
closely associated with and inspired by British colleagues (De Hen, Berendsen, &
Schoonderbeek, 1995; De Vries, 1985). The transition from occupation to profession in the
Netherlands was not initiated by aristocrats nor by the state. In fact, in its attempts to
monopolize the profession, the emerging auditing profession became faced with many
difficulties presented by Dutch law (De Hen et al., 1995; De Vries, 1985).
The Dutch national professional body the ‘Nederlandse Beroepsorganisatie van Accountants’
(NBA) has more than 21,000 members7. In the year 2014, the audit profession found itself in
a state of profound crisis. After a series of financial debacles and a critical public questioning
of the role of auditors, many auditing companies such as KPMG made a negative appearance.
Meanwhile, in 2014, the AFM (Authority for Financial Markets –responsible for the
supervision of financial markets-) also found a series of major shortcomings (based on their
review of 2012 audit files) in the quality systems of Big Four audit firms8. As a response the
NBA introduced the Future Accounting Profession Working Group (“Werkgroep Toekomst
Accountantsberoep”). This group analysed the shortcomings witnessed in the profession and
proposed a timetable to address and repair these. One of their major findings was that public
auditors seemed to have lost themselves in commercial interest instead of serving the public
interest 9 10 . To redress the shortcomings in the current system, the Future Accounting
Profession Working Group then proposed 53 formal measures to improve the quality of the
audit system in the Netherlands and to ensure its independence. In the ensuing public debate,
the Dutch Minster of Finance gave the audit profession a last chance to implement the
proposed improvements. In November 2016 the Monitoring Commission Accountancy
(MCA)11 presented the outcomes of their first working program. Their main finding is that the
proposed measures of the Future Accounting Profession Working Group (2014) are
incomplete to solve the structural problems of the audit sector. Accordingly, they
recommended an in-depth analysis of the root causes of the problems. The message of the
7 Based on document retrieved from their website on February 10, 2017: https://www.nba.nl/Over-de-NBA/De-
8 The Big Four multinational audit firms dominate the audit market in the Netherlands.
10 Note that the profession hereby confirms the findings of Anderson-Gough et al (2001), whereby they found that the
dominant discourse in public service firms is centred and rationalised around the client.
11 The Future Accounting Profession Working Group proposed also to invoke an independent monitoring committee. The
assignment of this committee is to safeguard the improvements within the sector in the coming years.
Monitoring Commission was generally received as crystal clear. But as several journalist12
pointed out, the profession kept silence in the media. It looks like the openness of the
profession since 2014 is short lived, there is a return to old strategies: Surviving crises and
resistance of pressure by maintaining a strict silence in the public debate and by presenting
formal types of controls as an answer to crises, such as training programmes, formal
guidelines and professional standard setting (Carnegie & Napier, 2010; Power, 2009; Sikka,
So, although in the case of the Netherlands the audit profession has “managed the crisis” by
pro-actively conducting high-level analyses and formulating answers to the various
shortcomings in an attempt to restore public trust in auditors, the public eye will continue to
rest on the profession for the next few years, for example when it comes to the
implementation of the proposed measures. Still, and perhaps remarkably, what actually
happens on the work floor has not been questioned too deeply by the Future Accounting
Profession Working Group.
4.2 Internalisation of high performance standards
In general working for an audit firm implies that an employee has to internalise high
performance standards. Auditors do not only have to exceed client expectations (Anderson-
Gough et al., 2000), but moreover they have to work within very tight financial budgets and
time schedules (Coffey,1993). Auditors have to show commitment to all of these (informal)
requirements, in an organizational environment, which is characterised as very hierarchical,
individualistic and competitive (given the up or out culture) (Carter & Spence, 2014; Dirsmith
et al., 2015; Grey, 1998; Kornberger et al., 2011). An essential prerequisite for being
successful within an audit firm is a good appraisal. In other words the job appraisal functions
as an instrument to promote the internalization of the values of the audit firm. Our analysis
indicates that for junior auditors appraisals can be influenced (to meet the standards) more
easily than for example the audit process given the fact that they have no direct contact with
(potential) clients to agree on fees, staffing and so on. Based on our coding activities on the
internalization of high performance standards of the encountered struggles the following sub
12 Financieel Dagblad, 22 november 2016; Volkskrant, 26 november 2016
- Budget and deadlines
- Job appraisals
- Client service ethic
- The interest of the public
Although pressure with regard to ‘budget and deadlines’ and ‘the client service ethic’ are
mentioned in previous literature, our analysis shed light of the involved struggles of trainees
in this day and age, and in addition brings forward some other subthemes such as dealing with
‘job appraisals’ and moreover, the ‘interest of the public’, whereby the functioning of the
audit profession has been questioned.
Budget and deadlines
Trainees discussed extensively the demanding level of commercial pressures leading to their
struggles about the appropriate behaviour towards ‘budget and deadlines’. In this quote, the
trainee experienced a tension between the continuous pressures to work after office hours to
meet deadlines and her own desire for having a more balanced life with more time for leisure.
“It is 2’o’clock at night, I was still working. I feel an enormous pressure caused by tight
deadlines. The culture within the audit profession implies that we have more assignments
(work) than we can handle. Due to the tight budget and deadlines, employees are pushed to
exceed their personal limits” (trainee auditor, 2012)
Trainees struggle how to balance between tight budgets, time pressure and the quality of their
work. Our analysis also suggests that trainees show a strong commitment to deliver quality,
but moreover they also want to keep an eye on the agreed budget. Even though, they do
realise that meeting the budget is not their responsibility. The budget is a case between client
and audit partner / manager, but the agreed budget seems to be the basis for the normative
time schedule (for trainees) to perform the audit. These two quotes suggest one’s sense of
tight budgets and the acceptance that this is something that is considered as ‘unquestionable
and not to discuss’.
“It is common practice within auditing; trainees who get involved in the problems of too tight
budgets. Theoretically spoken this should not be the case, but it seems to occur frequently.
Trainees who just entered the profession and immediately suffer from the agreements made
by someone else; a too tight budget.” (trainee auditor, 2017).
“The client has thrown the brakes on the budget, which means that the assignments that have
not yet been amply budgeted are even tighter. This development, caused by the credit crisis,
has left its mark on the audit sector. This confronts me with an important moral consideration,
do I choose to keep my mouth shut and continue or do I choose to put quality above speed?”
(trainee auditor, 2012)
Our analyses also indicates that in cases the budget is under pressure trainees are forced by
their superiors to use “weapons” for their findings, performed work and the reporting thereon
in the audit files as “in line with previous year” or “discussed with the client”. Furthermore
adjustments of the ‘level of materiality’ occurred as well as selecting other invoices within a
sample when something with regard to a selected invoice turned out to be questionable.
Moreover trainees struggle with the pressure from more senior audit team members, they
want to fulfil their expectations and not letting them down by exceeding the tolerable
budgeted hours or time spend on a task. But on the other hand, the same more senior audit
team members urge them to speed up by continuously asking if they have finished their job.
This excerpt emphasis the combination of documentation “weapons” and pressure to speed
“… people cannot always work faster and faster without dropping stitches. Examples of this
that I encountered in practice are incomplete samples, poor documentation and to high-level
analysis. All because audit teams simply do not have the time to do it right.” (trainee, 2012).
Further, the management control systems within audit firms support the internalisation of high
performance standards of employees. It seems over the years 2012-2017 that the monitoring
for budgets remained unchanged. Auditors feel responsible to meet their agreed budgets even
if this seems to be unrealistic. In order to do so, in practice there seem to be several strategies.
First, the use of a detailed audit planning based on the agreed budget prepared by the audit
manager. Although the planning is tight, sometimes trainees are asked upfront to explicitly
commit to these maximum hours to spend per task. For trainees this leads to struggles
wondering whereby it even is appropriate –given their very limited level of experience- to
commit to this. Second, the partner / managers are informed about the “write offs” per person
of their audits. Thus, in the case the actual hours exceed the calculated hours trainees struggle
(initiated by themselves) whether or not to write these additional hours in their timesheet.
This quote emphasis the uncertainty about an individual’s behaviour towards the account for
“At the end of the day I asked myself: "will I justify all hours worked or will I take the last
hour for my own account in order to get the pressure of the budget and to show my superior
that I have worked efficiently?” (trainee auditor, 2013)
And thirdly, for more senior audit team members (supervisors and managers) meeting the
budget turn out to be key for their reputation within their firm, as they are held responsible for
the efficient work of the audit team at the client side (Carter & Spence, 2014; Kornberger et
al., 2011). The pressure for meeting budgets makes that trainees are confronted with several
demands or actions of managers. Such as a revision of trainees worked hours written on the
clients (after submission of their timesheets) to indirect hours. And moreover, direct orders to
trainees to deliberately report only the calculated budgeted hours within their timesheets. This
can be illustrated by the following experience of a trainee whereby the manager ordered to
register half of the time spend on the client and the other half of the time in the trainees own
“Since the budget for the client in question was already largely utilised by an inefficient
interim audit, it was 'requested' to write half of the time spend on the client and the other half
in my own time. This placed me for an ethical dilemma.” (trainee auditor, 2017).
The resource planning of an audit firm is based on the agreed budget as well as the actual
written hours. Our analyses suggest that the attitudes with regard to overwork (and the not-
writing of this) may also be reaffirmed by this planning system because the planned hours in
the next years are not really based on the actual hours spend.
In addition, we observed during our coding that trainees struggled to internalise the high
requirements with regard to documentation standards as a result of the answers of the audit
profession to the societal questioning of their functioning (e.g. by oversight bodies and media)
This theme came upfront that for trainees it seems inconsistent to fulfil to the high standards
of quality that is demanded and the prevailing pressure for budgets and deadlines. In this
quote this discrepancy is emphasized.
“The tone from the top is continuously ‘we must increase our quality and the improvement
process [see paragraph 4.1, ibid] must be realised faster’. But, the lower you get in the
hierarchy, it surprises me there is a marginalised feeling of necessity with regard to this”
Nevertheless, these ‘new’ quality standards with regard to documentation seem to be ‘on top
of’ the other existing high performance standards. In contrast to what we might have had
expected based on the developments within the audit profession in the Netherlands (as
described in the above sub-section) the struggles trainees encountered with regard to budget
and deadlines remains unchanged over the years of our analysis. Compared to previous
research (Anderson-Gough et al., 1998b, 2002; Dirsmith et al., 2015) it seems to be more
complex (perhaps inhuman) for an individual auditor to fulfil to all the high performance
standards. The monitoring for budgets seems to be tightened since the financial crisis.
Furthermore the pressure to deliver sufficient (high) audit quality increased in the last years.
Within audit firms sufficient audit quality is realised by means of an increase of (obligatory)
documentation standards, internal quality reviews and additional requirements differing per
audit firm. All of these formal measures seem to be the response of the audit profession to the
public questioning (Carnegie & Napier, 2010; Sikka, 2009), thus by implementing formal
guidelines and professional standard setting within audit firms.
All the quotes in this section illustrate that trainees experience hysteresis. They feel uncertain
about the appropriate way to behave. As they suppose to learn on the job that to meet the
expectations about audit quality is on top of mind, but they experience enormous tension with
the need and demands to meet budgets and deadlines.
The year-end appraisal is the proof of the pudding for first year trainees. In general, as
trainees describe it, the year-end appraisal is a combination of the average of individual job
appraisals gathered during the year and the outcome of the broader discussion /comparison of
functional levels (cohorts) (‘vlootschouw’) by audit managers and partners. In order to be
successful in the long term, or at least to suspend their one-year contract in the short term a
good appraisal is important for trainees. The question whether or not a trainee fits in the
culture within audit firms (Grey, 1998) is eventually measured by means of the job appraisal.
Grounded in the hierarchical structure the job appraisal of the first year trainee is filled in by a
more senior trainee / team member (so not directly by a manager or partner). A good appraisal
is not only a waiver for a continuation of their contract, but also for assuring ones year
planning for clients. The following excerpt indicates the importance of having a personal
planning filled with client assignments:
“Because I did not perform as expected, I got out of balance and panicked. Because of this
panic, my performance actually went worse […]. In the end, there was hardly any planning,
while I saw my peers in the office were not. Furthermore I heard my classmates often say to
each other, that if you have no planning, they are not satisfied with you. This increased my
panic. I really did like the work and the study, so I certainly did not want to stop” (trainee,
Our analysis also indicates a current theme that entails that trainees who have just entered the
audit profession are confronted with an insecure working environment initiated by their
‘terms of employment’ and the financial crises. During the financial crisis (as from 2008)
audit firms cut off on the personal expenses, examples of this are the marginalisation of the
terms of employment and the redundancy in the recruitment of new trainees. Thus in the
financial crisis finding and keeping a job at an audit firm was harsh. During the same time
period major changes have been made in the terms of employment in the benefit of audit
firms, leading to job insecurity for trainees. For example, within their terms of employment
trainees have nowadays a debt to their employer for their formal training to auditor (i.e. the
study at the university). Furthermore overwork (in general the first 100 hours) is not paid for
(neither money nor time for time) anymore. And, trainees are offered a one-year contract (in
some cases a half year contract). Our analysis suggests that the current insecure working
environment might have an influence on the actual behaviour of first year trainee auditors.
While first year trainees struggling for the appropriate behaviour in their new working
environment this might influence the position and actual behaviour they choose. Again from
this quote emerges the importance of this:
“In order to keep ones job it is important that your superiors have a good impression of you.
To realise this you have to obey to what they demand” (trainee, 2014).
What is perhaps the most noticeable feature of the above quote is that trainees consciously
choose to favour their job appraisal even if this implies trainees have to behave in a way that
deviates from what they have expected as ‘being professional’. In order to survive in the new
environment is more important, to realise this a good appraisal is essential.
Client service ethic
Anderson-Gough et al. (2000) demonstrated the presence of a very strong client-oriented
service ethic within audit firms. There is a strong organizational discourse involving “the
notion of the client” and the imperative of being “client-friendly”. Whilst these discourses
exist, junior accountants have to coop with clients who are much older, experienced, and
higher educated than they are. Although previous studies stipulated the matter of presentation
and commitment to display the appropriate behaviour for junior accountants, by for example
the clothes they wear and showing good communication skills, we also found other themes
about social media, dealing with diverse types of clients and professional behaviour. Specific
for the current generation of trainees are their struggles with regard to their footprint on social
media. Trainees struggle with their new role as a junior accountant compared to their previous
role as a student. For example a junior accountant wondered whether it might seem
unprofessional to clients and that it is considered as inappropriate at the audit firm if she poste
pictures of her evenings out with friends in the weekend on Facebook (of course all with
laughter and drinks). Furthermore, junior accountants struggle whether or not to accept
friendship invitations on Facebook, which they have received, of their clients’ employees.
Than, there is a lot of diversity amongst clients. What is considered as ‘professional’ at client
‘A’ is not at client ‘B’. The excerpt below shows that displaying the appropriate behaviour
leads to struggles because it seems also to depend on the type of clients.
“I became aware of this dilemma during one of my appraisal interviews. We discussed that a
client was positive about my work. He [the client] had the opinion that our team had worked
well and efficiently. We showed interest in him and his company. In the same appraisal I was
told that the enthusiasm shown by us could also be a risk. “That you do not have ‘to go too
far’ with a client”. As an example, my assessor mentioned speaking in dialect. He said: “If the
customer speaks dialect (‘Brabants’), that does not mean that you have to talk back in dialect
(‘Brabants’). Showing interest and creating a pleasant working atmosphere is good, but do
not lose your professional attitude. Make sure you are taken seriously. One client is not the
other. It is important to sense at which client you have to show a lot of enthusiasm and
interest and with which one you should not. One client expects a business professional, the
other client an interested professional. Find that balance”.” (trainee auditor, 2013)
To clarify the diversity amongst clients our analysis indicates three types of clients: ‘non-
cooperating clients’, ‘non-delivering clients’, and ‘satisfied clients’. First, trainees discussed
extensively their struggles with ‘non-cooperating clients’. Non-cooperating clients are not
willing to help the first year trainee and for example only except questions from more senior
team members. In this quote, a first year trainee is struggling with the appropriate behaviour
towards this type of clients:
“However, the clients thinks differently about this. An auditor takes time, asks difficult
questions and is expensive, very expensive. The daily business will continue for the client. He
is not waiting for the extra questions from the auditor. The client prefers to deliver the
documents with the message: “Good luck with it, I see the audit opinion in my mailbox.” This
situation poses a dilemma in my first year as a junior accountant. How can I best
communicate with this client to obtain the knowledge behind the figures?” (trainee auditor,
Secondly, there are ‘non-delivering clients’. These clients do not deliver the documentation
that is required to perform the audit in time or on a sufficient level. Although this may lead to
inefficiencies it is common practice to start with the audit anyway. The main reason for this is
to meet the reporting deadline of the client, combined with the inflexibility in the resource
planning of the audit firm. Trainees struggle with questions whether it is appropriate to
continue with the audit (and keep the client satisfied) or to postpone the audit fieldwork. It
may seem logical to postpone the fieldwork, but in general trainees are surprised that the
opposite occurs in practice.
In contrast to what we saw in the above paragraph there are ‘satisfied clients’. Satisfied clients
are willing to help the audit team and take time to answer their questions. Although this might
seem the ideal situation for audit teams, there is also a risk for them as illustrated by this
“This client has endless stories about holidays, children and houses so we preferred not to ask
questions with regard to our audit directly to the client but to find out the answers by
ourselves” (trainee, 2012).
For audit teams it is difficult to balance these small talks with clients combined with their
focus on a tight budget and planning as described in the previous section. But put all together,
there is a lot of diversity amongst the types of clients. Trainee auditors do not only have to
learn how to look professional in the eyes of their clients. They also have to learn how to deal
with these diverse clients in order to internalise the high standards with regard to clients. Put
in other words: to exceed the client expectations may seem superficial straightforward, but it
requires a balancing act per type of client.
The interest of the public
Within the audit profession there are long established discussions about themes such as the
auditor independence (as clients pays their bills), the role of business advisor (and non-audit
services) and their role in society. Junior accountants struggle with these themes and looking
to position oneself within it. Additionally, the development in the Dutch audit sector which
come upfront in September 2014, lead that first year trainees were critical and struggled with
the consequence and influence for them. These two quotes suggest one’s sense of this and
they have difficulties for responding to this, probably because these trainees have just started
a career in auditing:
“…, but the media also initiated me to rethink the situation. Do I want to work for an audit
firm that appeared negatively in the media? How does this influence my credibility?” (trainee,
“Regularly, friends come to me and ask how the devastating AFM report [2014, ibid] towards
the Big 4 audit firms could have come about. And, why they [the Big 4 audit firms, ibid] were
actually so inaccurate when doing their audit work. Answering this question is difficult for me
because the position on this from the auditors divers from that of the AFM or society. After
all, people [auditors, ibid] are often inclined to justify the mistakes. This is the reason why I
often end up in conflict with my moral values. It’s a dilemma for me how to respond to the
question: How could all these debacles occur and what solutions are possible according to my
vision? Here I have to choose between critically addressing my field (because, yes there are a
lot of mistakes made) or protecting my colleagues, by also trivializing the mistakes.” (trainee
From the above perspective this trainee’s struggle is interesting because an individual’s role
in different social environments comes upfront. On the one hand the trainee is confronted
with the (questionable) defensive mechanisms within audit firms (Carnegie & Napier, 2010;
Sikka, 2009), and an the other hand he started to develop a sense of loyalty towards his
colleagues. The trainee has feelings of ‘otherness’ and does not feel completely part of the
group. Furthermore the personal view of this trainee deviates from what his new colleagues
think. This leads to struggles about what is appropriate to display as a trainee of the audit firm
in one’s personal life.
To sum up, a first year trainee has to learn on the job to internalise a lot of high performance
standards. These standards concern known aspects about budget, deadlines, and exceeding
client expectations. Moreover, it turned out to be essential for first year trainees to receive a
good appraisal. The desire and need for a good appraisal influences heavily the actual
behaviour of a first year trainee auditor. Also other new themes came upfront regarding
dealing with the interest of the public and related to this is the need to deliver good audit
quality (see also paragraph 4.4). First year trainees struggle to find a balance in these high
performance standards. The main reason for this is that the internalisation of the demanding
high performance standards on budget, deadlines and clients can be at odds with the high
performance standards to deliver high audit quality.
4.3 Focus on passing exams
Working for an audit firm is a combination of work (informal learning) and study (formal
learning) to become a certified auditor. In the recruitment process the importance of study is
stipulated (Anderson-Gough et al., 2001). Moreover most trainees have the contractual right
to study one day before an exam. But, what actually happens on the work floor hereon
deviates from this contractual right. The following excerpt shows that stressing out the
importance of study could be seen as a lip service through the eyes of first year trainee
“The funny thing is that at work they always say that study has priority above work, but when
it comes down to it, they almost always want you to opt for work above study. This is
contradictory and therefore confusing.” (trainee auditor, 2017)
First year trainees experience that attaining the technical qualifications by means of their
study at the university is within audit firms considered as a ‘check the box’ activity, in which
passing the exams is more important than really understand and internalise the new theoretical
knowledge. Although, in the long run trainees expect that if they are well prepared for their
lectures and their exams they will become a better professional. However the tension with the
short-term perspectives (such as meeting the deadlines) leads to struggles for them. They
notice that more experienced colleagues have chosen for the short term perspective In this
case the first year trainees feel different from the group and are uncertain about the
appropriate way to behave.
4.4 Reluctance to adopt a critical view
As from the start of their careers trainees hesitate to ask (critical) questions or to speak out
against their superiors (Anderson-Gough et al., 1998a; Empson, 2004). The main reason is
that this might be seen as inappropriate behaviour, which consequently can influence ones
appraisal or the way other (superior) colleagues think (and talk) informally about a trainee.
Adopting a critical view may have a (perceived) negative influence on the job evaluation of
trainees, which is filled in by more senior team members. Our analysis indicates this turns out
to be the underlying assumption why trainees as from the start of their career in auditing
develop a reluctance to adopt a critical view. This reluctance is twofold; first they are
reluctant to be critical to their direct supervisors. This excerpt emphasis the role of the
‘superior’ of the first year trainee auditor:
“To speak up against a senior is a less attractive choice in this working environment where it
is grounded in the culture to ‘just follow the senior’ (trainee auditor, 2017).
But, secondly trainees also struggle whether or not it is appropriate to report observations
directly to managers and partners, so to go beyond their direct superiors. Our analysis
indicated two types of struggles which first year trainee auditors encountered: ‘Coaching on
the job’ and ‘quality aspects’.
‘Coaching on the job’
“Almost every auditor, also the first year trainee, is acquainted with the term ‘coaching on the
job’. This interesting term means that direct feedback and review is provided and not weeks
or even months after the fieldwork has been finished (as I encountered, ibid)” (trainee, auditor
The agenda of senior team members is overfull. This means that the review of the work of the
trainee does not always occur on a timely basis or in attendance of the trainee auditor. This is
a missed learning opportunity in the working environment of the audit firm whereby trainees
miss the chance to learn in an informal way from their mistakes. Trainees struggle with
questions whether it is appropriate to ask coaching of their supervisors in several occasions.
For example, when there is a tight budget and deadline. On the one hand they want to show
that they are eager to learn and really do want to understand what they are doing, but on the
other hand they also want to show that they are aware of all these budget dilemmas and time
pressure dynamics within their new environment. Another example is that they want to leave
the impression to their superiors that they are capable to do their job autonomously.
Moreover, they don’t want that their superiors get the impression that they are too critical.
When for example a manager explains about an audit finding that “it is okay”, and they don’t
really understand the reasoning behind this, trainees hesitate to continue asking questions
until it is totally clear for them. The excerpt below shows feelings of uncertainty about the
appropriate behaviour whether or not the trainee has made the right decision not to ask any
“I notice that at such moments I find it difficult to really ask the reason why something is
good. As a trainee you do not want to become a nuisance of the manager. But you also want
to carry out your work well and with a professional critical attitude. I also notice that I find it
difficult to admit that I really do not understand something.” (trainee auditor, 2014).
In some cases the coaching on the job is limited in that sense that trainees only are being told
what the work steps are, but the time lacks to really explain the theoretical background /
reasons why a certain approach had been taken. Trainees are also confronted with too difficult
tasks, which actually should have been executed by more experienced senior team members
(e.g. work on pay roll and revenue cycle). This is mainly caused by a shortage of senior team
members, which leads to “unbalanced” teams and an overfull planning of the seniors who still
work for the audit firm. As trainees want to leave a good impression to their superiors and
they also want to show their commitment, they struggle to bring upfront that they regard the
tasks as too difficult. Again, another difficulty trainees encounter is illustrated by this quote:
“…it felt like I was being abandoned, I was not ready to do it alone. Somehow I do not dare to
inform my supervisor that he [the senior, ibid] is abandoning me [at the client site, ibid] and
what consequences this has for me, the client and the quality of the audit. I find it difficult to
show my vulnerabilities. It also goes through your head that your work disappoints, that you
are actually less capable than they thought in advance.” (trainee auditor, 2017).
The above excerpt described uncertainties, which also occurred in several other occasions
whereby the seniors of the audit team during the work at the client side worked for other
assignments and were absent. In general, trainees show in their self-reflections criticism
towards the current system within audit firms that relies heavily on inexperienced people to
understand and audit complex accounting matters and internal controls.
In this day and age, the improvement of the quality of audits is a top priority for audit firms
internationally as well as in the Netherlands. In response to the (perceived) demanding
oversight (the AFM, ibid) audit firms implemented also obligatory steps about the
documentation of work to improve the quality of audit work, this resulted in a ‘checklist-
mentality’ within audit firms. As described in paragraph 4.2 trainees experience a tension
between (increasingly demanding) documentation requirements and the time-budget pressure.
Trainees struggled extensively with situations whereby their superiors take certain decisions
during the audits, which, through the eyes of the trainees are questionable. In other words
these decisions did not match with their expectation about what a public auditor should decide
or do in that given situation. But, although these decisions are considered questionable,
trainees lack to ask critical questions about this. Nevertheless, the decision of their superior
brings up feelings of uncertainty for them whether the quality requirements are up to standard
in their audits and how far their responsibility goes in this. The increase of documentation
requirements led to struggles for first year trainees, which can be categorised as ‘bypass the
review structure’ and ‘avoidance strategies’. First, we will elaborate on the bypass of the
review structure. Within audit firms there are workflows and rules that forbid that the preparer
of audit work is the same person as the reviewer. Our analysis suggests that in practice there
is an efficient and less time-consuming work-around. In order to bypass the review structure
senior team members ask first year trainees to sign the work they have prepared so they can
review their own audit work. This leads to situations whereby trainee auditors don’t know
what the appropriate behaviour should be.
Than the avoidance strategies, the aim of these strategies is to avoid additional work for
which the audit team lacks the time and / or budget. Trainees struggle with the answers and
strategies chosen by the more senior team members such as; document in the audit file that
the risk is marginable (‘wegschrijven risico’); when an invoice within a sample turns out to be
wrong another invoice should be selected or the criteria of the sample are changed (resulting
in a lower number of samples, thus the ‘wrong’ invoice can be deselected), and using
‘professional judgment’ or ‘knowledge of the client’ as weapons in the audit files.
An example of this is that a first year trainee that did not receive the underlying
documentation of a bank account, the deadline comes closer and the more senior team
member decided to ask for the balance of the mutation of the receipts and payments on this
bank account. It seems in total that the difference between these two is under the materiality
level. So, this senior team member decided to leave it like this and to document this in the
audit file. The hysteresis thereon experienced by the first year trainee auditor is expressed as
“.... However, in my view, this is an incorrect decision. Against my intuition I complete the
work step by indicating that it is below the minimum error and that it has no consequences for
the financial statements. When I drive home that night, I feel that I have not completely
finished my work" (trainee auditor, 2017).
Our analysis also indicates that although first year trainees are uncertain and do not feel
comfortable in a certain situation they do not discuss this with their superiors. The
hierarchical structure within audit firms and the dependency on their superiors might
influence the actual behaviour of first year trainees.
Having a ‘critical view’ (or as described in the auditing standards as ‘professional
scepticism’) is one of the cornerstones of the audit profession. The development of a critical
view seems not to be stimulated within the informal training on the job of first year trainee
auditors. Again, the (opposed) high performance standards and the dominance of the trainee’s
aim to success in their new environment (realised by a good job appraisal) lead to the
reluctance in critical questioning by first year trainees to their superiors. First year trainees are
reluctant to bring issues upfront with regard to insufficient coaching on the job and they feel
insecure to ask for help. Also, trainees do not feel safe to bring quality deficiencies into light
with regard to the bypass of the review structure or other avoidance strategies to reduce the
audit work. This forms a threat in the business model within audit firms in which is relied
heavily on inexperienced people.
4.5 Strong team-loyalty (among peers)
Albeit the feeling of peer group loyalty is on the surface not related to our conceptualisation
of hysteresis, whereby the first year trainee experience feelings of uncertainty and does not
feel part of the group, we also found hysteresis within this theme. This occurs when trainees
experience tension between their loyalty to peers and their personal perspective. During our
coding the following situations came upfront whereby trainees have chosen to be loyal and
help peers finalising their jobs, or not to report on deceitful behaviour of their peers, or by
taking the responsibility for the mistakes of peers
Although strong competition exists within audit firms, trainees have the feeling they are in the
same league. In spite of this trainees explain that they feel connected to their peers and other
less experienced trainees after one year of working and studying together. Our analysis
indicates that the first year trainees acknowledge that the more experienced trainees invested
their scarce time in coaching them and learning them how an audit works. This inclines also a
strong team-loyalty, with certain (informal) do’s and don’ts. This team loyalty comes upfront
when trainees take in consideration to help their peers out (mostly in the evening). The
following excerpt shows that although first year trainees might have finished their tasks in the
planning, they choose not letting their peers down and help them with their work.
“It was 23.45 when I shut down my computer and decided to go home. This meant that I was
home at 00.30 hours. The next morning I was heavily annoyed by the alarm clock that went
off again at 6 o'clock. That evening I had worked with my team for the client where I had
been two weeks ago. At the end of our audit (at the client) I had finished my work, but I went
to the office for a number of final questions based on the review of my work. Once I finished
my own work, I was also requested to take up the work of someone else in that same evening.
I only notice that in the late evening hours my efficiency is lower and my wording in the audit
files lacks quality. In addition, I was tired the next day, which meant that my work for another
client was below level. In addition, my exams came, so I had to be rested during the weekend
to learn. Here I had to choose between collegiality on the one hand and my peace and thus
efficiency and quality on the other side.” (trainee auditor, 2017)
Another dimension of loyalty comes as trainees decide not to report on deceitful behaviour of
their peers. Examples of this are situations whereby a peer lies to a manager about the actual
status of his work or even that they reported in the audit file the work is done (even if they
didn’t and also don’t intend to do it). Also situations occur whereby the first year trainee is
accused by a manager for mistakes in the audit, which actually have been made by one of his
peers of which the following excerpt is an example.
“Having said this [ibid, the first year trainee had made a mistake], he [the manager] walks out
of the room slightly irritated and leaves me with a feeling of guilt. As soon as he is gone, I
quickly look into the audit file to see if it really was my fault. I see the invoice that the
manager just told us about, but I immediately see that I was not the one who saw the invoice.
Another assistant looked at the invoice and overlooked the court fees, but the manager
thought this belonged to a post that I checked. Then, I had the following dilemma: Should I
discuss with the manager that I was not the one who made the mistake, or should I leave it in
the hope that it will not be included in my job appraisal.” (trainee auditor, 2017).
Furthermore how trainees deal with their study-days in the planning of resources within their
audit firms can be seen as an escape to the demanding environment. Normally, the study at
the university is on Fridays, in cases there is no lecture scheduled it is compulsory to go to
work or to take a day off. This excerpt shows that what happens on the work floor deviates
from this formal rule:
“There they were right in front of me, a second and third year trainee who told me how I did
or did not have to justify my lecture days. This happened in my first weeks in which I worked.
[….] I did not know what to say (‘ik stond met mijn mond vol tanden’) when my colleagues
told me that I had to leave my study day in the planning while I had no study at all that day.
As a first year, which just knew the names of my colleagues, I was surprised and told how I
had interpreted the rules. "But you also think it's nice to have a free day or to be able to go out
on a Thursday evening," they said to me. 'Everyone does it and the managers do not check
whether we have study or not. Moreover, they can’t find out if we all do the same '. [….] Now
I had to lie to my partners that I am at the university, while that is not the case at all. My
colleagues tell me something in confidence. If I would indicate that I do not have study, I
would also betray my colleagues. Moreover, I indirectly let my colleagues know that I can’t
be trusted, while I only follow the rules.” (trainee auditor, 2014)
Trainees want to develop a feeling of peer group loyalty during their first year towards their
direct peers, but also towards more experienced trainees (who are not their direct supervisors).
The development of this feelings shows that the individuals feels part of the subgroup of
junior accountants within an audit firm. Nevertheless we found that this also leads to
hysteresis when it affected personal values. Based on our analysis we noticed first year
trainees choose to let their loyalty to peers prevail even if this might threaten to fulfil to the
high performance standards as described earlier in paragraph 4.2.
4.6 Marginalization of personal life
Working for an audit firm implies a commitment to work hard and make many hours also in
the evenings and during the weekends (Anderson-Gough et al., 1998b; Lupu & Empson,
2015). Despite the formal rights trainees possess as an employee (such as working 40 hours
and possibilities for study-leave), informally this does not hold within audit firms. Our
analyses suggest that trainees struggle whether they should persistently work 50-60 hours a
week, as this is the standard within the culture of audit firms. This is especially during the
notorious ‘busy seasons’, as described by a first year trainee in this quote:
“Extensive working days, not too much sleep and even lunches and diner behind ones laptop,
this is the schedule of auditors during busy seasons” (trainee, 2016).
Their demanding jobs force junior trainees to balance this between their personal lives
(family, friends and hobbies) and their study. Our analysis indicates that most of the trainees
struggle to draw a line between this. Once a trainee entered the audit profession a junior
accountant has to learn in order to be successful to make those choices that put work on the
first place. These choices can be voluntary (intrinsic motivated), but also more extrinsic
driven as managers friendly ask or even order to work during the evening and weekends.
Moreover, our analysis also suggests that first year trainees struggle with request to drop their
(contractual agreed) preparation day for exams or to withdraw their planned day off /
Situations whereby trainees do feel uncertain about the appropriate behaviour occur mostly
when they have already made plans to study or to do things with family and friends.
Specifically because more experienced team members consistently work in the evenings and
during the weekends. So, first year trainees struggle once their work is finished on time (e.g.
at 6 p.m.) whether or not to ask if they are allowed to go home. As the following excerpt
shows they want to demonstrate their commitment to their team and the audit firm, because
they expect this influences their appraisal.
“As a trainee I wanted to leave a good impression. […]. I did not dare to say ‘no’ as I
expected an appraisal. […] Just before my exams I got a phone call from the senior that
certain steps needed to be finalised in the audit file. Thanks to this senior, I had received a
good appraisal for that audit. As a person, professional and employee, I am faced with a
dilemma here. Should I help him with the completion of the audit file [and not spend this time
on study, ibid] as gratitude for the good appraisal he gave to me? Or should I point out to him
that he has misused the fact during the audit that I did not dare to say ‘no’ as a first year
trainee? (trainee, 2012).
Thus the mechanism of fear on appraisals leads in the case of a good appraisal to struggles
where loyalty (or even gratitude) plays a role. The consistently overwork in combination with
study and their private lives makes trainees feel guilty toward their family and friends, tired
(for example because they lack the time to sport) and even feelings of exhaustion were
mentioned. This quote emphasis the feelings of a first year trainee auditor:
“At 11 p.m., I was really crying behind my laptop whilst solving the review notes in the audit
file. I felt demolished and I didn’t knew what to do” (trainee auditor, 2014).
The consequences of the marginalisation of private lives might be twofold. On the one hand,
first year trainees notice that colleagues become friends as they spend a lot of time together.
In that sense, work becomes part of their private lives or vice versa. Once this occurred the
habit of consistently overwork is also reaffirmed, whereby team loyalty and friendship are
diffuse (see also paragraph 4.5), trainees voluntary choose to help their peers (friends) (mostly
in the evening and weekends). On the other hand, trainees notice and reflect that they don’t
want to put work on the first place. From this perspective is the following excerpt of a trainee
that decided to reconsider the choices he made during his first year:
“Then I realized that I have been guided too much by others (colleagues, ibid). These others
do not have a prominent place in my life, and they do not know me that well. I want to listen
more to my beloved family and friends and moreover to myself. […]. Reflecting on myself, I
realised that I completely ignored my own feelings. Do I want to give up everything I value
for this career?” (trainee auditor, 2015).
Besides the fact that first year trainees ask themselves whether they have made to right choice
to become an auditor. Another theme came upfront from our coding which is not found in the
literature is that trainees think about switching between audit firms although they have not yet
accomplished their study for certified auditor. This might be a tendency in the last years or
can even be related to this generation of millennials as described by Durocher et al (2016).
This paper has examined whether the key characteristics of being a professional auditor in the
‘tenties’, which trainees learn during their socialisation process changed compared to those
identified in the mid-nineties of the last century. Given the calls for the revival of the public
service ethic of auditors a change might be expected, because in the mid-nineties commercial
values dominated the socialisation process of auditors. In order to understand what it means to
be a professional auditor in the ‘tenties’ we examined the struggles which trainees in the audit
profession encountered during their first year working for an audit firm in the Netherlands. In
order to understand socialisation processes and to identify struggles we used the concept of
hysteresis as introduced by Bourdieu (1977, 1990). This concept is operationalized as a
situation in which the first year trainee experienced a tension between different perspectives.
This involved a combination of at least two of the following perspectives: personal, firm and
societal. In addition, it was important trainees had felt uncertain about the appropriate
behaviour in that specific situation. We used self-narratives to understand the experienced
uncertainties of first year trainees as this method is complementary to the concept of
hysteresis, because when an individual experiences uncertainty about the appropriate
behaviour this implies that the individual is consciousness about this feeling. This opens up
the possibility for reflexivity on the situation. These self-narratives were gathered from 2012-
2017 at a three-day summer course at the university.
We used our data to delineate a picture of what trainees learn about being a professional
auditor during their on the job training at an audit firm in the Netherlands. The last decade the
audit profession faced many challenges such as the financial crises, increased oversight and
the critical questioning of their functioning. In answer to these debates, audit firms
implemented formal guidelines and standards. We argue that what being a professional means
learned by trainees on the job is still the same as in the mid-nineties of the last century. So,
what actually happens when audits are performed is the result of reinforcing formal and
informal processes that serve to uphold the existing roles. Thus, the actual way of working is
reluctant to change. But in addition, the demand to increase audit quality led to additional
high performance standards whereas the monitoring for budgets within audit firms became
tighter as compared to the mid-nineties of the last century due to the financial crisis, leading
to more (perhaps even opposite) values that trainee auditors has to internalise.
Based on Empson’s (2004) distinguished key characteristics of being a professional auditor,
we found that first year trainees do have to learn to internalise high standards, whereby these
standards are in some cases quite diffuse (e.g. these differ per type of client). Important
management tools within audit firms to secure the internalisation of these high standards are
the centrality of the job appraisal (and the dependencies of first year trainees thereon) as well
as the strong monitoring controls for budget and productivity (per individual). The
documentation standards of audit work increased in the last decade. This resulted in a ‘check-
the-box-mentality’ when performing an audit. Nevertheless, these increased quality standards
seem to be ‘on top of’ existing other high performance standards. Over the years 2012-2017
the struggles first year trainees encountered with regard to budgets remained the same,
meaning that although there is more attendance for the quality of audits the focus on job
appraisals, budget and productivity remains unchanged, in fact it seemed tightened. In other
words: the dynamics in which an individual auditor operates become more complex. In
addition, the introduction of the proposed improvement measurements in the Netherlands
have been introduced within audit firms from a top-down perspective, mainly by introducing
formal types of controls. Furthermore there have been changes within the ‘tone from the top’
statements such as that the improvement of the audit quality is essential or that this
improvement process needs to speed up. But, from the lowest levels within audit firms, these
statements are seen as hypocrite, because the actual way of working during audits did not
change for trainees. Trainees do not experience or feel the necessity of the need for
improvement. For them it is important in order to succeed in their new environment that they
receive good appraisals. This can be realised by demonstrating commitment to their more
senior team members and their work. Which results in an informal rule for success, which is
simply put as ‘just follow the senior’, and is characterised by a reluctance to adopt a critical
view. First year trainees hesitate to speak up against their superiors. Furthermore they fear to
report shortcomings directly to the superiors of more senior team members. This can be
related to all kind of shortcomings with regard to coaching on the job and questionable
decisions or requests. On top of this, it is essential in order to succeed in an audit firm that
work is put on the first place before family and friends. Moreover, when trainees are
confronted with uncertainty about the appropriate behaviour they tend to favour the choice
whereby their job appraisal benefits, except in situations whereby team loyalty is at stake. In
these cases first year trainees choose to let their loyalty to peers prevail even if this might
threaten the fulfilment of the high performance standards.
Looking at the discussion within the literature on the assumed bottom-up socialization process
(Durocher et al, 2016). It may seem that accounting firms adjust the workplace in response to
future employees’ expectations. Opposite to the findings of Durocher et al (2016) we found
that trainee accountants are still quickly socialised by audit firms in a very harsh regime.
Therefore we argue that “meeting millennials expectations” is only expressed discursively,
but not acted on by the audit firms, meaning that what actually happens during audits remain
So, during their on the job training at audit firms trainees learn what it means to be a
professional auditor. They have to internalise the characteristics of being a professional in
order to succeed in their new environment. When a trainee enters the audit profession he can
encounter situations where earlier formed schemes of perception and interpretation do not
function anymore (Bourdieu, 1977, 1990). The first year trainee feels out of sync and feels
uncertain about the appropriate behaviour. In this situations trainee auditors choose the
behaviour that is valued most by their direct superiors. Their direct superiors are responsible
for filing in the job appraisal. And a good job appraisal is essential to survive in their new
working environment. Trainees find themselves squeezed between their personal values,
societal demands and what their firm ask from them. As an answer to the crisis formal
documentation standards were introduced, but what trainees informal learn –during their on
the job experiences- about what it means to be a professional in the ‘tenties’ stayed the same
compared to the mid-nineties of the last century. This means that instead of what is expected,
the commercial orientation still dominate the socialisation process of trainee auditors instead
of serving the public interest.
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