“Accounting paranoia

City Diary reveals that E&Y is training its staff to talk in code in pubs near its HQ. The revelation comes after PwC moved in next door.

The Daily Telegraph, Page: 12″

Having always given large accountancy firms a wide berth, it is reassuring to have retrospective confirmation that there are good logical reasons for my actions. It is of course shocking that staff at the Big Four have time to spend in pubs, and indeed that they can afford London pub prices, but I do love the idea of accountants speaking in code. Of course they shouldn’t be talking about their clients’ financial affairs in public anyway, which one might have thought was a bigger cause for concern to Ernst & Young.

This article did set me off on an interesting train of thought, however. Will Kintish, the networking guru and a long-standing friend of mine, pointed out the other day that accountants always describe what they do by saying “for my sins, I am an accountant”, with the clear implication that their sins must have been many and grievous to be saddled with such a punishment.

For myself I neatly sidestep this issue when someone asks me what I do by saying “I save people tax”, which tends to give the conversation some chance of lasting more than a few seconds. In my experience admitting that one is an accountant is not necessarily the passport to social success, whilst I have never tried the intriguing alternative of “I am a taxation practitioner” on the grounds that people would assume that I work for HMRC, which is right up there with being an accountant as a conversation stopper, I guess.

Another thought is that many clients of accountancy firms probably assumed that accountants always talked in code, given the regrettable tendency of many in our profession to sprinkle their conversation with technical jargon.

My father always wanted to be an accountant (he was, like me, a strange man), but at the time he left school one had to pay to be articled to a chartered accountant (any comment on this would be too obvious and thus superfluous, so I will let it lie) and his parents, being East Lancashire mill workers, could not afford to do so. Having failed through no fault of his own to achieve his own ambition, he surreptitiously set about realising his dreams through his sole offspring by subtly insinuating into my impressionable infant mind the idea that I wanted to be a chartered accountant.

Apart from arguably constituting a subtle form of child abuse, this had some quite sad results, in that at the age of 13 I knew I wanted to be a chartered accountant (having rejected the only realistic alternatives of train driver and priest by that age) despite the fact that I had no idea what a chartered accountant did.

Being of a very practical turn of mind (for which read anxious to minimise the amount of work I had to do) I decided that I wanted to do an accounting degree, in order to maximise my exemptions from professional exams. The major flaw with this plan was that at university I did from time to time have to admit to girls what I was studying, which was probably my first indication that the world did not necessarily share my rampant enthusiasm for my chosen profession.

That rampant enthusiasm was a good thing, as it carried me through two years of intensive studying for my professional exams, although the impact of this on my social life was even more devastating than being an accounting student had been at university. In fact so alienated had I become from normal life that my only two girlfriends were also accountants, and I married the second of them.

My wife Helen was a contrast to me in that she had gone to university with only one fixed idea about work, which was that she was not going to be an accountant (her father is an accountant, you see). Needless to say, she ended up being an accountant, and a very good one too. But as a geography student she no doubt had a better social life at university.

In case there was any doubt about the direction in which our lives and relationship were going, they were finally dispelled by the arrival of our son Peter, who chose (well, was induced actually) to enter this world on tax return deadline day 2001, at which point I suspect that our normal friends gave up all hope for us. Peter has even been heard to say that he might be an accountant, poor child.

So let alone the fact that one might divulge vital commercial secrets to the opposition, much worse for Ernst & Young staff in London pubs is that they might disclose that they are accountants. Thus talking in code does, after all, sound like a very sensible idea indeed!