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Unsettled Ground: How CPAs Can Land Safely After a Layoff

Shock, dismay, and even panic are all natural reactions to being laid off. Here, experts share advice for how CPAs and other accounting and finance professionals can navigate these challenging career moments. By Natalie Rooney | Spring 2024

When Davonte Carson graduated from Ball State University in 2022 with his master’s in accountancy, he accepted a position with the Big Four firm where he interned. He worked full time doing SOX compliance and internal audit but could see there wasn’t a lot of new work coming his way.

Then, the layoffs began. In September 2023, Carson found himself on the receiving end of a difficult phone call. “They told me that due to market conditions, I was being let go,” he recalls. “I was in shock.”

Unfortunately, Carson’s story isn’t unique or uncommon as of late. According to Bloomberg, since February 2023, several Big Four firms have shed more than 9,000 jobs through multiple rounds of layoffs across the firms’ largest markets. Additionally, worker exits at the Big Four firms in the United States—both voluntary and not— are up 43% through October 2023 from the previous year, according to a review of online professional profiles by Revelio Labs, a provider of workplace data.

While aggressive layoffs are rare for the Big Four firms, which typically see employees leaving voluntarily at higher rates, some experts suggest this recent shift is due to the hiring frenzy that occurred in 2021 as clients sought help navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and Great Resignation.

Of course, no matter the reason, shock, dismay, and even panic are all natural reactions to a layoff—but certified public accountants (CPAs) and other accounting and finance professionals can rest assured that a layoff isn’t a career-ender. Here, recruiting experts share their advice for navigating these difficult career transitions.

Take a Moment

Jerry Maginnis, CPA, accounting executive in residence at Rowan University and author of the book, “Advice for a Successful Career in the Accounting Profession: How to Make Your Assets Greatly Exceed Your Liabilities,” advises laid-off employees to first take a moment to catch their breath.

“Give yourself time to process,” Maginnis recommends. “Talk to loved ones and friends who will bolster your confidence and help you focus. Attitude is important. If you’re down on yourself, it can show when you interview and meet with people—stay positive and upbeat.”

Brian Esko, principal at LHH in Chicago, has witnessed people experience a spectrum of emotions after a layoff: “Some people panic, others dive into action.”

Carson admits that it took some time to find the motivation to get his resume together and begin applying for new positions. He leaned on family and friends for support and connected with others who had also been laid off by the firm. “Once I started to communicate with my peers, we motivated each other,” he says. “It’s important to have a community to push you to take the next steps.”

Strategic First Steps

Before jumping into a job search, Krista Kapsa, CPA, senior director for Truity Partners, a search firm specializing in accounting and finance, recommends taking time to reflect on what’s most important for your next career move.

Esko agrees: “Consider what you’ve really enjoyed from your prior roles and companies and make those characteristics a priority in your search. That’ll shape your strategy for finding your next role.” 

Of course, starting with the basics can also move your job search forward purposefully. Many recruiting experts suggest:

  • Updating your resume, highlighting your accomplishments. If you haven’t been updating your resume periodically, this can feel overwhelming. Online templates can help you get started. The goal isn’t to have the most glamorous resume, but rather to have one that tells the right story about your experience.
  • Updating your LinkedIn profile. Use specific information and keywords. Turn on the “Open to Work” feature so recruiters receive notification. Use the “About Me” section to add important details about yourself and what you’re seeking. Additionally, ensure your resume and LinkedIn profiles are aligned and tailored to reflect what you want to do.
  • Creating and saving job searches on LinkedIn and Google. By doing so, you’ll receive daily updates on new opportunities that match your search criteria.
  • Reengaging personal and professional networks. Think outside the box and consider anyone you’ve ever worked with on internal and external projects: bankers, auditors, recruiters, benefit managers, attorneys, or software providers. Also, don’t forget about your university’s alumni network or your other professional affiliations.

Cast a Wide Net

Despite how you might feel, Kapsa says now isn’t a time to be embarrassed about a layoff. “There’s a lot of press around it now,” she assures. “So be ready to tell the world you’re looking for a new position. You never know what opportunity will come from where.”

Kapsa suggests casting a wide net as you start your search. “Identify a list of companies that interest you, follow them on LinkedIn, and reach out to those companies directly,” she says. “You might discover you’re already connected to the company through your own network.”

While mining through all the different job aggregator sites can be daunting, Esko says to think about the opportunities and companies you want to pursue rather than just applying randomly: “The first and best way to find a new role is through your direct network. It’s all about those personal connections.”

Maginnis suggests also looking in the newspapers—not necessarily in the job listings, but by discovering opportunities in the business news. “If there’s a story about a company that just raised $50 million in venture capital, there’s often a need to beef up accounting staff,” Maginnis says. “It’s a reason to reach out.”

Although personal referrals tend to yield the best results, Kapsa recommends collaborating with a reputable recruiter who can provide insight into the talent landscape. “Recruiters have contacts with local employers, so they know where turnover is happening, and they can help identify a good culture fit,” Kapsa says. “They know about opportunities that aren’t being advertised.”

Addressing the Layoff Eventually, you’ll get asked for an interview with one of your prospects, so make sure you’re prepared to address the elephant in the room: your layoff.

Layoffs can happen for many reasons, and it’s generally not seen negatively, but it’s still necessary to assure the interviewer it’s not because of poor performance. “Maybe your company was bought out or reduced its workforce. Whatever it is, be honest about the situation,” Kapsa says. “Share the facts, speak positively about your former employer, and keep it as simple as possible. Practice explaining it in 30 seconds.”

Carson was transparent about his layoff: “People were very understanding. During interviews, I explained how I learned to accept and embrace the layoff and how the experience has pushed me to want more for my career now.”

Esko agrees with these approaches and offers some phrases that can be used to address different reasons for a layoff. Notably, performance-related layoffs can be more challenging to address. In these instances, you’ll want to be straightforward but not throw yourself under the bus:

  • “I worked on interesting projects, picked up new skills, and learned from some really smart people. Unfortunately, I, along with many others, were caught up in several rounds of layoffs and my role was impacted.”
  • “I’m looking to leverage my experience, and this role fits well with what I’d like to do.”
  • “I’m excited to move forward. Here’s why I’m ready for this role specifically.”

“Address your layoff humbly and add a positive spin that shows you’re ready to move forward,” Esko stresses. “Discuss what you’ve learned and what you might do differently if you had another opportunity.”

If needing to address a performance-related layoff, Esko suggests using phrases like these: 

  • “I was in the wrong organization for a year. I learned a great deal, but there were certain pieces of the role that were really challenging.”
  • “Given the constraints on the business, I didn’t have time to perform at the level they needed.”
  • “At a larger organization with more structure, I’ll have more success.”

Negotiating Salary

Just because you’ve experienced a layoff, experts say it doesn’t mean you’re on the back foot for future salary negotiations. Using sites like Glassdoor and other salary guides can help determine what your salary range should be. “Create a realistic range you’re comfortable with and isn’t out of whack for the market,” Esko recommends.

Experts advise when you receive an offer, consider the full package: retirement, time off, flexible work options, and professional development opportunities, and rank each in order of importance. “Companies vary in their benefits, especially for health care costs, which can add or subtract significantly to your take-home pay,” Kapsa points out. “Express your excitement at the opportunity and then ask for whatever it is that would make it the best offer for you.”

Kapsa also advises countering just once: “There’s often give and take from both sides, so it’s important to know what’s a must-have on your side. If you’re asking for more of two different things, know which one you’re comfortable letting go of.”

Network, Put Yourself Out There

Growing and maintaining professional relationships takes time and dedication, but experts say it’s critical to future success. “Networking is something you need to be doing constantly so when you need help, you’ll have dozens of people to contact,” Maginnis says. “It can pay huge dividends every time you’re in a career transition.”

Above all, stay positive, Maginnis encourages: “A new job can present an opportunity to enhance your career. You may feel negative, concerned, and panicked, but this could be the best thing that’s ever happened to you. A dream job, more money, or a career path with long-term rewards could be just around the corner. This is a real opportunity to take your career to the next level.”

Despite some of the large layoffs happening at Big Four firms, Kapsa says the job market for accounting and finance in Chicago is still strong. “Don’t be embarrassed about being laid off. Reconnect to your network, have good follow up, and just get out there,” Kapsa urges.

For Carson, putting himself out there was tough, and he admittedly says contacting companies through LinkedIn didn’t generate the results he hoped for. Then, an Illinois CPA Society (ICPAS) networking event changed Carson’s entire job search trajectory. “That’s when I felt like the ball finally landed in my court,” he says. “At the networking event, I was able to connect in person and tell my story.”

The networking event generated phone calls, which led to interviews. As of mid-February 2024, Carson was considering two job offers, which he says are the direct result of his ICPAS network.

Natalie Rooney is a freelance writer based in Eagle, Colo. A former vice president of communications for the Ohio Society of CPAs, she has been writing for state CPA societies for more than 20 years.


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