Get Paid What You’re Worth!

CPAs speak out on compensation issues. Next question: Are you ready for tax season 2008? Join the survey; see the answers.

by Rick Telberg

Here’s something rather surprising: Slightly more than half of the accountants we surveyed actually think they’re paid well enough.

I think it says much for our profession that a majority, however scant, is satisfied with its salaries. And I find it amazing that only 46 percent of respondents are dissatisfied. I wonder how many other professions can claim so many financially satisfied professionals.

Even more interesting are the reasons behind the satisfaction or its lack. And it was the lack, I should add, that drew the most comments in our survey.

One anonymous sole proprietor echoed a sentiment the profession knows well. “I always end up feeling sorry for my clients and help them without charging for all my time.”

We heard that again and again, sometimes expressed as a reluctance to charge for the occasional request for advice, and sometimes, as another sole proprietor said, “I’m afraid to bill higher.”

But Reina Schlager, CPA, a co-owner of Schlager Sonntag & Levin of Ft. Meyers, Fla., doesn’t mind taking those questions and dispensing freebies. Thanks to what she calls “a mix of fees and commissions,” her free advice pays off. “I believe there is enough room in there to avoid charging a fee for advice,” she wrote. “Clients also appreciate that a clock is not ticking with important questions they have, and so they do not hesitate to raise those questions with them. I then act as a coordinator of their various needs.”

Investment advisor William Morgan, president of Herbein Wealth Management LLC in Wyomissing, Penn., claims he isn’t paid enough, but I suspect he means he isn’t paid what he’s worth. “We guide clients through a minefield of investment traps and mistakes and save them from sleepless nights worrying about how they will meet their goals,” Morgan said. “It is hard to value peace of mind, but that is what we give our clients each and every day.”

Practitioners also complained about the too-common problem of clients who don’t cough up the dough. Unfortunately, for a sole proprietor or the partners of a small firm, that means a de facto cut in take-home pay.

But there’s none of that nonsense for Jim Erickson, managing partner of James Erickson & Co. P.S. of Bellevue, Wash. He doesn’t take no for an answer. “It is part of my mantra to get paid,” he commented in the survey. “Most of the time I do.”

One unnamed respondent apparently gets paid too, as a senior executive at a regional audit firm, but what she puts in her pocket is less than what she puts into the job. “[It’s] because I was hired before the acute shortage,” she said, “and because I am a woman.”

That second quip’s a lousy reason to earn too little. I keep trying to believe it isn’t really a problem in our profession, or at least not a general rule.

I hope Cheryl Panther, CPA/PFS, sole proprietor of Panther Financial Planning, isn’t in a similar revenue rut. “I’m new to financial planning,” she said, “and I need to price myself slightly below the market at this time.”

Several other professionals had similar reasons for accepting below-market salaries. Some said they had to accept less because they worked for a government. Others accepted lower pay in exchange for the higher kind of satisfaction that not-for-profits offer.

Kevin Feeney, vice president of stock equity and retirement plans at Gartner, Inc., in Stamford, Conn., seems to have risen to a higher plane. He said he doesn’t make enough, “but it really doesn’t matter. I’m satisfied with what I’m getting. I’ve never chased the big bucks and am probably happier for it.”

And happy is he or she who hears that higher calling and brings home the big fat check. And a bonus. And dental. Weekends off. The whole shebang.

NEXT QUESTION: Are you ready for tax season 2008? Join the survey; see the answers.

Copyright © 2008 Bay Street Group LLC. All Rights Reserved. First published by the AICPA.

One Response to “Get Paid What You’re Worth!”

  1. Carol, CPA

    Dear Rick,

    I’m glad that you tell yourself that women in our field aren’t really paid less than men. In my last position, I was Director of Financial Planning & Reporting for a company with about $500 million in revenues. I was responsible for the analysis and due diligence of acquisitions, budgeting and forecasting, and internal and external financial reporting, as well as any ad hoc requests from the CFO. I also managed all covenant compliance, since the (male) Director of Treasury couldn’t seem to get that right. After one year of 60-hour weeks, I convinced the controller and CFO (both men) that I needed a staff. This was just in time for our IPO…I performed all the financial analysis/projections for the underwriters AS WELL AS preparing the financial statements, schedules, and disclosures for the S-1. This included restating financials to public company GAAP for the prior 5 years, while my staff performed the day-to-day activities of the department. After one year of 80-hour weeks, I found myself responding to due diligence requests from strategic and equity buyers. At this point, I discovered I was being paid between $20,000 and $30,000 less than the male finance managers who had less responsibility, less education, and no active certification. When I asked the controller and CFO why my position was valued so much less than the other management positions in the department, I was told that they were working on getting approval for a salary increase for me. I left eight months later, with no increase. When I left, one of the non-Finance department heads told me he hated to see me go, because I was “the last good piece of eye candy in the building”. (I’ll add that my work wardrobe does not come from Victoria’s Secret. I am a professional and dress accordingly.)

    My intention for writing this letter was to let you know that this practice is alive and well, even thriving, here in the enlightened 21st century. I am surprised to find that I am still quite bitter about this, despite knowing intellectually that it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with management’s outdated attitudes. But it is still very hard to think about how I was used and told, in so many words, that I was less valuable to the organization because of something I have no control over…my gender.

    Please know that I enjoy your column, and the anger and bitterness in this message is not all directed at you. I wanted to share my personal experience with you so that you know gender discrimination still happens.