Stenger Sebastien, Garnier Claire, Ramirez Carlos
The audit court society: Applying an Eliasian theoretical framework to the analysis of the up-or-out system in audit firms

This paper studies the “up-or-out” system that rules career management in Big 4 audit firms. In its approach to socialization of auditors, the existing literature has so far rather highlighted a top-down internalization of patterns of behavior and social roles by junior auditors. We consider a more competitive and horizontal dimension of socialization in order to understand how auditors eventually succeed by surviving the up-or-out system. To this end, we use the concepts of figuration and interdependencies, as theorized by Norbert Elias. Based on participant observation and interviews, our research reveals that, in Big 4 firms, individuals are interdependent, as allies as well as adversaries, and that success in the "up or out” system is based on the manipulation of these interdependencies. We show that audit firms constitute a figuration where interdependencies turn the reputation of individuals into an “exchange value”, whose currency determines their fate. We try thus and adopt a new perspective on human resources management within Big 4 firms: auditors are not just the passive recipients of socialization processes, they must also actively engage in strategic relationships to build their "reputation" and access the successive levels of the “up or out” system.