Sociology  vol. 28 no. 2, ps. 479-497







Abstract This paper draws together recent insights in labour process analysis, which highlight the role of Panoptic techniques of disciplinary power, and work which suggests that the project of self-management has become a defining feature of contemporary subjectivity. In particular, it is argued that the discipline operationalised within the discursive and non-discursive practices of 'career' should be treated as an aspect of this contemporary project of self-management. The pursuit of career is seen to have the potential to transform techniques of disciplinary power into adjuncts of these projects of the self. These themes are explored through the presentation of case study material on the accounting labour process.


Key words: self, accountancy, governmentality, careers, disciplinary power.





This paper explores the relationship between the use of techniques of surveillance within the work place and contemporary projects of self-management. In particular, the paper focuses on the role which career projects can play in transforming subjects' experiences and understanding of workplace surveillance. These issues are examined through the presentation of case study material on the accountancy labour process.


In recent years it has become well established in the labour process literature and elsewhere that Foucauldian analysis provides valuable insights into the establishment of management control through surveillance and self-discipline (Knights & Collinson 1987; Miller & O'Leary 1987; Burrell 1988; Knights 1989; Dandeker 1990; Deetz 1992; Sakolsky 1992; Sewell & Wilkinson 1992). Much of this literature has been particularly concerned with the effect of the deployment of Panoptic techniques in the workplace. The model of the Panopticon draws attention to the use of techniques of surveillance which render visible, or potentially visible, the most minute details of individuals' behaviour. Panoptic techniques can therefore serve as the basis for interventions in behaviour which is judged to be undesirable or unproductive. Perhaps more importantly, Panoptic techniques can have the effect of creating self-disciplined behaviours amongst those subjected to surveillance.


A second type of literature which is also inspired by Foucault is concerned not so much with the labour process as with the various ways in which governmentality operates on, in and through subjects (Burchell et al. 1991; Dean 1991). This insight is exemplified by Rose's (1989, 1989a) analysis of the senses in which the individual becomes an entrepreneur of the self. Developing Foucault's (1979) remarks on governmentality, Rose shows how, in contemporary times, the self is construed as a self-governing entity. This is the obverse side to the liberal democratic vision of politics and the individual, for such a vision implies a certain conception of the autonomous subject who is required to make choices and to take responsibility for action, thought and behaviour (Rose & Miller 1992). This self-governing subject is identified within, and to some extent produced through, webs of knowledge and expertise such as psychotherapy, social work and human relations theory. Accordingly:

“Individuals are to become, as it were, entrepreneurs of themselves, shaping their own lives through the choices they make among the forms of life open to them” (Rose 1989: 226).


Rose expands his argument through consideration of a variety of sites within which the self-governed subject is produced. These sites include that of work, and Rose points out that Human Relations theory, and, even more, the 'culture' and 'excellence' prescriptions of management gurus have resulted in a 'psychologisation' of the work organisation. Organisational culture is to be manipulated so as to be made consistent with 'the personal projects of individual employees' (ibid.: 113). In sum:

“The Citizen, in work as much as outside it, is engaged in a project to shape his or her life as an autonomous individual driven by motives of self-fulfilment” (ibid.:  115).


Rose's analysis of the self-management in the workplace is developed in the specific area of Human Resource Management (HRM) initiatives by Townley (1993). Drawing again on a Foucauldian framework, Townley depicts HRM as a power/knowledge regime which contributes to the construction of subjectivity through socialisation and surveillance (see also Fox 1989; Kerfoot & Knights 1992). This can entail a particular mobilisation of the self and the use of techniques of self-management, for example, in the case of 'developmental' appraisals which invite individuals to 'confess' and assess strengths and weaknesses in their performance. The implication of such a technique is the location of responsibility for monitoring and control within individual employees.


Giddens (1991) is also concerned to demonstrate that the condition of 'high modernity' is associated with new modes of self-identity in which the self is construed as a project:

“The self is seen as a reflexive project, for which the individual is responsible. We are, not what we are, but what we make of ourselves” (Giddens 1991: 75).

Giddens draws only incidentally upon Foucault, and does not draw upon the work of Rose, although, compared with the latter, Giddens offers less insight into the specific techniques through which the project of the self is conducted, and has little to say about its relationship to work. However, within the new project of self-management, (occupational) careers play a particular role since they offer a relatively well-defined scenario within which individuals may develop, express and create themselves.


The concept of 'career' has been used in many different contexts in sociology (Evetts, 1992 provides a critical assessment of these usages), but the present paper is not in any sense a contribution to the literature on careers. Certainly the relationship of occupational careers to the development of identity (Banks et al. 1992) might be an important feature in understanding the career behaviours and motivations of particular individuals and groups. However, the present concern is not at all with the details of how and why careers are pursued. Instead, the focus is upon the concept of career as an organising or regulative principle. The usage of the term 'career' in this paper is intended to denote the whole ensemble of discursive and non-discursive practices associated with occupational careers (i.e. excluding such things as deviant careers or psychiatric careers). Thus the term 'career' collapses usages such as 'the concept of career', 'the category of career', 'the practice of having a career'. Specifically, what is at issue is how career, as part of the project of the self, can constitute labour process discipline and surveillance in certain, and, supposedly benevolent, ways.


Evidently, both workplace surveillance and the production of self-managing subjects may both be seen as variants of the Foucauldian theme of self-discipline. Since surveillance has as its aim the production of self-discipline, the project of self-management is not a contradictory phenomenon. However, it does imply a distinctive modality of self-discipline, which is suggested by the term 'project'. The importance of the notion of a project of self-management, and the importance of careers within that project, is the ascription of unity to various processes of self-discipline. The project of self-management links home and work, leisure, dreams and day-dreams. Perhaps most significantly, it links past, present and future through the vector of the self.[1]


The unity implied within the project of the self enables a comment on Giddens' (1981; 1984) criticism of Foucault. Giddens argues that Foucault's concentration on 'total' institutions (in Goffman's terminology) means that his conception of disciplinary power can have only a limited applicability to our daily lives which are not generally lived in such institutions. However, through a unified project of self-management, the self comes to bear upon itself in all settings and on all occasions. The project of self-management might be said to consist of the construction of our lives as total institutions.[2]


Within the project of self-management, career has a particular role to play since it is a powerful 'technology' in enabling the construction of, precisely, a project. Career links present, past and future through a series of stages, steps or progressions. Career offers a vehicle for the self to 'become'. Obviously it would be quite possible to conceive of the self as a project without utilising the concept of career - for example, the project of achieving spiritual knowledge or psychoanalytic understanding. Equally, the project of the self is likely to encompass much more than career - for example, consumption may be a major component. Nevertheless, in societies where work, and especially hierarchically organised work, is important, career can offer one of the most obvious sites for realising the project of the self.


This paper utilises case study material on the accounting labour process in order to demonstrate how career relates to workplace surveillance and self-discipline. Within this labour process, there are many examples of the combination of techniques of hierarchical surveillance and normalising judgement which constitute disciplinary power - for example, assessments, appraisals and professional training examinations. These techniques, which are deployed within a culture of excellence and under a Human Resource Management programme which seeks to recruit and develop 'excellence', can be productive of self-disciplined forms of subjectivity. However, the present paper is not so much concerned with this production of self-discipline as with the self-discipline which is produced through career. It is argued that some participants within the accounting labour process are animated by the pursuit of careers and that this entails a self-discipline which is present before entering work. Equally, the pursuit of career can involve the displacement of all other values, goals and relationships, and thus exceeds the workplace. For these people work is not simply a job, and not just for those reasons of collegiate identification highlighted by the sociology of the professions (for an overview, see Dingwall & Lewis 1983). Instead, work is a part of the entrepreneurial project of the self: a place where the self may become that which it truly is or desires to be. It is this sense of a process of the achievement of self through work which is offered within organisations as career and which is expressed by individuals through career.


This paper is based upon a study of one of the large accounting firms, which will remain anonymous. The study involved semi-structured interviews conducted with approximately one hundred staff, from new graduate recruits to partners. In addition, personnel files for all members of staff were studied. These files included documentation of recruitment, training, appraisal and promotion. Finally, a study of recruitment files on failed applicants were made, and interviews conducted with members of staff who had been dismissed by the firm.


The paper will proceed by introducing some of the basic features of the organisation of the accounting labour process in order to contextualise the substantive sections of the paper. Following this, there will be a section on graduate recruitment, which argues that processes of both construction and realisation of subjectivity can occur in such recruitment. In the next section, accountancy trainees are considered, with particular reference to the demand that such trainees display an enthusiastic attitude. This is explored in terms of a distinction between those who 'internalise' the demand for enthusiasm so that it becomes part of their subjectivity and those who are already constituted as subjects for whom the project of career animates the most mundane of tasks without any need for the inculcation of enthusiasm. This is followed by a section discussing rating and appraisal procedures, to illustrate the distinction between these as techniques of disciplinary power and as adjuncts to career development. Finally, a section on senior employees in the firm demonstrates how the discipline of career extends well beyond the work place into all spheres of life. A concluding discussion suggests that whilst Panoptic techniques are an important element within the accountancy labour process (and, of course, other labour processes), they do not tell the whole story. The pursuit of career is a self-discipline which can only be operationalised within the labour process but which is not produced within, nor confined to, that labour process.


Accounting Labour


In order to appreciate the material which follows, it is necessary to consider the manner in which accounting labour is commonly organised. The large chartered accounting firms operate as partnerships which perform a diverse range of functions, of which auditing has traditionally been the most important. The firms also offer taxation planning, insolvency and consulting services, and, taken together, these have largely overtaken audit as sources of revenue. The firms are also frequently involved in takeover bids and privatisations. Despite this diverse set of activities, it is still the case that auditing represents the basic single operation of all the big firms, and it is also the most labour intensive. For this reason, each firm must constantly recruit a pool of auditing labour from graduates. These graduates are employed on training contracts which combine on-the-job training with tuition for professional examinations (see Power 1991).


Although initial salaries are not the highest offered to graduates, the big firms attract high levels of applicants for training contracts because the long term prospects for qualified accountants appear lucrative. At the same time, professional training is notoriously demanding not because it is intellectually complex but because it requires the (passive) absorption of extremely large quantities of technical knowledge. The practical work, especially in the first two years, consists of the monotonous repetition of routine tasks.


After two years of training, assuming satisfactory performance (which at this stage means principally examination performance), third year trainees take responsibility for the day-to-day running of audits. They also sit their qualifying examinations. Given success in these, trainees emerge as qualified accountants who may stay with the same firm or may transfer to other practices or into industry. Those who stay are likely to spend another two years as seniors, with a few leaving as time goes by. After this, accountants may progress to management grades and, eventually, to partnership of the firm. The accounting practice is a pyramid, then, in that for every partner, there are around ten trainees, five qualified accountants and perhaps three managers. It is also a pyramid in terms of the interest and variety of work tasks, with the audit trainees performing what is sometimes described in the unofficial argot of the firm as the 'bean counting'.


New Recruits


The first contact between the firm and potential new recruits is through brochures and literature in students' final year. All of the firms produce glossy brochures which emphasise the size and success of the firm and the exciting opportunities which await new recruits. The point of all this is not to encourage applications as such, since there are generally very high levels of applications to these firms. Rather, the point is to encourage the 'best' students both to apply and to favour the firm above its competitors if and when they hold a number of job offers. The presentation evenings given to students at the large universities have the same purpose. Whilst many of those attending the presentation will simply be 'freeloading' on the food and drink provided, and others will decide on different occupations, a good number will actually apply to the firm. For them, the presentation is not just an occasion when the firm presents, but also one in which they present themselves. The presentation allows students to seek to make an impression upon the personnel and technical staff of the firm. This will involve the more or less difficult attempt to appear mature, intelligent and tolerably well informed about accounting and the firm.


Following the presentation, the firm receives a large number of applications, some of which are rejected straight away. In general, students will only be offered interviews if they have good 'A' levels and a reasonable university record both academically and in terms of other activities and, especially, responsibilities. Students are, of course, well aware of this, and thus they will often seek to present themselves as having a much better record than is the case, at least with respect to non-academic activities which are relatively easy to falsify (although naturally this assertion is difficult to verify). On the other hand, students also accumulate genuine non-academic records partly, and often solely, in order to assist them in job applications. As at the presentation, students seek to present themselves at interviews in ways which match the perceived expectations of the firm. However, as the development of extra-curricular activities in anticipation of job application shows, the interview can also be seen as a part of a process which is not about the presentation of a false picture of self, so much as the continuing realisation of a project of the self:

“I approached job hunting very seriously in terms of thinking what I really wanted and what I had been working towards since I was about fourteen, probably. I wasn’t someone who just went to university because I didn't know what I wanted. I always wanted a good career, that's why I did Economics, because it would give me good career options, and I went very early to the careers office, at the start of my second year . . . [details different careers considered] . . . and of course I tried to make sure I didn't work all the time because I knew that they [i.e. potential employers] want more than just a good academic record . . . so I did things like running the Golf team. It all shows that you can take responsibility for things” (New joiner).


After the initial screening, applicants will be interviewed, usually on campus. This interview will be a fairly general affair, but one in which appearance, commitment, ability, interests and attitude will be carefully noted and recorded. If successful at this stage, the applicant will be invited to the office for a day of interviews and presentations, including an interview with a partner, which will lead to a job offer for a limited number. Again, each interview is documented.


The successful applicants tend to be homogeneous in that they are overwhelmingly white, male,[3] middle class and young (twenty-one or twenty-two). As with Willis's (1977) account of working class education, a certain type of education provides the cultural knowledge which is both a prerequisite and a product of the workplace (in this case: beer, football, Australia, fitting in, an ethos of 'work hard, play hard', lack of critical reflection). For this reason, degree subject is relatively unimportant to the firms. What matters is a certain type of 'personality' which will, in the short term, accept the demands of routine audit work in a team and, in the long term, be able to present well to clients and potential clients in management and partnership situations. Both, as Harper (1988) has noted, may be seen as matters of the presentation of self, learnt forms of social mutation. The selection procedure is an exercise in these abilities. However, at the same time, the selection procedure indicates that successful applicants are already constituted as certain sorts of subjects, whether 'actually' as they appear, or willing to present themselves as if they were. They have already, through their courses, their activities, their career research and advice, orientated themselves towards certain goals and projects: towards their careers. This is not necessarily to say that they have already orientated themselves to an accounting career although around a quarter of new recruits have studied accounting at university[4] - and the resolution of their career projects and the accounting profession will be one of the effects of the early socialisation in which they take part.


Enthusiastic Trainees


The transition from student 'good blokeishness' to audit trainee is not, in essence, difficult, precisely because of the selection procedure. For this reason, trainees are told on the first day to 'be themselves'. Nevertheless, in the course of training, as well as acquiring technical skills, employees will be expected to develop a professional manner. This includes matters of haircuts, beards and dress, with trainees being criticised for scruffiness and, even, for having overly garish ties. Women universally wore skirts rather than trousers, although specific instances of being instructed so to do were not found. Above all, trainees are expected to display enthusiasm and commitment at all times, regardless of the tediousness of the chores assigned to them:

“The thing about being committed, I've known people to be told that your attitude's too laid back, you've got to be seen to be busy, you know, running about - even if you get the work done, it's how you have to be seen . . . to please seniors and managers. I don't know why” (Second year trainee).


Whilst this refers to informal warnings or comments to trainees, there is a detailed procedure for formal assessment via appraisals which follow the completion of each audit job. These are carried out by slightly more senior colleagues (for new trainees, then, appraisers will be trainees nearing qualification). The appraisal consists of the completion of a very detailed six page form covering technical and professional (i.e. behavioural) performance on that particular audit job. For a new trainee these will be occur perhaps four times in the first year, because much of the time is spent on training courses - however, where these courses are residential, they are assessed in a similar manner.


The demand that trainees appear enthusiastic and committed can make itself increasingly felt as the actual experience of auditing becomes progressively more disillusioning:

“I thought it would be interesting in my first two years, because all the recruitment 'dos' and brochures presented auditing as such a variety of tasks and clients and people. I thought it was going to be interesting, you know, an ever changing environment. The first two years you just spend ticking and bashing and doing the same old things. I found that a bit disillusioning  . . [so did others] . . ., you're doing work for which you are overqualified, you know, you've got a degree and you re sitting around looking for invoices. Somebody's got to do it and you've got the cheapest chargeout rate” (Third year trainee).


In itself, this account of disillusionment is unsurprising. Basic auditing is a relatively low skill operation and it is well known that auditing trainees experience it as irksome. What is much more interesting in terms of the formation of the subject is the way in which this disillusionment is frequently transformed or occluded within a discourse of professionalism. This may be seen to have two elements. The first is the Goffmanesque 'presentation of self' alluded to by Harper (1988), and gestured towards above, in which an enthusiastic and committed manner is adopted by trainees in order to satisfy what appear to be the whims of their managers. More importantly, for present purposes, is the extent to which this is not a matter of the manipulation of an appearance, but an attribute of the subject. This implies not the internalisation of the manipulation, but the production of appropriate forms of behaviour in self-disciplined fashion. In other words, whilst the expectations and sanctions of managers certainly operate to inculcate self-disciplined modes of subjectivity amongst trainees, the trainees are already equipped with a form of self-discipline which predisposes them to that discipline and, on many occasions, obviates the need for it at all.


Thus it may be contended that the formation of a self-disciplined work force is only partly explained by reference to the presence of Panoptic techniques of sequestration. These are certainly important, but they appear to function only, or anyway most effectively, in the presence of other factors. In the present case, the pre-eminent factor is the willingness of subjects to discipline themselves via the operationalisation of the category 'career'. For example, a first year trainee, questioned about the need to appear enthusiastic when performing tedious audit tasks, answered:

“I don't mind it [the tasks] because it is a stepping stone, not just to being qualified but having a good career, so I'm enthusiastic anyway.”


Another first year trainee said:

“I'm not saying it's always interesting but I always know that I'm doing it for myself, in the end, because it's getting me a qualification I can do anything with. So I don't think 'this is really boring', I think 'this is getting me to where I want to be'.”


Both of these explanations seem to indicate that a display of enthusiasm for mundane tasks is not necessarily an act, put on and/or internalised, for the benefit of managers.[5] Instead, through an (individualised) conception of career, their mundaness is transformed. Whilst this is partly a matter of an instrumental rationality which accepts the tedium of mundane tasks for a subsequent goal, and partly reflects the lack of critical ability noted earlier, there is more at stake. For, in being enthusiastic about their careers, these trainees incorporate the tasks into a project, and thereby invest them with a meaning which is productive of real enthusiasm.


This connection between enthusiasm and career becomes even clearer after qualification, with the assumption of senior and managerial responsibilities. Questioned about the pressure put on trainees to appear enthusiastic, one manager said:

“Although at the time it can seem boring, you actually learn things which stand you in very good stead, the nuts and bolts. I mean if I see [a trainee] who is always bored, maybe to a certain extent I think 'yes he's a bright guy' and I feel some sympathy, but really I think that he will not make a good auditor in the long run . . . you asked about enthusiasm and, yes, we will tell someone to seem enthusiastic because clients don't want to pay for someone to stand around looking fed up, but to really do well in this firm I think you've got to really have an enthusiasm for it even at those early stages. Do you see what I'm getting at in answer to your question; appearing enthusiastic is second best to actually being it because if you are actually enthusiastic it means that you can see you're learning the nuts and bolts and you're pleased to be doing so.”


Here an almost messianic vision of the auditor is articulated which accepts to a limited extent that enthusiasm may be simply an act, but celebrates the trainee whose commitment is such that enthusiasm for becoming an auditor suffuses even the most mundane of tasks and invests it with a transcending purpose.


In the light of this, the existence of disciplinary techniques of hierarchical surveillance and normalising judgement, of which performance appraisal sheets are a clear example, take on new meanings. If we consider the monitoring of enthusiasm (treated as a leitmotif of professional conduct generally), then disciplinary techniques have a different meaning for the 'enthusiastic' trainee than for the 'bored' trainee. For the latter, the techniques have as their aim the production of enthusiasm, and they will often be successful in this regard. That is to say, subjects may be produced who not only appear to be enthusiastic but who even come to feel 'really' enthusiastic. Thus far, then, this could be seen as a straightforward Foucauldian conception of the production of subjectivity through the exercise of disciplinary power. However, for those trainees who are already enthused by their linkage of basic tasks with career development, the monitoring of their enthusiasm seems redundant. If this is compared to the Panoptic prison, it is as if prisoners are being surveyed who have already, and for independent reasons, decided to be docile.


Howsoever that may be, the role of disciplinary techniques in general is not, in fact, rendered redundant for enthusiastic trainees. Firstly, of course, enthusiasm is only one part of the mode of behaviour expected of trainees. Much more importantly, it is the emphasis on career which is of particular interest, since this enables the reinterpretation of disciplinary techniques in the workplace. For trainees who conceptualise their lives (or their working lives) in terms of career, disciplinary techniques actually become understood as aids or adjuncts to career development. Thus the existence of job appraisals, for example, is not viewed as a means of management control but as an almost benevolent means for individuals to realise their own projects and aspirations, a point which will be developed in the following section.


Being Rated


The tendency to understand disciplinary techniques as if they had as their aim the promotion of an individual's career is very pervasive. One individual was interviewed shortly after having been sacked by the firm. The circumstances of the sacking were particularly harsh in that the person in question was one of the very few to be employed on a work permit, and was sacked only two months before its expiry. In addition, the person had consistently been rated as performing in a satisfactory manner, with the potential for a long term career with the firm:


“[The Personnel Manager] just phoned up and said I need to see you about your work permit . . . I thought they were going to extend it, but she just said that they were not looking to extend it, and I said why and she said because I didn't have potential to progress within the firm, so I said why did my ratings say that I did   . I think that in a way it's a numbers game . . . at the end of the day they need four or live people each year.”


However, having identified the fact that sackings (called, in the firm's unofficial jargon, ‘the cull') were unrelated to performance, at least up to a point, in that it was a numbers game:


“I was not happy because I wasn't told earlier that I wasn't doing well. I mean, if they'd said this needs to improve it would have come, number one, as less of a shock and, number two, I could have done something about it before it was too late.”


This outlook is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, because it reveals that the evaluation of lack of ability or potential is accepted, despite the fact that it came as a shock (and so, presumably, did not accord with the employee's previous opinion). Secondly, it envisages the function of the personnel officer as primarily one of benevolent assistance. These two features taken together explain why the person concerned is aggrieved not primarily because of being sacked, nor because of the intensely disciplinary techniques of appraisal and rating. Instead, the complaint is, in effect, that the ratings had not been bad and had not identified those features which, apparently, led to sacking. Rating was expected to be of assistance in career development.


This benevolent view of rating is general within the firm, in that it is portrayed as a means of helping each employee to maximise potential. This is taken to be simultaneously good for the firm and good for each individual. It is noteworthy that there is a strong suggestion within the rating system that successful performance allows the realisation of the true self. Thus, on the issue of enthusiasm, the bored employees are always described as 'appearing unenthusiastic'; the unaggressive employees 'appear to lack confidence' and so on. On the other hand, enthusiasm and confidence are described as realities rather than appearances. The impression thereby created by the rating forms is that within each employee, regardless of appearance, there is a perfect auditor, waiting to he 'realised'. The rating procedure is thus transformed. Instead of being constituted as an irksome, intrusive and threatening technique of management control, it becomes a benevolent process for the realisation of this perfection, a technique to assist individuals to become their true selves and to realise their aspirations. Even the act of sacking is reconstituted through the personnel department as 'counselling out', a supposedly mutual career decision for the employee to leave the firm.


Nevertheless, this should not be overstated. While it is quite striking that such a conception of the rating system should still be held by someone treated as apparently shabbily as the person alluded to above, the situation is a little more complex. To understand this, it is necessary to understand in a little more detail the process known as 'the cull'. The cull refers to a round of sackings (or 'counsellings out') and occurs at infrequent intervals depending on fluctuations in levels of business and staffing (for example, there may be no cull in any particular year if reasonable numbers have voluntarily left the firm for other employment). This generates considerable uncertainty and insecurity amongst employees (i.e. both trainees and qualified accountants) and especially amongst those at the end of their training contracts. As a result, an ingenious game is played between the employees and the personnel staff in which the former seek to identify those who are liable to be 'culled' whilst the latter try to disguise those liable to be 'counselled out'. For the employees this involves 'reading' various signs, which include the status of jobs allocated to each individual, and the extent to which one is 'noticed' (i.e. spoken to) by senior managers and partners. Above all, the size of salary is seen as a 'sign of grace' (one is reminded of Weber's account of Calvinism). Except in the first two years of training, differential salary levels are paid to employees in the same grade, reflecting the value the firm puts upon them. These salary levels are officially confidential, but quickly become known unofficially, since those at the higher end of each pay band are as boastful as those at the lower end are reticent. As for the personnel staff, they seek to maintain confidentiality about salaries, ratings, appraisals and job scheduling at least in part to seek to ensure that there is no falling off in the work rate of the less favoured employees.


The reading of signs is an attempt to ward off insecurity (although it clearly produces insecurity for many). Within this, for many employees, rating is seen as threatening:

“You know that, at the end of the day, too many satisfactory ratings aren't going to be enough”(Newly qualified accountant).


The wording of this is misleading, in that 'satisfactory' is seen within the firm as a mediocre rating, with 'above average' and 'outstanding' being sought after. On the other hand, ‘satisfactory' ratings may be good enough if the cull is low. Those who are rated 'below average' or 'unsatisfactory' are highly unlikely to survive long. However, in practice such low ratings are rare, which explains the downgrading of 'satisfactory' ratings and also the puzzlement of the employee whose sacking occurred despite 'satisfactory' ratings, discussed earlier.[6] It should be noted that in each job appraisal, employees will be rated on eight attributes and receive an overall rating. All of these will have to be at least 'satisfactory' for almost all of the time if promotion is to be secured. In this firm, failure to secure annual promotion is followed very shortly (within days or weeks) by the sack.


The tying together of ratings and prospects shows, then, that an appreciation of the role of ratings in management control is not entirely lost on those subjected to them. Nevertheless, given that such an absence is not feasible, the extent to which rating is viewed negatively is minimal (partly because of the fact that employees have little critical knowledge which would enable a critique) and always ambiguous:

“It's a two way process. Obviously they've got to make sure you're doing your job properly but also it helps you to know where you're going wrong or whatever” (Newly qualified accountant).


Nevertheless, despite the claimed supportiveness and 'liberalism' of rating, in one very obvious respect it is not a two way process. Despite the presence on the rating forms of a section for the employee's comments about the job, this is very rarely used. Out of around 400 rating forms studied in the research, employees' comments were recorded only twice. At least in terms of the official, written record, the employee's voice is silent. The reason for this silence, when given the possibility of speaking is: 'It wouldn't be very good for your career' (Newly qualified accountant).

Again, then, career functions as a discipline. Within a process which is ambiguously perceived as both controlling and benevolent, career is unifying feature. To resist control (by challenging ratings through the comments section) would be damaging to career; but, in any case, why challenge a process which is designed to help you to maximise your capabilities and thereby enhance your career?


None of this should imply that the rating system is particularly popular within the firm. Indeed it is frequently perceived as unfair. However, the understanding of unfairness is not one of objection to control or exploitation, still less to sequestration. Instead, ratings are criticised for their 'lack of objectivity' which is seen to arise from 'the human factor':

“I think that often it's just a matter of how you get on with your appraiser. It's not objective at all” (Third year trainee).


This human factor, however, is seen as inevitable:

“With the best will in the world, there's bound to be some bias in all this [i.e. appraisals and ratings], however many courses they send you on. It's just human nature, isn't it?” (Junior Manager).


The lack of objectivity is not criticised on moral grounds:

“It's not that I mind what someone says about me, even if it's something I don't agree with. It's having it on your record and possibly holding back your career” (Third year trainee).


Once again, career seems to act as an organising principle which demarcates desirable and acceptable behaviour from the undesirable or unacceptable.


Going to the Top


The capacity to regard career as an organising principle of existence becomes progressively more obvious as employees rise up the professional hierarchy to manager and partner levels. Increasingly, it becomes necessary to sublimate one's whole life to the development of career.[7] Friends become transformed into 'contacts', and social activity becomes 'networking'. Indeed, ambitious trainees may have had this orientation to social life since joining the firm and perhaps even before. However, it is with the assumption of managerial and even more senior positions that the network of contacts becomes of paramount importance, since they represent selling opportunities. Managers will seek to use their contacts to procure new business for the firm.


The notion of professionalism means that such selling is not overt in the way that, for example, sales representative selling might be. In other words, professional selling occurs paradoxically within notionally 'social' or non-professional settings (Harper 1988). Typical examples include restaurants, dinner parties, golf clubs and the Round Table. The transformation of the non-work sphere into a specific aspect of professional career development is seen as crucial to success:

“It is important to keep up a network of contacts, even if at any particular time they aren't in a position to do business with you. In fact, it's all the better if you've been friendly for a few years before you actually Start to do business. It's no good suddenly finding you're expected to be bringing in business and then 'phoning up someone you haven't seen for years - they're just going to feel you're using them” (Manager).


Of course, the instrumental process of keeping up friendships for the future is also a clear example of 'using' people, but when this point was put to the same manager, the rationale of career was again deployed:

“Look, obviously people know what is going on, but the point is it has to be reciprocal so that you can help each other's careers at different times. For instance, there was a guy who used to work here and I helped him get a job with a client and now we get a lot of business through him. Now if you say was I using him when I helped him get that job then yes I was, but it didn't do him any harm, did it?”[8]


The implication, then, is that the instrumental orientation to social life is acceptable because it is reciprocal. However, it is clear that, even without such reciprocity, career development provides a sufficient motivation for cultivating contacts. Another manager pointed out that:

“If you're going to have a career here beyond manager, you've got to use every opportunity to make contacts, so you're never really away from the job in that sense. You always have to think, for instance, if you're playing squash with someone, could we do some business? It's the only way to get on because you'll only make partner by bringing in the jobs.”


Thus career comes to be a pervasive concept which regulates all forms of social contact entered into by senior employees, both inside and outside the firm. Indeed, according to one of the partners interviewed, career is also a defining feature even of marriage:

“It's important to have a well-packaged wife. It would be very hard to do this job if you were single. At the best, people would think you were chasing totty every Saturday night, and at the worst . . .”[9]


Obviously the implication was that a single partner might be thought to be gay. The attributes of the ‘well packaged wife' were seen to be:

“It helps if she is a professional, because you [i.e. she] have to get on with other partners and clients. For instance [my wife] is a merchant banker, so obviously that's going to be more useful than if someone just works [long pause] in a shop or something. Having said that, most partners' wives are housewives, but that's okay if they're sociable” (Partner).


Ignoring the overwhelming sexism, homophobia and elitism of these statements, the important point for present purposes is how the pursuit of career pervades even the most intimate forms of social relations. Whilst partners may not actually base marriage decisions upon career considerations, it is certainly the case that marriage is seen at least in part as an adjunct to career. It should also be noted that this outpouring was a response to a question about whether the demands on partner's time made it difficult to sustain family life. The answer completely missed the point of the question by assuming that family life should be considered as an aid to career development. That this is so is underlined by the comments of a senior manager who had failed to be promoted to partnership. Questioned about the reasons for this failure, part of his answer touched on the same issue:

“I did feel that this might partly be, I'm not sure about this, but I did feel that in some ways my wife didn't help. When they are considering you, you spend a lot of times having dinners with partners and so on, and often [my wife] couldn't come for whatever reason, for instance, she was often ill at that time, or if she did come she found it difficult, I'm not blaming her, but    But I'm not saying that is all there is to it. To be honest, I've never been sure what it takes to be a partner anyway.”


In view of the comments of the partner quoted earlier (who would have been one of those assessing the manager in question), it may certainly be inferred that the inability or unwillingness of the manager's wife to act as an adjunct to his career moves was negatively evaluated.


This underlines that the development of career in this professional en­vironment entails considerably more than the efficient performance of work tasks. In the attempt to go to the top, it is necessary that every facet of the employee's life be orchestrated through the single principle of career development and success. Thus, again, techniques of surveillance become bound up with the self-discipline of career. For, whilst, for example, sales performance of managers will be carefully monitored, it is the will to career success which informs the continual striving to sell. Indeed, if the firm were to rely simply upon techniques of sequestration to produce selling behaviour, it is highly unlikely that such high levels of effort to sell could be produced. Nor can the desire to reach the top be attributed solely to the (exceptionally) high earnings of partners - typically six figure sums. For, paradoxically, the achievement of career success removes financial security to the extent that income becomes profit and performance related.


Concluding Discussion


In this paper, there have been many examples of disciplinary power - the combination of hierarchical surveillance and normalising judgement. Such examples include the process of recruitment interviews; the professional examination system; the deployment of rating and appraisal techniques; the assessment of sales performance and the inspection of the suitability of wives. It is not intended to deny that disciplinary power is a potent feature of the organisation of the professional labour process and, as such, it is to be expected that certain forms of subjectivity will be encouraged and promoted. However, the importance of the concept of career lies in the fact that it transforms the nature and meaning of these exercises of disciplinary power. The pursuit of career success can commence very early - in the choice of university course or in the attainment of extra-curricular responsibilities whilst at university. Career provides a meaning and rationale for the otherwise disillusioning grind of accountancy training. In the interests of career, trainees may very early on seek to develop networks of contacts, and will certainly do so as they rise in the hierarchy of the firm.


This self-discipline, this regulation of behaviour through the discourse of career, has the effect of transforming those instances of disciplinary power which might normally be thought of as regulative. For, again and again, the techniques of disciplinary power become constructed as benevolent aids to career development. This is particularly evident in the case of ratings and appraisal systems, which are often treated as if their sole aim was to assist individuals in the maximisation of career prospects.


The successful development of an accountancy career entails that the individual's whole life, including relations with friends and family, becomes an instrumental project which is to be managed and achieved. This is not at all to see careers as individual strategies. On the contrary, the existence of a career structure with promotions, sackings and incentives is predicated upon the assumption of individual career aspirations, whilst providing simultaneously a vehicle or vessel for those aspirations. It is only because of the many difficulties, challenges and hazards of the 'career ladder' that career is capable of being sustained as a meaningful project of the self. At the same time, the professionalised labour process could not be effectively created simply through the deployment of disciplinary power, without the harnessing of the self-discipline of career in ways which contribute to the success of the firm. In this sense, the self-discipline of career is to some extent the pre-condition of the accounting labour process and, presumably, of other professional labour processes.


In the new subjectivity of the managed self, career is of prime importance. In contrast to the unintelligibility, chaos and paradoxical nature of social relations in general, career offers at least the potential for the management of the self through 'steps on the ladder' or 'moves in the game'. If, as in the case of accountancy partners, this game comes to include all other forms of social relations then so much the better, since this renders the project of self-management ever more achievable. At the same time, this self-disciplined project of self-management through career is a more productive and economical form of management control than disciplinary power, with its costs and unintended consequences, could ever be.




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I am grateful to Hugh Willmott (UMIST) and to three anonymous referees for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.


Biographical note: CHRISTOPHER GREY is Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at the School of Business and Economic Studies, University of Leeds. B.A.(Econ.), University of Manchester, 1987; Ph.D., University of Manchester, 1992. He has research interests in the sociology of organisations and governmentality.

Address: School of Business and Economic Studies, University of Leeds, L52 9JT.

[1] A particular discursive practice of this vector of the self would be the curriculum vitae, discussed by Miller & Morgan (1993). Here the project of the self is represented and presented for scrutiny. The CV is a powerful technique for stating what one was, is and will be and for giving a narrative of the self. On the general issue of time in relation to the project of the self, Giddens (1991) gives more detail than Rose (1989); Ewald (1991) explores the links between risk and mastery of the future.


[2] cf. Burrell's (1988) rather different response to Giddens which argues that even if our lives are not lived in total institutions, the institutionalisation of our lives is total.


[3]  It is worth underlining these points. On ethnicity, less than 1 per cent of practice staff were from ethnic minority backgrounds, or from overseas. With respect to gender, around a quarter of new joiners were women, but were only 3 per cent at manager level, with none at partner level. Career paths within the firm were highly gendered in a number of quite complex ways. However, this is not the immediate concern, since what is at issue is the nature of career as a disciplinary organising principle. An exploration of the gendered effects of the operationalisation of this principle is certainly necessary, and is underway as a separate project. It did not seem to be the case that the men and women spoken to diverged in terms of articulating a concept of career as a project of self-management. However, it might be said that the concepts of 'career' and project' are definitionally gendered through their enmeshment within, arguably, phallologocentric' notions of control and progress.

[4] It is interesting to note that there is considerable debate within the accountancy firms as to whether it is desirable to recruit accountancy graduates. It is felt that they will have too many preconceptions and too 'theoretical' an approach to accounting. Moreover, within the firm in question, such graduates had tended to perform less well in professional examinations which was felt to be a reflection of a tendency to complacency fostered by belief in the value of their degree.

[5] Alternatively these comments did form part of an act - put on for my benefit.

[6] In fact, this puzzlement may well indicate that the person in question was not very well assimilated into the office culture, otherwise the 'satisfactory' ratings received would have served as a warning. This lack of assimilation seems likely to have been part of the reason for the sacking - for example, the employee mentioned being 'too quiet' to fit in properly.


[7] In these cases, the project of the self and career become interchangeable. However, in many cases, career is simply one part of the project of the self, as illustrated by the following remarks:

'It's all about ladders. I mean, not just work but getting married and having kids, or houses and cars and things like that. You're always trying to make yourself get one stage further on. You have to have something to aim for, don't you?' (Qualified accountant).


'The thing about working here is that you take a lot of responsibility and put in long hours but you've got to be balanced about it and make sure that you're getting things in perspective like social life and family and so on. You could say it's a management problem, that [laughs] - managing yourself, your own time, otherwise you'd hardly be living a proper life at all and by the time you retire you'll suddenly realise you haven't had the life you could have had. But it's too late if you leave it 'till then. For instance, there's a manager here who boasts that his son saw him at home and said 'who's that strange man', now I think that's pretty awful if it's true. There's no way I'm prepared to get myself into that kind of situation' (Manager, emphasis added).

Both of these remarks are nicely indicative of the notion life as a project to be managed, as well as emphasising that career is only one aspect of such a project. It may also be noted that the manager referred to as boasting about being a stranger at home was presumably one for whom career and the project of self were identical.


[8] In fact, it is worth noting that the possibility of colleagues becoming future clients informs a lot of behaviour in the practice, perhaps including the process of counselling out as an alternative to sacking.


[9] Unlike the other interviews quoted in this paper, this interview was not tape-recorded. Written notes were taken.