The term bean counter is often used negatively to describe an overly zealous or fastidious accountant, although other financial comptrollers may also fit the description. While an accountant might be asked to perform a thorough inventory of his or her company's assets, only a bean counter would literally count the number of beans contained in the company kitchen's pantry. Such a person may also scrutinize each department's budget to find any form of potential waste, no matter how insignificant or nominal it appears to be. Project managers often fear this type of accountant, since budget cuts and lengthy audits could follow close behind.
The phrase has only been in the public arena since the 1970s, although it sounds as if it should be of a much older origin. Few sources even speculate on the selection of beans as the object of such a laborious count. It is possible that the description was inspired by overzealous kitchen inventory takers who insisted on counting every bean in a bag or every potato in a sack. The act of counting every bean to the exclusion of more important duties would be viewed by many as the ultimate act of micromanagement. The term may have entered the popular vernacular through the commercial or military food industries, where strict inventory controls are common.
When the term was first used, bean counters were financial comptrollers and accountants who showed an abnormal amount of interest in even the smallest details of a company's finances. Originally, almost anyone employed in accounting fields was informally described this way, with little to no pejorative meaning attached. Indeed, many professional accountants and comptrollers proudly refer to themselves with this name.
In recent years, however, the title has not exactly been a positive one for accountants. An increasing number of people hold financial professionals responsible for the dismantling or cancellation of programs due to budgetary concerns. Whenever a cost overrun is detected or a budget limit is exceeded, it is usually a bean counter who notices it first. This ability to mothball a multi-million dollar project over budgetary concerns can lead to some friction between project managers and the company's financial watchdogs. Sometimes, an accountant needs to know when it's appropriate to report a shortage of beans and when it's better to learn to live without them.