Interviewing Techniques: Tips from the Pros

Ask the right questions to assess the skills and attitudes of job candidates.
BY RANDY MYERS

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
A skillful interview consists of

Preparation. Collect information about the job you’re trying to fill; Know what the duties are and what experience, credentials and core competencies are required to fulfill them. Know the type of clients and industries the candidate will be working with so you can make a good match.

Probing questions. Ask behavioral questions about how candidates have handled specific situations in the past, how they managed a relationship with an uncooperative colleague, or how they proceeded with a project for which the instructions were not clear. Ask open-ended questions linked to the core competencies you consider most important for the job, and particularly about their relationships with colleagues. Avoid questions prohibited by law: They include those concerning gender, disabilities, religion, sexual preference, political affiliation, family status, age, race or nationality.

Attitude assessment. Many recruiters ask candidates what they like about public accounting and why they’re applying to the particular firm. Look for clues to their personality, character and professionalism.

Communication skills assessment. Weigh the candidates’ answers and actions to evaluate how well they express themselves.

Timetable establishment. Tell candidates when they can expect your decision.

Randy Myers is a financial writer and contributing editor for CFO , Corporate Board Member and Plan Sponsor magazines. The International Federation of Accountants in 2004 chose his Journal of Accountancy article “Ensuring Ethical Effectiveness” for an Articles of Merit Award. Myers lives in Dover, Pa.; his e-mail address is randy@randymyers.com .

hat makes a good interview? The JofA canvassed recruiters at some of the nation’s largest accounting and executive search firms who interview job applicants for a living. Whether you’re hiring an associate right out of college or searching for a new partner, their advice on how to prepare for an interview, ask the right questions and assess the responses can help you be a better judge of talent.

To get the most from an interview, it’s important to be prepared. It’s not enough just to read over an applicant’s resume and cover letter; you also must collect information about the job you’re trying to fill. Know what the duties are, and what experience, credentials and core competencies are required to fulfill them. If the successful candidate will be working with clients, be sure you understand what type of clients, and in what industries. All this information will be valuable, says Cheryl Levy, national director of recruiting and human resources at KPMG LLP, in helping you prepare appropriate questions for the candidate. “If you don’t do your homework,” cautions Bill Bufe, CPA, partner and director of human resources at Plante & Moran PLLC in Southfield, Mich., “chances are you won’t be able to draw good conclusions about the individual you’re interviewing.”

Next, be sure to manage the allotted time well. Be prompt, just as you expect the prospect to be prompt. Allocate ample time for the meeting—most recruiters allow 45 minutes—but don’t schedule your day too tightly, Bufe says, in case you find yourself wanting a little more time with a candidate.

THE MAIN EVENT
Begin the interview by discussing the candidate’s resume and having him or her clarify anything that’s unclear. Then it’s time for the main event: posing questions that will help you decide whether the person in front of you is the one who best fits your organization. Avoid the types of questions you might have heard when you were coming out of college, such as inquiries about how you’d respond to hypothetical situations, analytical quizzes (How would you count all the golf balls in the United States?) or questions that merely elicit opinions (If you were a car, what kind of car would you be?). Of course, avoid questions prohibited by law, meaning anything that does not relate directly to the candidate’s ability to perform the job in question. In general that means no questions about gender, disabilities, religion, sexual preference, political affiliation, family status, age, race or nationality.

What you want to ask are behavioral questions that show how candidates handled situations relevant to the job for which they’re applying. You might ask how the person managed a relationship with an uncooperative colleague or proceeded with a project that had unclear instructions. “If candidates can tell us about something specific that happened to them and what actions they took in that situation, we can extrapolate how they might behave when they’re working for us,” says Dan Black, CPA, director of Ernst & Young’s campus recruiting efforts. “It’s a better predictor of how they would act in the future.”

Asking open-ended questions linked to the core competencies you consider most important for the job at stake will help you evaluate whether the person is going to be a good fit and successful in your firm, says Bufe.

Most recruiters have one or two favorite questions. Bufe likes to ask candidates about how they dealt with someone who was difficult or took a different approach to a task. Even students usually have had that experience, he says, because they do a lot of work with teams while they’re in school. And it’s important to know how flexible candidates are in working with others.

At Moss Adams LLP’s Seattle office, managing partner Art King, CPA, likes to ask candidates about stressful situations they’ve experienced, to see how well they think on their feet. PricewaterhouseCoopers’ director of campus recruiting Amy Van Kirk likes questions that reveal how easily candidates adapt to change. She asks a series of questions about how they adjusted to different work environments, multiple demands, last-minute projects and new team members and about projects they’ve been involved in that changed dramatically midway through the process.

Charles Eldridge, CPA, managing director of the financial officers practice at executive recruiter Korn/Ferry International, focuses on one of the most important skills for anyone working in a professional services firm: the ability to build and manage relationships. He asks people about their experiences developing relationships with colleagues. “If they have done that,” he says, “you can then ask specific questions about those relationships. If my focus is on the extent of relationships with clients, I might say, ‘Tell me about your most important relationship with a client and how it developed and where it stands today.’ Or, ‘Tell me how you go about identifying, developing and managing relationships with your clients. What is the secret to your success?’ Then a follow-on question would be, ‘Tell me about your most disappointing relationship with a client and what could have been done, if anything, to prevent the disappointment.’ As the individual is responding, I keep detailed notes of the situations and names mentioned. If we get to the reference phase, meaning our client is likely to make an offer to the individual, I specifically request permission to speak with those named.”

Beyond behavioral questions, King asks job candidates what they like about public accounting. Why? “We’re pretty big on trying to get people doing the things they really like to do. If you’re an auditor and like high-tech companies, we want to make sure you work on high-tech companies; if you like international tax, we want you in that arena. We’ve found that when people like what they’re doing, they stick around longer and tend to be more excited about what they’re doing.”

Bufe also asks why they’re applying to his firm. “I want to see that the interviewees have done their homework,” he says. “Did they visit our Web site? Did they talk to people who work for us? How well do they know us?”

ASSESS THE INTANGIBLES
Even while you’re assessing the answers to your questions, look for clues to their personality and character. King looks for candidates who actively engage in conversation and appear focused on building a career, not just getting a job. Chris Brassell, PricewaterhouseCoopers director of experienced recruiting (that is, recruiting of those with work experience and not coming right from college), looks for job applicants who set themselves apart from the crowd by being professional—in other words, being prepared for the interview and educated about the firm. “Candidates can demonstrate a familiarity with and awareness of their skills, as well as those areas where they need development. They can be clear about their expectations and their goals. And they can be wholly present in the interview. We’re always seeking people who bring their whole selves to the interview and don’t leave anything at the door.”

Eldridge also is on the lookout for efficient communicators who can succinctly articulate their career history. The very best generally can provide a well-balanced career summary in 10 minutes or less. Those that struggle to accomplish that in 30 minutes extinguish the energy of the interview by dwelling on irrelevant information.

Other turnoffs, the pros say, are candidates who dress unprofessionally, use inappropriate language, broach non-job-related subjects that are off-limits for recruiters, focus on pay before they’ve been offered a job, have trouble responding to behavioral questions or are just too long-winded.

TEND TO THE DETAILS
However skillfully you conduct your interviews, success also depends on the housekeeping details. Most interviewers find it helpful to take notes for their own use and for others involved in the hiring process. That’s especially true if you’re interviewing multiple candidates back-to-back. But beware of letting it get in the way of establishing a rapport with the candidate.

At the end of the interview, Black suggests, tell the interviewee when he or she can expect to hear back from your firm. If applicants don’t know whether they are going to be waiting for two days or three weeks, “it just drives them crazy.” Furthermore, Black points out, “you could lose the candidate to another employer while you are marking time. We find that getting back to them within a day or two is a smart thing to do.”

And that, of course, is the whole point of going through the interview process—to successfully land job candidates you’ve identified as having the right skills and attitude to be part of your team. Incorporate these tips into your interviewing strategy, and you’re bound to improve your odds of winning the recruiting game.

 
AICPA RESOURCE

Management of an Accounting Practice Handbook, chapters 302 and 303, loose-leaf (# 090407JA).

For more information or to order, go to www.cpa2biz.com or call the Institute at 888-777-7077.

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