CPA INSIDER

Small firm spotlight: How I recruit and hire new accountants

From Kenneth Cerini, CPA, managing partner at Cerini & Associates (as told to Cheryl Meyer)

CPAs in small firms face many of the same operational challenges when it comes to running their firms. This is the first in an occasional series highlighting how individual practitioners tackled common issues. Click here for more AICPA resources for small firms.

I'm the founder of Cerini & Associates. We have about 50 employees at our Bohemia, N.Y., office, and about 90% of them are accountants. The last couple of years, we've grown around 14% annually, so we are constantly hiring new staff, from two to five a year.

The interview process is a difficult one. You have a couple hours to meet someone and then decide if you are going to hire them because someone else will hire them if you don't. I'm looking for individuals who will fit in with the culture we've established within our office. We have employees who are free thinkers.

Recruiting for the more experienced hires is typically done at the partner level. We reach out to recruiting firms, because I find that if I just run an ad for an experienced hire, I don't get a lot of strong résumés. It's important to ask the right questions of recruiting firms upfront: Do you meet all the candidates you interview? Do you do background checks? Do you check references? We always interview multiple candidates for positions. We have had situations where we interviewed several candidates and selected no one because none of them felt right.

Usually I do pre-interviews on the phone with prospective candidates to see that they can hold a conversation effectively. If I like them, they meet with individuals from the department, such as tax or audit, where they will be working if hired. Ultimately, the partner and managers within a department have to be comfortable with the individuals on their team.

In November 2017, we looked for an experienced CPA on the audit side. The placement firm found a good candidate for us working at a firm a bit larger than ours. His experience had been in a specific field, and he wanted a broader base of knowledge and experience. Because of his limited exposure, it was a learning curve for him, but we felt he would be a great addition due to his abilities, temperament, and the way he fit in with the personalities in the office. It's not always about today; it's about the person, and whether we believe that they will pay dividends in the long run.

I interviewed him, one of our supervisors interviewed him, and one of our other partners interviewed him. We have internal forms to fill out, and we rate the candidate and determine whether we wanted to make an offer. The only way someone gets hired here is if all interviewers agree. Lucky for us in this case, it was unanimous.

The majority of our hires, about 85%, are right out of school. We prefer to hire interns and, where appropriate, offer them full-time positions. We have different members of our staff assigned to the colleges we recruit from, and we have relationships with some of the professors who recommend good interns to us. Throughout the year, we speak to the students, so by the time we're interviewing, we have already pre-identified some of the candidates. We typically do not hire employees who have GPAs of less than 3.5.

The challenge is to find individuals who have the balance of communications skills and technical abilities and who are interesting and come to you with good questions. Most of the students we hired we've met on campus, which means they are engaged in the process of recruiting and understand that opportunity doesn't fall in their lap. When I interview, I'm looking for someone who can carry on a conversation, has been involved in clubs, can work well with others, and has shown leadership quality throughout their college career.

We recently hired an intern who resonated with us. She reached out to us on campus, at St. Joseph's College, on Long Island. I had a conversation with her on the phone. She came in for the interview and was interviewed by individuals from another department. We felt she was extremely mature and bright, so we hired her. Internally, we are now fighting over her. The benefit of hiring staff at the intern level first is that you get a chance to see what they can do over a period of time, and not just through a couple of hours of discussion.

Recruiting and hiring is an art, not a science. When you are hiring people, you can't cram a square peg into a round hole. We've brought people in from bigger accounting firms and realize they are not the right fit overall. We have much smaller clients, and our clients need more hand holding. That's why I love interns. I'd rather invest more money in the training and be able to bring on people at a younger level, and help them grow within our atmosphere. You learn a tremendous amount during your first two to three years in public accounting.

Also, you don't always get it right when hiring, and when you get it wrong, you've got to make the decision to terminate quickly. Too many organizations tend to hold onto people too long. Nothing creates morale issues more than if you keep around someone who is sucking the life out of your firm. Nobody is irreplaceable.

Cheryl Meyer is a California-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, associate director – content development, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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