Hiring for soft skills is more important than ever

Seek out employees who are good listeners and team players to set your firm apart.
By Teri Saylor

Software might be available to aid with tax returns and audit reports, but technology can't compensate for vital skills like teamwork, communication, and emotional intelligence as accountants interact with clients and each other.

CPA firms demand that employees demonstrate soft skills as they incorporate consulting with their tax and audit practices, according to Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half, a worldwide professional staffing firm. The ability to relate to clients and internal teams is a valuable function of firms that provide consulting services.

"The ability to communicate effectively, both written and orally, has always been a valued skill, and just as important are good listening skills," he said. As an accounting professional, you must listen to your clients, collaborate with your colleagues, and know how to ask the right questions, McDonald added.

While screening for technical skills is relatively straightforward in most hiring practices, assessing for characteristics like empathy can pose a challenge to hiring managers. Here are some ways experienced hiring experts identify candidates with the essential skills that would make them a good fit with your firm.

Attract candidates with soft skills. How you advertise open positions and how you present your company's brand can attract the type of job candidate you seek, according to Sarah Dobek of Boulder, Colo., a growth strategist for CPA firms and president of Inovautus Consulting and CPAsNET.

"You are more likely to attract higher-caliber candidates if you have a well-thought-out employer brand," she said. Dobek advises employers to treat their job descriptions like advertising.

"Most firms don't spend enough time copywriting their job descriptions," she said. Instead, they tend to post too many details about the firm, along with an internal job description that is basically a laundry list of every possible duty they can think of.

McDonald recommends crafting job descriptions that focus on a successful candidate's attributes, such as technical knowledge, audit experience, great verbal and written communication skills, and the ability to both work on teams and manage them. "Quality candidates will be attracted to well-written job descriptions," he said.

Screen for abilities rather than background. David Almonte, CPA, CGMA, co-founder of FountainHead RI, a Providence, R.I., nonprofit that works to develop new generations of leaders, has interviewed numerous job candidates throughout his career. Almonte, who also is a financial reporting and analysis manager with Amica Mutual Insurance Co., has learned that focusing on their interpersonal skills during interviews usually yields better results than simply reviewing a list of previous jobs.

"I don't like to spend the entire interview going over a job candidate's background, because I can just review their résumé and use online tools like LinkedIn and various search engines to get those details," Almonte said. Instead, he asks questions that reveal a potential employee's intangible qualities such as integrity, a strong work ethic, natural curiosity, and the ability to lead and solve problems.

Almonte often focuses on a candidate's community service activities to discover leadership characteristics, the ability to inspire others, or ways they used teamwork to achieve a goal.

Develop a behavior-based interview process. Skillfully crafted interview questions can often glean valuable information about how potential employees might act in specific situations, Dobek said. For example, she might ask job candidates to describe a time when they had to deliver difficult news to an employee or colleague and explain how they handled it.

"I listen for the ways they communicated in that situation and how they approached it," Dobek said.

When candidates get to the final interview stage, she often assigns them homework, such as drafting a follow-up message for an invoice that is 60 days past due for someone that might be interviewing for an administrative position in her company.

"This gives me insight into their written communication skills, and how they would handle a scenario like that," Dobek said.

Behavior-based interviews also provide insight into a job candidate's work style.

"I might ask someone about their proudest moment as a professional," Dobek said. In addition to taking stock of their response, she listens for other verbal cues, such as the pronouns they use. "Do they use a lot of 'I' and 'my,' or do they use 'we' and do they cite examples from a team success?" she said. Their use of pronouns helps her determine if the prospective employee likes to work alone or excels when working in teams.

Practice collaborative interviewing. Don't limit the interview process to your firm's human resources and management professionals. Involve other firm leaders and staff, said Rita Keller, a CPA firm management consultant in Beavercreek, Ohio. Collaborative interviewing can often reveal a job candidate's people skills and how they mesh with the firm's culture. This strategy works best when it is carefully orchestrated.

"Provide a schedule and itinerary with specific times for the candidate to meet with appropriate firm managers and selected partners and staff," she said.

Keller also recommends crafting scripts for each participant, to ensure everyone is prepared and they don't ask overlapping questions.

"Observe the candidate's interaction with others in the firm, and afterwards do an assessment with all participants to determine if they would be a good fit with the office culture," she said.

Observe body language. A person's body language can play a crucial role in conveying his or her interpersonal skills, and Keller believes making eye contact is a key to a successful interview. "I look for intelligence and energy, and if a job candidate looks me in the eye, they show confidence and the ability to interact with others," she said.

When Almonte interviews prospective employees, he also studies nonverbal cues like leaning in, which demonstrates interest, engagement, and an eagerness to communicate. "But if they lean back in their chair and cross their arms, they are signaling negativity and telling me they are turned off," he said.

Prepare for a great interview. It is just as important for a hiring manager to be prepared for a job interview as it is for the prospective employee, according to Almonte.

"If you are reviewing the résumé for the first time two minutes before the interview, you are doing the interviewee and, more importantly, your company a disservice," he said.

Almonte recommends reading the résumé the night before and doing some online research to learn as much about the candidate as possible before the interview. Then use that information to develop questions that will provide insights into the candidate's personality and the essential soft skills that will make him or her a good fit for your firm. Developing engaging questions ahead of time will keep the interview organized and help you stay focused on your prospective employee and his or her responses.

"Think of it as prepping for a huge prospect or client meeting," Almonte said. "Preparation or lack thereof could mean the difference between securing top talent or sending them directly to your competitor's front door."

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at

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