[IMGCAP(1)]Hiring the wrong candidate for a position in accounting and tax is expensive, in money, time and effort.

The difficulties in hiring an experienced candidate can be ameliorated through an effective interviewing process. Tapping into a job candidate’s true abilities is oftentimes difficult and elusive, but extremely critical. Fortunately, the accounting and tax profession demands highly specific technical skills that are measurable during the interviewing process. Identifying and measuring these skills through an organized process is the key to a successful new hire.

This article will outline a recommended approach when selecting an experienced new hire. I will focus only on the technical skills necessary for the job rather than other attributes such as communication skills, attitude and cultural fit (which of course are no less important). I will use the term “hiring manager” to mean the person who is the ultimate recipient of the new hire’s services. In a tax department, for example, that means the tax partner or vice president of tax who will be ultimately responsible for the new hire’s work product.

Here are the steps to take:

1. Job Description: Focus on Skills, Not Years Of Experience
The first step is to draft a comprehensive and specific job description that will be used to guide the process and serve as the advertisement for the position. This task should not be delegated (even to human resources); it should be written by the hiring manager. The job description should list the specific required job skills, with a special emphasis on the technical skills needed to be successful in the job rather than the number of years of experience required. If a job candidate’s abilities are measured by the number of years, distortions can result, creating an artificial impression of the candidate, either favorable or unfavorable.

For example, a candidate with three years at a large national firm may not have experienced the handholding that a small client requires. Further, the job description that states the number of years of experience required may keep qualified candidates away and limit the application pool. For example, a job description that requires five to eight years of experience may deter a qualified candidate who may have 15 years of experience with the exact skillset needed. The fear that a 15-year candidate is overqualified for the position or may have unrealistic compensation demands is misplaced and limiting. The goal is to find the right fit.

The hiring manager should also not hesitate to consult with a subject matter expert when the position is hyper-technical. The position may require specific skills that are so technical, only a subject matter expert will be able to capture the essence of the job requirements in the job description.

2. Resume Screening
A well-crafted job description should result in a more targeted field of applicants. Of course, there will always be some resumes from unqualified candidates who send their resumes in bulk to all potential job sources. Look for resumes that have key words that match the required skill set. Beware of resumes that have lists of accomplishments that seem inflated, and thus, “too good to be true.”

Instead, focus on resumes that list technical skills matching the job requirements. For example, if the open position is for a director of tax compliance, the resume should have entries describing expertise in particular tax software applications or systems.

3. The Main Event: The Interview Dance
The interview is the main event and should be planned appropriately. Resumes should be sorted by strength level for candidates who will receive in-person interviews. Where there will be multiple people conducting interviews, I believe the hiring manager should mainly concentrate on the technical skills, with some emphasis on attitude, communication skills and general ease of working with this person.

Others assigned to the interviewing slate can focus on the softer skills and cultural aspects. Interview questions should be written in advance. Once the initial introduction with the candidate has been made, the hiring manager should describe in detail the job requirements and specific tasks.

Technical questions should follow immediately—get to the heart of what is to be learned. Structure your questions so they require more than a yes or no answer. For example if the position is for an audit manager, one question might be, “What do you know about a new position from the FASB on revenue recognition and provide some examples of how you plan to apply the new rules?”

If the position is for a manager of international tax compliance, one question might be, “Can you discuss some of the procedures you have utilized in testing for subpart F income or PFIC income?” Or say, “Discuss your experience with foreign currency translation and your knowledge of IRC section 988.” You cannot take for granted or assume that a job candidate with 10 years of experience has the specific knowledge you are seeking. Specific, pinpointed questioning is the only way to effectively tap into the candidate’s knowledge and experience. Also remember that the candidate is interviewing the hiring manager and the company to understand the level of existing technical expertise within the organization.

If the hiring manager needs some technical support during the interview, he or she should enlist the assistance of a subject matter expert to ask the technical questions. The subject matter expert can either be another employee of the company or even an outside consultant.

In my view, the number of initial telephone interviews being employed to screen job candidates has gotten out of hand, especially telephone interviews conducted by HR personnel. I have been interviewed by telephone by HR representatives who had no actual knowledge of the job, its technical requirements, or the job skills that I was bringing to the table. It was frustrating and insulting. In some circumstances where the applicant lives far away, it may make sense to have a brief talk by telephone before spending money to bring the candidate in for the interview. Telephone interviews can also be useful if there is such a large field of qualified candidates that resume screening alone cannot narrow the field. Otherwise, an in-person interview with a select number of candidates is the most efficient method to secure the right new hire.

Another recent interviewing style that is gaining popularity is to subject the candidate to a slate or panel of interviewers all at one time. This may seem efficient from a time standpoint, but it does not allow for in-depth questioning. The panel approach can be useful during a follow-up interview to see how the candidate communicates or behaves in a group setting that may be tense or stressful.

4. Follow-up Homework
Second or even third interviews are usually advisable, but should also be structured and organized in advance. After selecting the candidates who will be invited back for a second interview, you should have an identifiable purpose or goal for the second interview. When inviting the candidate back, ask the candidate to be ready to discuss a specific topic or expand upon one of the questions asked during the first interview. For example, if the position is for a controller and the subject of cash flow management was discussed, ask the candidate to come prepared to discuss a plan and recommendations to improve or better manage cash flow. If the position is for tax planning in the mergers and acquisitions area, ask the candidate to come prepared to discuss strategies that he or she has used to achieve tax basis step-up. This may seem like overkill, but remember the goal is to uncover technical knowledge and experience.

It is true that for some positions, skills can be taught on the job. In today’s marketplace, however, where time and training budgets are in short supply and restrained, more firms and companies are seeking candidates who have immediately adaptable skill sets. Of course, uncovering the true technical abilities of a job candidate is never a completed task until the candidate is actually working in the new position. Nevertheless, adopting the strategies above should bring the process closer to selecting a candidate who will possess the right skills and knowledge base for the open position.

Paul N. Iannone, JD, CPA, MST, is the founder of Tax Career Advisor LLC and author of “Extraordinary Tax Career.”

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