Iwona Tokc-Wilde, journalist

You could apply the ‘garbage in, garbage out’ (GIGO) theory of computer science to the recruitment process – that is, if you don’t put the right effort into the exercise upfront, the results will disappoint.

When you’re recruiting, you must be absolutely clear on what you need. What exactly is the role? What would your ideal, most suitable job candidate look like?

What do you want?

‘Identify the skillset, knowledge and experience, says Mike Lattimer, regional director at finance and accountancy recruitment specialists SF Recruitment. ‘Then decide what is critical for the role and what is desirable.’

‘Often, employers are more interested in a technical fit rather than a cultural fit, but you know how the saying goes: we hire for skills and fire for attitude’

You really need to do this before you advertise the vacancy, says James Poyser, CEO of inniAccounts. He adds: ‘It’s also important that you write this down, because this should then feed the job ad.’

Poyser says that his firms’ job adverts are explicit about the type of candidate they want to see; they mention if the person should be a details-orientated ‘doer’ or someone able to roll up their sleeves. ‘In our experience, the more specific the job advert is, the better,’ he says. ‘Fewer candidates apply, but they are a much better match for the role.’

Don't be dazzled

There’s another, very good reason for writing your requirements down in the first place. ‘It's easy to get dazzled by seemingly brilliant candidates, but it doesn't mean they are what you need,’ says Poyser.

‘When it comes to making the decision after the final interviews, looking at that piece of paper again brings you back to your ideal candidate – the one you established before all the emotion of the interviewing process.’

When interviewing, testing for the ‘right’ personality and values should come first, notes accountancy commentator and executive coach Heather Townsend. ‘Often, however, employers are more interested in a technical fit rather than a cultural fit,’ she says . ‘But you know how the saying goes: we hire for skills and fire for attitude.’

Purposeful decision

David Gormer, founder of Square Mile Accounting, has just recruited four new staff. ‘Before I ask candidates technical questions, I want to learn what excites and motivates them, and what they are looking for in their next role,’ he says. He looks for people who know what they want from their career, people who know their ‘purpose’.

Of course, their ‘purpose’ and your ‘purpose’ must match, otherwise you will make a bad hire. ‘The classic scenario is a small accountancy firm that is looking to grow,’ says Townsend. ‘It then hires someone who is keen to maintain the status quo, who is resistant to any changes the owner wants to make to improve the practice and help it scale quicker.’

All about values

Another way to check for cultural fit is to get the candidate to talk about how their values translate into the workplace. Townsend says that, given that most employers are looking for staff who have ‘integrity’, these would be good questions to ask to explore this particular value:

  • Tell me about a time you came under pressure to change a number to suit a client. What happened?
  • Tell me about a time you made a mistake. What did you do?
  • Have you ever experienced negative consequences for doing the right thing or making a stand for something you believe in? What happened and what did you do?
From a distance

Today, personal and cultural fit has never been more important. ‘In an increasingly remote-working environment, without the level of oversight that would be enjoyed in the office, employers really need to consider whether candidates would be able to hit the ground running and how they might fit into the team,’ says Hayley Cox, senior business manager at finance and accountancy recruiters Sellick Partnership.

You need to understand their individual circumstances and how they work under limited supervision, so Cox recommends asking these questions:

  • How are you finding lockdown? How has it changed the way you work?
  • Do you miss the office environment when working remotely?
  • How do you ensure you meet deadlines under current circumstances?
  • How will you go about building relationships with your new team members when working from home?

‘Being able to fit into a company culture when you haven’t experienced it first hand is difficult, but it’s essential in ensuring trust and the longevity of the new hire,’ Cox says.

Ask candidates about other market trends to see if they relate their answers to your business specifically; this could be a sign of a potential good ‘match’, too.

Technical fit

Only once have you established personal and cultural fit are you ready to ask technical questions. Gormer points out that it’s not always important that candidates get all the answers right.

‘Rather, I want to understand their thought processes, and whether I’m dealing with detail-and-process types or lateral thinkers who could have future potential to take on financial director roles at our clients,’ he says.

If you are a smaller employer, it may be also possible to ‘test-drive’ a candidate’s technical skills. ‘I know some small accountancy firms that get their more junior potential new hires to work for a few days with the practice,' says Townsend. 'If it goes well, they are offered the job.’

Further information

See ACCA’s Practice Connect hub for small and medium-size practitioners