The definitive guide to recruiting for accounting firms

When building and growing your accounting firm, there is arguably nothing more important than recruiting.

All your hard work to add clients and create systems for your services goes out the window if you aren’t able to reliably build a team to deliver your product.

And making things more stressful, this critical task is incredibly difficult. The process is changing. And the industry is highly competitive for the best talent.

It’s no wonder Accounting Today’s 2020 Survey and Karbon’s own survey both found the #1 biggest concern for accounting firms is recruiting talent. 

Despite its challenges, it is possible to find amazing people. And when you can reliably find talent who fit your culture, that’s where the magic happens.

In this guide, we’ll cover:

  1. The biggest challenges of recruiting in this profession

  2. How to find the right candidate for the job

  3. Create the best interview process

  4. Why culture matters

  5. How to retain your ideal accountant

  6. The top recruiting trends in the industry

The challenge of recruiting in your accounting firm

The art of finding the right candidate for your accounting firm has evolved. How you find, attract and retain qualified employees has changed, along with the demographics of today’s workforce, and what they’re looking for in a new employer. Just as the industry shifts, so too, should your hiring plan.

The market for qualified accountants remains very competitive. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects that between 2016 and 2026, the employment rate for accountants and auditors will increase 10% faster than the average projected employment growth for any other occupation (7%).

This means, your firm is facing some stiff competition when it comes to attracting the most qualified candidate for the role. 

The reality is that recruiting has traditionally been difficult in the accounting industry, and it remains true today. Respondents of a recent talent survey by Karbon noted that recruiting for accounting firms is one of the hardest parts of managing talent. An overwhelming 95% said they experience challenges when recruiting, and only 22% said they have confidence in their current recruiting strategy. 

Among the challenges facing accounting firms today:

  • How do you create a time-sensitive, cost-effective hiring plan that includes writing the perfect job ad, effectively reviewing applications, and conducting meaningful interviews?

  • How do you meet expectations of prospective candidates who are looking for a flexible and high-quality work experience?

  • How do you attract and retain millennial candidates?

How to find the right candidate

Finding the right person for the job should start well before you’ve even thought about posting the job opening. It should start with your firm knowing the answers to these three questions:

  1. What does your firm need?

  2. Who are you looking for?

  3. How can you identify the right candidate?

Defining the job first

Every hiring plan needs to start with the creation of a job description that will result in applications from the best candidates. How do you do that? Consider three things: 

  1. Mission: What is the purpose of the role? Why does it exist in the first place and what is this person going to be required to do?

  2. Outcomes: What Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) have you established for this new hire? Be sure and set measurable outcomes. 

  3. Competencies: What skills, experiences, behaviors does this new hire need to have? Have you established your “Nice to Haves” and your “Must Haves?”

Once you’ve clearly established what you are looking for in a job candidate, you are able to write a descriptive job post. 

Crafting the job description

When writing the job description, think about what a prospective candidate needs to know. In addition to including mission, outcomes, competencies, outline other specifics: salary, direct manager, location, benefits. 

The job description should be clear and concise, making it clear what the necessary requirements are, what daily work will look like, and why the candidate would want to work for your firm. The right job ad will attract the right candidate. This helps reduce the time you’re spending sorting through applications,and focuses on quality over quantity.

Do your best to infuse your firm’s personality into your job description, work to catch the attention of the right person, by getting them excited to join your firm.

Attracting the millennial workforce

It’s the demographic everyone loves to talk about. There has been countless research on how to attract millennials to your firm; In 2016, millennials became the largest segment of the U.S. workforce, now making up 35% of the working population. 

When you consider that the Baby Boomer generation is on the verge of mass retirement, attracting and retaining millennials is critical to the success of any industry, including the accounting industry.

According to a recent PwC report, CEOs say attracting and keeping younger workers is one of the biggest talent challenges they face. This is in part due to the fact there are fewer millennials in the accounting industry. Workers 24 and younger make up 5.5% of accountants and auditors nationwide, according to the BLS.

The same PwC report found that 52% of those working in the financial services expect to have two to five employers during their career, while 34% expect to have six or more. 

Attracting millennials and retaining millennials are two different things, but tend to focus on the following:

  • They want a job that feels worthwhile, which means they are also considering the values of a firm when deciding on a job offer. 

  • They are motivated by more than money: benefits, work-life balance, training, flexible working.

  • Clear and detailed opportunity for career progression also ranked high among millennials. 

  • The starting salary is a factor in deciding whether to take a job, but millenials give this less weight compared to other generations. 

Don’t underestimate the value of employee referrals

In addition to the more traditional methods of finding and recruiting candidates, your firm should explore the concept of an employee referral program. These types of programs not only lead to hiring other qualified candidates, but according to the Institute of Management Accountants, 51% of all millennial hires could be sourced back to employee referrals.

Employee referral programs offer incentives for longtime, valuable employees, show that you value their opinion, and can bring greater job satisfaction. They can also help decrease the cost of finding and recruiting new employees.

Use technology to your advantage

Finding the right candidate can be the most time-consuming aspect of your firm’s hiring process. Finding the right person, with the right skills and experience takes time.

The average length of time for the interview process in the accounting and legal industry is 19.7 days, according to Glassdoor research.

The right tools and technology can help streamline that process, but doing the screening for you:

  • Software tools like Textio and Talent Sonar can help modify your job description to appeal to a wider, more inclusive workforce. 

  • Use video conferencing for face-to-face interviews and get a better sense of a candidate’s body language and communication style. 

  • Use machine learning or artificial intelligence to help cull through applications, recommending candidates you should follow up with based on keywords in your job description.  

Design the best interview process 

Attracting the right candidates is just the first step in recruiting, the next is narrowing it down to the best person for the job with a robust and informative interview process.

Only 18% of accounting firms believe their recruitment processes consistently identifies the very best candidate for the position. The interview process is really the time to learn more about your top candidates. Without proper preparation, or a list of the right questions, you may end up hiring the wrong person, which is both a waste of time and money.

During the interview, you ideally want to learn more about a candidate’s skills and experience, but perhaps most importantly, it’s your chance to analyze their personality and attitude toward work. Will they fit into the role, with the team, and your firm’s overall culture. 

The only way to know these things is to ask the right questions that can help you go beyond the surface and help you find the best candidate. 

There are several things the interview process should help you do:

  • Allow the candidate to open up and be themselves. That means asking in-depth questions, as well as follow-up questions. 

  • Pay attention to body language and communication style.

  • Did they do enough research on the firm? Do they really want to work with you?

  • Do they have the right set of skills and attitude for the job?

Why culture matters

As you conduct interviews in the hunt for the right candidate, don’t forget that they are also interviewing you. Every potential employee is also weighing the pros and cons of a firm before deciding whether to take the position. This goes beyond salary and perks. 

Given how competitive hiring continues to be in the accounting industry, firms need to realize they are also selling themselves during the recruiting process. Pay, perks, benefits, and an attractive firm culture can tip the scales in your favor. 

Top recruiters across the country note that one of the biggest missed opportunities for accounting firms when it comes to hiring is “brand awareness.” Attracting A-level talent means creating and maintaining your firm’s identity. 

Today’s candidates are savvy enough to conduct extensive research to find out what a future firm values, by looking at websites, social channels, and other public-facing channels. This makes it very important that your firm’s identity is mirrored on its websites and all of its social channels. 

Small- and medium-sized firms don’t have to sit this one out. They can focus on increasing brand recognition by partnering with universities, local groups, and attending career fairs. By having their accountants at local schools and community events, they will help develop brand recognition for their firms. 

Beyond brand identity, firms also need to understand today’s job candidates are looking for more than the basics. They are looking at what types of perks, benefits and work-life balance they will have by working for your firm. 

We really try to promote a culture of transparency that allows people to feel that connection and play an important role in the growth of the company.
Chad Davis, LiveCA

This could mean things like: 

  • Allowing for a flexible schedule, which can provide employees a better work-life balance, translating into better health, lower stress, and higher job satisfaction. 

  • Investing in staff training.

  • Investing in updated technology and tools to enhance employee workflow. 

  • Establishing an employee wellness program. 

A recent survey by the Journal of Accountancy found that the most influential factor for college students selecting an accounting internship was culture. After culture, students also mentioned career growth opportunities, relationships with professionals in the firm, and brand identity. 

Culture goes beyond offering free lunch and snacks in the break room. It means investing in your staff, caring about how to make their work-life balance better, and improving their day-to-day functions. 

Gaining a better understanding of what your employees want and showing them that they matter plays a major role in any firm’s ability to recruit quality professionals. After all, we all spend more of our waking hours at work than we do at home, with our families. 

How to retain the right candidate

If your firm’s hiring plan is focused on attracting the right candidate, and not keeping the right candidate, you’re missing a major piece of the puzzle. 

After you’ve successfully attracted the ideal candidate, and you’ve conducted a thorough employee onboarding process, it’s time to focus on retention. 

More firms now understand the loss of valuable employees goes beyond the cost of hiring again, it also means losing institutional knowledge and valuable connections. That’s why many are also focused on retaining their high-value employees, once they’ve been hired. 

There are several strategies other firms are using to better retain their employees:

  • Conducting regular reviews with salary re-evaluation.

  • Implementing performance bonuses. 

  • Providing perks that improve work-life balance: free parking, on-site childcare, commuter benefits, tuition reimbursement. 

  • Providing training and development opportunities for employees.

Burnout can be high in the accounting profession, which means offering personal, professional and monetary incentives can go a long way to keeping your employees. 

Top recruiting trends in accounting

As the game changes in how to attract and recruit new talent, accounting firms are adopting innovative and unique methods to stay in the game.

To increase your chances of finding the best candidate, here are a few ideas you can try:

Use video in the job post

You can have two current members of the team for which you’re hiring record themselves on camera talking about the open position, the firm, and why they enjoy working at your firm.

Ask for video applications

Asking potential candidates to submit a video-based application weeds out those candidates who aren’t serious about the position. Instead of asking for standard resumes, ask candidates to provide a short video that explains why they want the position, what they know about the accounting firm, and what they will bring to the role. This tactic speaks to the quality vs. quantity of applications. 

We ask for applications via video. Now it’s only go-getters who apply, who want the job badly. We’ve gone from getting 300, mostly ordinary applications, to less than 10 high-quality candidates.
Kimberley Middlemis, Adrians CA

Conduct team interviews

Once you’ve shortlisted three candidates, consider conducting an interview with the entire team. This can be a more relaxed interview style that is more of a casual chat. Including the team will help to see if the candidate is a good culture fit. 

Take the time to get it right

For each new hire, it’s tempting to forge ahead with a generic job ad and hope for the best. But this is not going to the easier route in the long-term. Take the extra time at the start to do things right and you will reap the rewards.

Smart firms recognize that time is of the essence when it comes to the recruitment process. Having the right hiring plan in place will help your firm gain valuable insights into potential candidates and to move quickly when the right person is found. Without a proper, your firm could be missing out on the perfect candidate for the job.