The accountant's guide to staffing: Hiring

job interview

Whether employing a school leaver or a new partner, taking on new members of staff represents a significant commitment in terms of both cash and time. If you get it wrong, the costs instantly multiply, compounded by inevitable frustration.

It is vital to invest enough in the process to get it right, without agonising for so long that other workers are put on to the backburner and your business suffers unnecessarily.

The School Leaver/Graduate

In most firms, the reason for taking on young aspiring professionals is to employ cheap labour. If the arrangement works out, you are guaranteed three or more years of work carried out by individuals who might be enthusiastic, will often disappear on courses but cost very little.

The first question is to determine whether you really need to employ an extra person and, going a step further, whether an individual with no experience or training is a better bet than say a part-qualified AAT with years of experience, who may cost little more.

Either way, it will be necessary to vet and interview candidates. This is where much of the time cost comes in. In addition, on the basis that they will be client-facing, you need to consider whether the new recruit might irritate colleagues and clients if things don’t work out as planned.

Newly Qualified to Partner

The considerations for those in more senior roles would generally be similar, although the rigour used to choose the right person will be very different.

Once again, the first step is to decide on the kind of recruits that the firm needs. Accountants can often be delusional in this area, unable to distinguish between the need for a technical expert and an out and out salesman, commonly and rather confusingly referred to as a rainmaker. Obviously, there is also the possibility of recruiting every variant along that scale.

Sourcing the individual makes a big difference too. If it is possible to find a friend of a friend, then you can save a massive contribution to a recruitment agency, which is rarely recoverable unless a complete disaster occurs. For this reason, it is worth considering some kind of quite generous bonus arrangement for members of staff who introduce satisfactory colleagues. It does work.


The Nirvana for everyone trying to recruit a new or prospective partner is an individual who can bring in several million pounds worth of business. Ideally, they will also be able to uphold the firm’s ethical principles and possibly even sign off an audit report/tax return but that is merely the icing on the cake.

The big problem in my long experience is silver tongued individuals who can talk their way into any role on the planet. However, more often than not you suddenly realise 6 to 12 months later that they couldn’t sell their way out of a paper bag.

A quick example from many years ago relates to an individual hired to set up a media and entertainment practice within a medium-sized firm of accountants.

He talked a lovely game, happily referring to clients such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones (names changed to protect the not very innocent). To be fair to the individual, he had worked for the bands involved. However, both had decided to dispense with his services prior to joining my firm and the business that he did generate never covered his team’s salaries.


Repeatedly throughout my career, I have seen partners drop their standards when recruitment proves difficult. Sometimes, this is necessary but more often, it leads to expensive mistakes.

At the start of the recruitment process, it is worth trying to work out exactly the qualities that you require in (say) a new audit manager. Six months down the line, when you still haven’t got the right person before taking on someone unsuitable, go back to those standards and work out what you are willing to forego. The alternative is to get desperate, accept anybody willing to take the job and then painfully discover over the ensuing months why they were so readily available.

Due Diligence

The moral of this story is that one should always take up references to the extent that it is possible. These days, they are often almost meaningless, which requires an extra level of investigation. The accountancy profession is relatively small and, for example, it seems if every VAT expert knows every other one. Therefore it should not be difficult to dig the dirt on your new prospect in advance of hiring them.

Big Four Rejects

The best and worst staff with whom I have ever worked have had Big Four experience. For reasons that are not entirely clear, as well as signing up and mysteriously failing to see the merits of brilliant workers with wonderful minds, large firms also have a knack of taking on individuals who seem unable to complete even the most basic tasks.

The Interview Process

As a general rule, for reasonably senior roles, there should be a minimum of two interviews. The first might be with an HR person or more junior prospective colleague. The second will be with one or more partners who will work directly with the new hire. Somewhere along the way, technical skills should also be tested.

The number of times that I have welcomed new colleagues who have been through technical interviews but clearly have none of the necessary skills is astounding. Therefore, do whatever is necessary in this process to ensure that your new secretary can spell, your new trainee count and your new partner sell/manage/get along with clients.

While a long recruitment process can be frustrating for all involved, doing the job properly can prevent a disaster.

About Philip Fisher


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31st Jul 2017 13:33

Another point is NOT to rely on interviews only.

One or two days at an assessment centres for senior roles reduce the risks significantly. Even then, it could go wrong. When it comes to emotional beings they are no rules that fit all.

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01st Aug 2017 11:33

Back when I used to be part of a bigger firm, recruitment was always an issue.

Here's some advice: review your existing staff first. Is there someone who would grow into the role, given the right training? It's very motivating for staff to see people promoted from within, equally demotivating for them to see outsiders brought in for the top jobs. If you have to pay an agency then wouldn't that money be better spent training up someone you already employ?

I remember one firm that recruited a partner purely to bring in new business (how he qualified as an accountant is still a mystery, was useless at it). He was absolutely brilliant at it. Continually out entertaining but boy did he deliver on new business. Also a larger than life character and very upbeat. Wasn't to be trusted anywhere near actual work (they learned that very quickly- which made working out his chargeable hours/partnership share interesting).

One firm had a good way of testing out potential new employees. Take them to a sporting event of their choice, followed by a meal and drinks afterwards.

These days, check out their social media. 'Friend' them on Facebook, Instagram, etc (other platforms are available) and check their posts out. One client was about to offer a job to someone who had come through a recruitment agency where discretion and probity were paramount when they checked out his Facebook albums and found pictures on there that excluded him from the job.

That's a lesson young candidates need to learn too- ANYTHING you post or say on the internet exists somewhere, even if you think you deleted it. It may come back to bite you.

Thanks (1)
to Ian McTernan CTA
02nd Aug 2017 09:03

I have serious ethical issues with friending someone on facebook just to see if their personal life fits in with the organisation. Checking publically available posts is one thing, friending someone is overstepping the mark.

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01st Aug 2017 13:01

A very interesting article.
We have had 3 apprentice in the last 6 years and all 3 showed promise at interview and the first 3 months, then, unfortunately downhill. Our profession is very much like skiing. You think you can't master it then suddenly it all falls into place. The youngsters seem to think it should all fall into place straight away. For the advanced staff I think Ian has got it right. mind you, Ian, Trump wouldn't have been a candidate if his social media was checked or would he?

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