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Cooking the books: The ethics of inflating accounting software credentials


Technology plays an increasingly important part in accountants’ working lives but when it comes to recruitment, do specific packages matter? And if so, is it ever acceptable to exaggerate your software skills to get a foot in the door?

20th Apr 2023
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“I lied on my résumé to get a better-paying job – and I think others should do the same”. 

This eye-catching headline from Business Insider comes to you not from the cut-and-thrust world of technology or the merry-go-round of Premier League football management, but from an accountant.

To cut a long story short-ish, the anonymous subject of the article spent 18 months at home with their daughter before going back to work. During their time away, they’d helped friends with invoices and accounting, so to fill the CV gap they spun up a fictitious consulting firm and packaged the duties in a way that could technically be described as true during interviews.

When it came to applying for jobs, like an increasing number of accounting firm ads, one role contained a requirement for knowledge of a specific software system they had never used before.

“I wasn’t going to let that stop me,” commented the creative accountant. “I wrote on my résumé I was familiar with the software, then I set about making that the truth by researching it and watching YouTube videos on how to use it.”

The story has a happy ending for our plucky number cruncher, as they ended up landing the role, and according to the article have since received two pay rises into the bargain.

But how common is the art of bending the truth (or outright lying) about software proficiency in the accounting industry? And should it really matter when many of the products on the market are designed to do roughly the same thing?

To find out, AccountingWEB asked its community and LinkedIn whether it’s ever acceptable to exaggerate your software skills when applying for a job.

No benchmarks for ‘proficiency’

One way in which accounting software is susceptible to CV doctoring is the lack of standardised terminology when it comes to talking about skill levels.

AccountingWEB member paul.benny commented: “There are no benchmarks of what 'proficiency' means, whether Xero or SAP. Almost the only truth is that the more people know, the more they realise the limits of their knowledge and skill (and the limitations of the software).”

“People have been putting ‘proficient in Microsoft Excel’ for decades, and we all know that’s never usually worth the paper it’s written on,” said Ian Pay, head of data analytics and tech at ICAEW. “The question is where do you draw the line? Asking for proficient SAP users is pretty common, but then SAP is a beast with a steep learning curve. Do we think the core functionality of Xero can be picked up quickly? One would assume so given they make a big feature of how user-friendly it is (as do Sage and QBO).

“Increasingly I think there is a need to quantify what we mean by proficient,” continued Pay. “This is why ICAEW developed a spreadsheet competency framework to try and tackle the Excel issue. I would suggest, those firms who want proficient Xero/Sage/QB users maybe should consider exactly what skills they're looking for, and detail them, then it would be easy to test in an interview.”

Several of the major packages do offer credentials to show that a person has used the software – for example, Xero offers adviser and payroll certifications. 

However, such online courses are mainly designed to help improve users’ understanding of the product rather than bolster CVs, and as they are taken as unsupervised online courses are hard to police.

Much of a muchness?

For AccountingWEB member Adam.arca, “some exaggeration of software skills is both perfectly acceptable and a completely understandable reaction in an environment where many job ads are stupidly specific about which software solutions they expect the applicant to have experience of.

“My view is that most packages we use (accounts and tax certainly) are much of a muchness and, once you've used one, you've pretty much used them all,” they continued.

“For Excel, I use the ICAEW’s competency framework (although it's a bit out of date now) in adverts and if it’s important for the role I will test it in interview,” commented Jess Slack, part-time finance director and Excel trainer. “For accounting systems, you can definitely blag it. Or rather, once you’ve used a couple you'll be able to learn any of them quickly,” 

Stuart Hurst, director of Accounts & Legal and former Xero MVP added it “always helps if they have some knowledge of the software, or certainly a cloud accounting product. If someone ever says they are a Xero whizz I’ll definitely be asking questions just to get a feel for things, and if they don’t have a clue then the fact they lied isn’t the best for an accountant!”

Somewhat arguing the case for the prosecution, AccountingWEB stepurhan stated that adding something you know not to be true to your CV should never be done. 

“If you claim skills you don’t have, you will be found out when you are unable to perform,” they said. “But proficiency is undefined. I might be very good with everyday parts of a piece of software, while having no knowledge of parts I’ve never needed to use. Add to that the Dunning-Kruger effect and a claim of ‘proficiency’ is meaningless.”

Hire for attitude, capability and loyalty

And what of the accounting software vendors themselves? What does the industry make of its users potentially boosting their capability or credentials to get a leg-up? 

“If a software package is built well and is intuitive then questions about proficiency largely become moot,” said Evan Jones, Sage’s director of product management. “When working in corporate IT there were exams the team needed to pass in order to demonstrate proficiency which made sense. But for ‘professional’ software a general awareness is usually sufficient. Typically if the user actually understands debits and credits then they can find their way around any accounting products.”

Chris Deeson, consultant and a former executive at several international payroll vendors, expressed concern that practices advertising for users of specific products were stating up front that they don't want to have to spend any time training their staff.

“Hire for attitude, capability and loyalty, train in the precise requirements you need for your practice and listen to the valuable inputs that your new team members can provide in making things more efficient,” said Deeson. “If a system is so esoteric that you want to only hire experts on it, then you’re probably using the wrong system.”

Lotus 1, 2 and 3…

While the story ended well for the anonymous accountant mentioned in the article above, for every success story there are usually several tales of woe.

“Last year we took on a Chartered Accountant with an impressive CV of 30 years of experience,” said David Poole from Williams Lester Accountants “Turned out to be the worst hire we ever made, lasted less than three weeks as they struggled to use a spreadsheet, let alone cloud software!”

And the final word must go to AccountingWEB member MJShone, who provided the perfect example of when an attempt to style out an interview question went comically wrong. “My husband asked someone in an interview if they could use Lotus 123. (It was a long time ago!) They replied that they knew Lotus 1 and 2 but not 3.”

Replies (11)

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20th Apr 2023 09:38

Not wanting to state the obvious, but of far greater concern, is the inflation of capability by the software companies themselves.

Thanks (5)
By eamonng
20th Apr 2023 09:39

Good article. Have always felt that it's pretty much the same as driving a car - if you can drive a Ford, you can drive a Toyota. Have had to use so many over the years for different clients, you get used to having to get on with it without reading the manual cover to cover. Like the quip about Lotus 1-2-3, it was all the rage when I started on my career, I got started instead on it's then very small rival Microsoft Excel !

Thanks (1)
Replying to eamonng:
By graemep
20th Apr 2023 16:06

There is a big difference between cars and software.

Car companies try to make it easy for people who drive other makes to drive their cars, so control vary little.

For software companies making the user interface different is a way of retaining customers by making migrations expensive through requiring retraining. So they go out of their way to make the "controls" different.

This is less so for spreadsheets which are reasonably standardised because no one is too different from the big player's de facto standard - you can switch between Excel and Libre Office and hardly notice. It is very much true for cloud software.

Thanks (1)
Jason Grant FCA
By yaakovgrant
20th Apr 2023 09:50

Interesting article Tom, many thanks.

Just a couple of points:

1. Software certification -

Excel - this could be useful although there may be some very basic beginner's courses (certified course?) out there, which are not really geared towards advanced Excel skills an accountant or bookkeper may need (Text formulae such as VLOOKUP, Pivot tables)

Xero - certification is very basic in my opinion and the answers to the questions I think can be guessed

QBO - certification I think does sort out the men from the boys, as the videos for each module are excellent and the questions are not so easy too

2. Interviewer himself - why can't he have a few well chosen questions on the software the candidate has claimed proficiency on, even if he doesn't understand the answers completely?

Thanks (2)
By simong16
20th Apr 2023 11:28

Book keeping which is basically what software does follows a certain set of principles and if you know those then the you should be able to use any software. If the software deviates from those principles and over complicates how it works then you shouldn't use the software rather than the accountant.

Thanks (2)
Pile of Stones
By Beach Accountancy
20th Apr 2023 12:00

When I was in industry, we used to give candidates for accountancy roles an Excel test...

Thanks (2)
By Hugo Fair
20th Apr 2023 13:38

In the distant past (when I briefly ran a specialist Recruitment consultancy), I used to explain to clients (the employers):
"If you focus entirely on a candidate's experience, you are paying now for what they did in the past (and with no guarantee that it will be replicated for you) ... whereas if you focus on the right mix of aptitude & attitude, you are paying for the potential that you can help to unleash (for you)."

The 2nd option does require a little bravery (or at least confidence in your company and in your management skills); but the 'safety' of the 1st option offers a poor RoI.
So it's a shame that the majority take the 'safe' route (just look at professional football to see that this is a universal human fallibility) ... which is of course what is being demonstrated when proficiency in a specific software product is required!

Thanks (2)
By Winnie Wiggleroom
20th Apr 2023 15:49

For once I agree with Sage! the only really important thing is that they really understand the underlying principles, which buttons to press is easy to learn.

Thanks (2)
By graemep
20th Apr 2023 16:08

"they struggled to use a spreadsheet, let alone cloud software!"

Using a spreadsheet properly is a far more difficult skill to lean than cloud bookkeeping software.

On the other hand, most people do not really make full use of spreadsheets.

Thanks (1)
Replying to graemep:
By Hugo Fair
20th Apr 2023 18:02

"Using a spreadsheet properly is a far more difficult skill to learn than cloud bookkeeping software" is *sometimes* true - but only because you're comparing apples & pears.

A well-built application built in Excel is every bit as robust as most Cloud apps, and more likely to be proof against user mis-use.
Whereas 'raw' Excel is really a developer's toolkit, so (in your comparison) should be set against C++ (or your chosen programming language) - at which point it is unarguably the better option for the non-professional programmer.

It is indeed pretty easy to use a spreadsheet 'badly', and the same goes for cloud-based book-keeping (as most of us see on an all too regular basis).
The sad fact is that, despite the blandishments of the advertisers, fewer mistakes are made by the unrepresented when using Excel than a cloud-based app (and fewer still when hand-written in an old exercise book)!

Thanks (3)
Replying to Hugo Fair:
Pile of Stones
By Beach Accountancy
21st Apr 2023 08:22

Especially with Quickbooks: "You seem to have mistyped something. Therefore I am going to assume that you want a new account creating and I'll create a rule to post everything here from now on...."

Thanks (1)