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July 1989

Personnel interviewing in a CPA firm. (certified public accountants)

by Edney, Robert K.

    Abstract- Many certified public accountants (CPAs) may find that they are required to participate in personnel interviewing at their firms. Typically CPAs participate in interviews related to recruiting employees, conducting job performance reviews, or talking with employees who have been voluntarily or involuntarily terminated. While each interviewing situation requires different procedures, all require strong listening skills, comprehension skills, and concentration skills.

An interesting aspect of American business is the promotion structure. Individuals typically move up the promotion ladder based on the technical aspects of their jobs until they reach a point where they are assumed to have knowledge and skills outside their technical background in areas for which they have had little or no training.

CPA firms are typical of this system. Individuals are promoted based on their knowledge and skill in areas such as accounting, auditing, taxation, and consulting. Eventually they are promoted into the management group and are expected to participate in administrative functions for which they have had very little education or training.

One area in which almost everyone in CPA firm management participates is personnel interviewing. This article provides some new insights to CPAs who conduct interviews, whether it is their primary responsibility or part of their management responsibility.

There are essentially three types of interviews in which the management group CPA can expect to participate:

1. The selection interview;

2. The performance interview;

3. The exit interview. Each type of interview has things in common with the others, but they are sufficiently different as to require a discussion of each.

The Selection Interview

This is the type of interview most CPAs become involved with. They may conduct this interview on a college campus for inexperienced hires or as part of the office visit for both inexperienced and experienced hires.

The structure of the selection interview is essentially the same whether the interview is conducted on a college campus or in the CPA's office. Each interview is generally scheduled for 30 minutes although the time can be expanded for office visits. The time is generally broken down as follows:

* 5 minutes--Greet candidate and establish rapport.

* 10 minutes--Evaluate candidate.

* 10 minutes--Answer the candidate's questions in order to sell him or her on your firm.

* 5 minutes--Explain follow-up procedures and wrap up the interview.

Establish Rapport. In establishing rapport, most interviewers will chat about current events, sports, etc., with the intention of making the candidate comfortable. One question I use consistently with inexperienced hires is "Who have you interviewed with so far?" This is an "ice breaker" type question which also serves as a gauge to determine the amount of nervousness I can expect in the interview. On the candidate's first interview I would expect a great deal of nervousness which should be brought under control in later interviews, as more experience is acquired.

Evaluate the Candidate. Evaluating the candidate is probably the most critical part of the interview, from the interviewer's standpoint. It is this phase that determines if an additional visit is warranted in the case of a screening interview, or if an offer should be extended. Since average billing rates for the interviewer are between $100 to $250 per hour, it is crucial that the recruiter's time be well spent. The purpose of the evaluation is to get the candidate to talk about himself or herself, and to reveal facts which can be used as predictors of future performance and job satisfaction. Questions should be avoided when no predictions can be related to the answer. Examples of this type of question would include "Tell me about yourself." and "Where do you want to be in 10 years?" While these questions may get the candidate talking, I have never heard a recruiter explain what constitutes a right or wrong answer.

The questions asked should be "open ended" questions, which typically begin with "Why," "What," or "Who," and should be related to some experience in the candidate's past. A question like "What did you like the least about your previous job?" clearly has some right and wrong answers for a career in public accounting. If the candidate disliked the pressure of the job, dealing with people, or working long hours, I suspect he or she would not be happy with a CPA firm during the busy season.

The next technique the interviewer should consider is the restatement. Psychologists tell us that when we are asked a question two answers immediately come to mind: 1) the truth; and 2) what we think the questioner wants to hear. Most times we give the questioner answer number 2. A restatement will often break through this barrier and get to the truth. A request for restatement lets the candidate know that the interviewer is really listening and wants to know more. The technique consists of using the candidate's last answer by feeding it back as another question. This is one of the most effective techniques the interviewer has, but it takes some practice by the interviewer for it to become conversational. Almost every open ended question should be followed by a restatement in order to gain greater insight into the candidate's personality, likes and dislikes.

Another item in the interviewer's bag of tricks is silence. We have all been in situations where a teacher will ask a class for an answer and it quickly become obvious to everyone but the teacher that on one has the answer. The teacher stares at the class awaiting the answer and the pressure builds. The pressure is even greater in a "one on one" interview session where the interviewer asks a question and simply stares when the candidate responds. The candidate may, on rare occasions, tell everything he or she knows and even make up things. There are few times when this technique is warranted.

Answer the Candidate's Questions. At the end of the evaluation phase the interviewer should indicate that it is the candidate's turn to ask questions. The interviewer can use the questions as a way of describing what makes the employer firm unique and stressing areas of excellence. The interviewer should avoid discussing negative aspects of other firms. Negative comments are unprofessional and probably counterproductive.

Explain Follow-up Procedures. In the last phase the interviewer should try to give the candidate some idea of the decision process and an estimate of the timing.

The decision process should include some consideration of references. Whenever I think of references I think of the story about two passengers on an airplane who started discussing their jobs. One was a CPA firm recruiter who explained how he interviewed students on campus and then invited the better students into his office for a follow-up session after which an employment decision was made. When the second passenger explained "that's the dumbest system I have ever heard," the CPA recruiter took offense and inquired about the passenger's occupation. The passenger replied "I am a pro football scout and I would not waste my time talking to a player until I knew he could play in the NFL." The interviewer should try to gain the same advantage the pro football scout has. Contact should be made with college professors, other personal references and former employers to try to determine if the candidate will be successful.

Performance Review

The periodic performance review need not have a formal structure and may take place in the office or at lunch. In this fast-moving world it should be made at least semi-annually. The timing of these review interviews is usually related to a periodic salary adjustment.

The objective of this interview is to apprise the employee of management's perception of his or her performance in the preceding period. Many interviewers will start by asking the employee to do a self-evaluation and then proceed by matching the two perceptions of performance. The interviewer will have the last review's objectives as a basis for measuring performance. The interview will also serve as a forum for the employee to air any grievances he or she may have about the job.

The performance review should not be a high stress interview, but rather a discussion between two colleagues who already know each other. However, the way some of these interviews are conducted may be frustrating for the employee and therefore will not achieve the desired result of improved performance.

The interviewer should conduct the review in a candid, forthright manner. Because the parties know each other, the employee will generally recognize when the manager is less than honest. Too many CPA managers feel ill at ease presenting negative comments regarding performance and, accordingly, tend to play down these areas.

The interviewer should try to present a balance of the employees' strengths and weaknesses. A fairly detailed plan should be developed by both the manager and the employee as to how areas of deficiency can be remedied. The manager should be aware of the resources of the firm and professionals organizations which may be helpful to the employee in correcting weaknesses. These resources might include technical training sessions, joining organizations, like "Toastmasters," to improve public speaking, and so on.

The manager should discuss the areas of responsibility that the employee will be exposed to in the coming year and help the employee develop specific plans for dealing with those responsibilities.

Any grievances brought up by the employee should receive serious consideration by the manager. The manager's knowledge of the employee should help him differentiate between a minor grievance and a serious problem. In either case, if it is important enough for the employee to mention, it should receive serious consideration.

After the performance review is completed, the manager should write a memorandum to the employee's file, summarizing the discussion. To prevent misunderstandings, the employee should read and sign the memo.

Exit Interviews

Exit interviews fall into two categories: 1) discussions with employees who have voluntarily terminated their employment; and 2) discussions with those who are being involuntarily terminated. The purpose of either type of exit interview should be for the employee to still think positively about the firm.

Employees who resign should be interviewed to determine the reasons. In many cases, the reasons will be a better opportunity or compensation package elsewhere, but in other cases the employee may express specific points of dissatisfaction with the firm. In some cases these specific points may be symptomatic of overall poor employee morale, and the items should be reviewed by management. The resignation of a good employee must not be viewed as a natural event, but, rather, as a firm failure. The reason for the failure should be reviewed and corrective action taken where possible.

The interview procedure for resigned employees should be undertaken by a manager with whom the employee is comfortable. It will normally be a two-phase discussion: 1) when the employee announces his or her resignation; and 2) on or near the last day on the job. The exit interview is the last step in an ongoing communication process starting with the selection interview and continuing through the performance reviews. Management should rarely be surprised by an employee's resignation; and if they are on a regular basis, it may be an indication of poor vertical communications within the firm.

Involuntary terminations also fall into two categories; 1) those which are enacted for specific cause; and 2) those in which management sees no advancement potential for the employee. These are the most difficult interviews.

In preparing for these interviews, the first step is to have a strong case built. You should understand, and be prepared to discuss, specific points about the employee's performance. For either type of termination, warnings should have been delivered. For employees terminated for lack of potential, these warnings are often more subtle and take the form of a series of marginal personnel evaluations. In either case the interviewer should expect a series of rationalizations on the part of the employee to demonstrate that the decision is incorrect.

Employees being terminated for a specific cause such as dishonesty, or being dismissed from repeated engagements at the client's request, should be terminated immediately. Regarding employees terminated for lack of potential, timing should be considered in order to minimize the impact on the dismissed and remaining employees. For large firms which are terminating several employees, it should be accomplished in a short period of time, preferably on the same day. If the announcements are spread out over weeks or months, some employees who are not on the list will become so nervous that they start circulating resumes and seeking employment elsewhere. The ideal circumstance would be to have the terminations accomplished within a day or two of an office staff or training meeting where the managing partner could announce them.

The interviewer should develop a sympathetic state of mind. He or she should recognize the devastating impact that the announcement will have on the employee. Not only will the person have to find a new job and make changes in financial and personal plans, but it has a traumatic impact on the employee's ego. In many cases, the people being terminated have never failed at anything in their lives. They have established goals such as going to college, doing well in school, obtaining employment with a good firm, etc., and have achieved every one of these goals. Now the interviewer has to tell them that they will not meet their goal at this firm. It is difficult to appreciate the impact of the announcement on the employee, but the interviewer should be as sympathetic as possible.

In the interview itself, several areas must be discussed. First, the announcement of the termination decision must be made. Second, a discussion of why the decision was made should follow. Third, the financial and administrative details can be covered; including salary arrangements, turning in keys, manuals, etc., and the firm may offer the employee assistance in finding a new job.

When announcing the termination decision, asking the employee for a self-evaluation is clearly the wrong approach. The interviewer is hoping the employee will respond "I did a terrible job and should be fired," but that is not what will happen. The employee will typically respond that while he or she has had some problems, they have been corrected and that they are now showing real potential. The interviewer will have a very difficult time leading this answer into the announcement of termination and when he does the employee will rightfully feel foolish for his or her answer, and angry at being "set up."

A more realistic approach is to simply announce "I have some bad news" without any fanfare or preliminaries. At this point the employee will be stunned and really not be in a position to discuss the reasons for the decision or the financial and administrative details. The interviewer should inform the employee of the other items to be covered and allow the employee to determine the best approach. In some cases the employee will want to continue and "get it over with," while others will want to leave the office and continue in a day or two, after they have had time to digest the decision. Embarrassment is one reaction to a termination decision and some employees may feel uncomfortable coming back to the office. The interviewer should be as flexible as possible to assist employees during their transition.


Interviewing, to many people, is simply an extension of having a personal conversation. In fact, it is much more challenging and requires development of skills far beyond those used in our personal lives. Most of us, in conversations, rarely listen as carefully as is required in interview situations. While the other person is speaking in a personal conversation, most of us are thinking of what we will say when it is our turn. In interviews it is crucial to not only hear what the other person is saying, but to thoroughly understand their meaning. This requires a concentration level much greater than that used in casual discussions.

Young CPA's should start to develop these skills, and their firms should support them in this development so that they may represent the firm better when the situation arises.

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