30 interview questions to help you identify the best candidate

32 interview questions to help you identify the best candidate

Have you ever hired a new staff member who you were sure was going to be perfect, only to soon realize you have hired the wrong person? You are not alone—just 18% of accounting firms believe their recruitment processes consistently identifies the very best candidate. 

Your best opportunity to learn and analyze a candidate for a role in your practice is the interview. This is your chance to not only find out about their skills and experience, but whether they have the right personality and attitude that will make them a good fit for the role, and your firm's culture. So it is critical that you ask the right questions that will shed some light on these attributes.

We spoke with a number of partners and managers from different high-performing accounting firms to find out the top questions they ask when hiring new candidates. Here are 30 for you to pick and choose from.

Questions to identify if the candidate has the necessary skills

“Tell me about a time you had a measurable impact on your previous accounting firm, or last job?”

What are you assessing?

Self-awareness, technical skills.

How do you handle this question?

You want staff who can think deeply about their role, can understand how what they do, and how they can drive your practice in the right direction.

Did they play a key role doubling client referrals? Or did they single-handedly redesign the client onboarding process to reduce the time it takes to under one month? If your candidate does not give you want, you need to ask for a concrete example so that you can assess the whole situation in context.

“Describe a professional situation when you made a mistake or failed at something.”

What are you assessing?

Level of experience, problem-solving ability, self-awareness, accountability.

How do you handle this question?

Every member of your team will make mistakes from time to time. What matters most is the way they respond. Pay attention to your candidate’s explanation of how they dealt with their error and what they learned from the experience. 

If they cannot identify a mistake, then they probably do not have a strong sense of accountability or self-awareness.

“If a client emails you asking for something that is outside of your skill level, how would you handle it?”

What are you assessing?

Teamwork, client focus.

How do you handle this question?

Their answer will give you insight into the type of accountant and team player they will be. How will they communicate with clients? How will they respect and communicate with your team?

I always ask candidates to describe their pantry at home—it sounds like a very weird question, but asking this helps me to understand whether they are a organized person or not.
Steph Hinds—Growthwise

“What accounting software, systems or apps have you used in the past?”

What are you assessing?

System and technology skills.

How do you handle this question?

This is not a trick question—you want a list of all the systems your candidate has experience with, with detail on their level of expertise if relevant. If a candidate has used some of the apps in your firm’s stack, it will be extremely advantageous, saving you time in their onboarding process and ensuring they are performing value-adding tasks sooner. Not only this, but many technology skills are transferable, and if they can demonstrate skills using systems similar to yours, they will likely pick up your technology more easily.

“Where do you go to learn about new technology?”

What are you assessing?

System and technology skills, initiative, willingness to learn.

How do you handle this question?

If you are a practice that embraces technology, you will likely be adopting new systems in the future. Having staff who demonstrate an interest in technology will be a huge plus, and it is safe to assume that those who go out of their way to stay up-to-date with developments in the ecosystem will tick this box.

The answer to this question should not be a simple yes or now. By asking your candidate where they go, they are required to give you details on how they go about it, which will help you to assess how sincere they really are. 

“What accounting reports are you comfortable preparing, comparing and analyzing?”

What are you assessing?

Technical skills.

How do you handle this question?

Do not assume anything about a candidate—even basic accounting knowledge. This question can show you a lot about a candidate’s prior experience and whether they actually have the existing skills you expect them to. You do not want to receive any nasty surprises on day one of a new hire’s onboarding.

“Give me an example of the last time you provided an amazing client experience.”

What are you assessing?

Client focus.

How do you handle this question?

How any prospective member of staff thinks about the service they provide to clients should be a key selection criterion for any role in your firm, but particularly client-facing positions. Asking for an example will avoid a generic response and help you to more accurately predict how they might deliver service to your clients.

“What is the biggest problem you have solved for a client?”

What are you assessing?

Problem-solving skills, client focus.

How do you handle this question?

Once again, by asking for a specific example you can more accurately assess your candidate’s ability to think outside the box, what type of work they have done in the past, and how far they will go to deliver outstanding service to clients. 

The best answers to this question will clearly state the problem the client had, the specific role the candidate played in attempting to overcome it, and what the overall outcome was.

“If you started with our firm tomorrow, what would be the first thing you would suggest to help our practice grow?”

What are you assessing?

Innovation, assertiveness.

How do you handle this question?

Answers to this question can vary greatly. You are not necessarily looking for the best idea that would actually work (although that would not be a bad thing!), but you want an answer that demonstrates that your candidate has researched your practice before the interview and have thought about the impact they can make in the role.

Interview questions to identify personality type and cultural fit

“What is your dream job?”

What are you assessing?

Ambition, whether the candidate will be a good long-term fit.

How do you handle this question?

This is a great question to ask younger candidates or graduates to get an understanding of their interests and goals, and whether they really are likely to remain at your firm long-term. Their dream role most likely will not be the job they are interviewing for (and nor should it be—ambition is healthy), but if they really want to be a policeman, then they probably will not be the best candidate to hire.

“Describe your ideal day at work.”

What are you assessing?

Working style, interests.

How do you handle this question?

A variation or extension of the above question, the answer to this will give you an insight into what your candidate is passionate about, how they like to work, and whether they will be a good fit for the role. You need to evaluate answers to this question based on the role you are hiring. If your candidate’s ideal day involves lots of client contact, yet the role you are hiring for involves little face-to-face meetings, then the position may not be right for them. 

We always ask what is important in your life outside of work, which helps us to see if they have a good balance of other interests that help them develop and also relax and disconnect from work.
Jonny Boström—Deskjockeys

“Tell me about a time you have been very unlucky or experienced an injustice.”

What are you assessing?

Ownership, teamwork.

How do you handle this question?

Everyone will be treated unfairly at times during their career, and it is very telling how they handle this. You want people who take ownership of problems they experience, without blaming others or feeling sorry for themselves. The best answers to this question will be from candidates who realize complaining is not worth their time, who instead own their situation, overcome it, and move on.

“If you could invite three people dead or alive to dinner, who would they be and why?”

What are you assessing?

Personality, ability to think quickly.

How do you handle this question?

This question will give you an insight into their interests and passions, and as a bonus, will help you assess how well they can think on their feet. This is a good question to ask early in an interview—it can help a candidate relax and allow you to find some common ground.

“How would your last boss or coworker describe you? What would they say your weaknesses are?”

What are you assessing?

Self-awareness, honesty.

How do you handle this question?

The best accountants are self-aware and have an understanding of what they are good at, and what they need to work on. This gives you the opportunity to see how a candidate thinks others perceive them—a subtle but important difference between asking them how they perceive themselves. This a particularly important question to pay attention to the body language of your interviewee in order to detect how genuine they really are.

“What is it about this position that attracted you?”

What are you assessing?

Fit for the role. 

How do you handle this question?

Find out what your candidate is most interested in—is it the role, or the prospect of working at your firm. Or are they just desperate to find any job in accounting? Do they really want to work with you, or is going to become just another job to them?

“What areas of accounting are you most interested in and why?”

What are you assessing?

Fit for the role.

How do you handle this question?

Does your candidate have a desire to perform the work the role requires of them, or are they actually more interested in other areas? Will they get bored quickly? Or perhaps they are passionate about something that you have not picked up on in the interview already.  Their answer to this question should tell you this.

“Describe your usual role when you are working on a client job with other team members.”

What are you assessing?

Fit for your team.

How do you handle this question?

The most common answer to this question is a variation of ‘leader,' but perhaps your practice does not need any more leaders. The ideal answer to this question will depend on the team the role you are interviewing for will be apart of. 

“What makes you most effective when working with others?”

What are you assessing?

Teamwork.

How do you handle this question?

Teamwork is the cornerstone of many accounting practices, so measuring how well your candidate will work with your existing team is extremely important. The best answers will be backed up with examples and clearly demonstrate the candidate can work well with others.

“What is the hardest part about working on a team for you?”

What are you assessing?

Self-awareness, emotional intelligence.

How do you handle this question?

As well as understanding their own strengths and weaknesses, staff should have the emotional intelligence to emphasize with others. If a candidate can demonstrate that they can understand and work with different social styles, the chances of them fitting into your team are high.

“Describe yourself in three words.”

What are you assessing?

Self-awareness.

How do you handle this question?

Another question that asks for your candidate to share their own opinion of themselves. By asking them to restrict this to three words, you are requiring them to think on their feet quickly and give an answer in a way they may not have pre-prepared for. Their answer will also show you specifically what traits they think are the most important—as they will always provide the answer they think you want to hear—and you can compare this to the traits you want in your ideal candidate.

Interview questions to identify who has the right attitude

“Tell me about a person you admire, and why they have made an important impact.”

What are you assessing?

Ability to understand impact and the big picture. 

How do you handle this question?

This question will help you identify your candidate’s views on what it means to have an impact— tying into their ability to understand where their work will fit into the bigger scheme of things for your firm. This is essential for any member of your practice, but become even more critical if you are recruiting a ‘doer’ who may not be exposed to the big picture of your firm.

“Tell me about an obstacle you have faced and how you overcame it.”

What are you assessing?

Ownership, perseverance.

How do you handle this question?

You want accountants who keep their head up if they are faced with a challenge and will reactively look for a solution. You don’t necessarily need a story of heroism here—even persevering through a mind-numbing task and seeing it through to the end can be a valuable predictor of how they might perform in aspects of their role.

“How do you stay up-to-date with latest accounting industry trends?”

What are you assessing?

Initiative, ability to cope with change, willingness to learn.

How do you handle this question?

The accounting industry is changing overnight, so you want any candidate to be aware of anything that is affecting your practice and the way they will be working.

The best answers to this question will involve the candidate regularly going out of their way remain up-to-date, demonstrating a genuine passion for industry changes and an eagerness to continually improve as an accountant

“What was the last thing you obsessed over?”

What are you assessing?

Curiosity.

How do you handle this question?

Creativity, innovation, and a willingness to learn all stem from displaying curiosity. This question explores the last thing that your candidate became extremely curious about, and how they fed that obsession. Every new hire in your firm will be required to learn new systems and processes during their onboarding, and this learning will not stop as they progress through their career. A good answer will not necessarily be related to accounting, but you want a candidate who demonstrates a healthy curiosity about something, and an ability to feed that curiosity.

"Why should we hire you?”

What are you assessing?

Views on most important skills and attitude.

How do you handle this question?

Use this question to get a high-level understanding of what your candidate believes they can bring to the role, and then dig deeper with further questions. Your goal should be to understand why they believe the skills or experience they believe they offer, are important. 

“What is your preferred way to communicate with clients?”

What are you assessing?

Ability or adaptability to fit into existing processes. 

How do you handle this question?

Email, phone calls, face-to-face meetings? While almost all accountants will need to be comfortable with all forms of client communication, your firm has existing processes, and your clients are used to working with you in a certain way. You need to ensure any candidate will fit into the way that you do things.

“Tell me when you were have been most/least satisfied in your career.”

What are you assessing?

Career aspirations, fit for the role and your practice.

How do you handle this question?

This question will tap into your candidate’s motivations—telling you what really interests and drives them. This is a great way to determine whether they are actually right for the role, and whether your practice is the right place for them.

You can't motivate staff. Find motivated people.
James Ashford—My Accountancy Place

“Tell me about a really difficult client you have had in the past.”

What are you assessing?

Ability to cope with difficult situations, client focus. 

How do you handle this question?

Accountants deal with tricky clients every day. The manner in which they deal with them can be very telling. Asking this question is particularly important for a client-facing role, as it will help you see what their attitude will be like in difficult situations, and how proficient they are at fixing an issue when the client does not make it easy for them.

“What made you decide to become an accountant?”

What are you assessing?

Motivation, fit for the role. 

How do you handle this question?

What is your candidate’s motivation? Do they care about helping clients and their businesses grow, do they love crunching numbers, or did they just fall into accounting because they could not think of anything else to do? Whatever their answer is, you need to be sure that their motivations are in line with your practice’s values and the role they are interviewing for.

“Do you have any other questions for me?”

What are you assessing?

How much thought your candidate has put into the role, and how well they have prepared.

How do you handle this question?

This question is deceptively simple and ubiquitous—but you should not finish any interview without it. This will show how much thought your candidate has put into the role, how much they have researched your practice, and how badly they really want the job. If your candidate has no questions for you, that is a bad sign.

 

No interview should include all of the questions outlined here. The exact questions that you ask should depend on the position you are recruiting for. Think about the particular skills and characteristics that you want in your ideal candidate, and select the questions that will help you assess that. If you are recruiting for an admin role, your questions might revolve more around organization style, while if it is an accounting role, you would include more questions that are technical in nature.

It is important that you ask the same main questions of all your candidates. This will enable you to compare answers and decide on who will be the best to proceed to a second interview, and eventually hire.

As you ask these questions, pay attention to their body language and communication style. If they get nervous, would they be suitable for a client-facing role?

If you do not get an answer that allows you to assess what you are looking for, do not be afraid to ask follow-up questions that let you dig deeper and find out what you need to know.

Throughout the interview, allow your candidate to open up. Constantly assess whether they have done their research, whether they really want to work with you, and whether they have the necessary skills and attitude—get them to prove that they can do what they say.

If you can think beyond the standard interview questions and instead ask things that are really relevant to the role and your accounting practice, you will be able to make a much more informed decision about who is the right hire. And the likelihood of a new staff member proving you right will increase tenfold.

--

You can download a template containing all of these questions to keep, print, or upload into a Karbon piece of work. 

If your accounting practice has any favorite interview questions that help you assess the skills, attitude or fit of a potential new hire, we'd love to hear from you. Please share them in the comments below.

Share this article

Karbon Magazine

The industry magazine for accountants. In-depth reports, editorials, videos, and resources to keep you at the front of today’s modern accounting industry.

The talent challenge

Overcome the challenges your accounting firm is facing acquiring, training and retaining staff. Put together the team that will lead your practice to success.

Explore the magazine
Edition 4 the talent challenge
Discover more articles, videos, events and resources