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CFOs on the Hiring Line: Can You Be Picky?

Fine-tune your interview questions to make sure you get a full picture of what

In the renewed war for talent, can beggars be choosers? If the beggars are CFOs, looking to fill their ranks with qualified, talented, and – don’t we all want this – agreeable employees, then the answer should be yes.

Unfortunately, unlike most other hiring managers, finance chiefs don’t have the luxury of being too choosy. While a high unemployment rate still dogs the overall U.S. economy, those in the accounting and finance profession are not having trouble finding jobs and are in high demand (only 1.9% of financial analysts are unemployed, according to staffing firm Robert Half International).

At the top of CFOs’ hiring wish list are talented controllers, senior accountants, and internal auditors, says a recent Robert Half survey, all of which can command higher salaries (the median annual salary for controllers, for example, is $172,940, according to Salary.com).

As a result, CFOs may feel anxious and want to hurry the interview process along, just to grab anyone who seems halfway decent and get an empty, critical spot filled. After all, act too slowly and you risk losing what would have been a promising employee to another company – and risk having to answer to a department that already feels strapped for resources. “You have to move swiftly or the candidates will be gone,” says Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half. For that reason, McDonald adds, CFOs are making themselves freely available even while traveling, through phone calls and Skype, to keep interviews moving and avoid holding up the process just because they’re on the road.

Even so, you shouldn’t be rash. A bad hire can drag a department down more than a vacant position if other employees have to make up for a slacker or constantly fix someone’s mistakes. Besides a morale plunge, a person who doesn’t belong costs money – in the form of wasted training and lost production. Just over 41% of businesses that made a bad hire estimated the poor decision cost them over $25,000, according to a 2012 CareerBuilder survey. Another 24% said it cost them more than $50,000. “Don’t shortchange yourself by going too quickly in the hiring process,” McDonald advises. “You have to move methodically.”

How Do You Know You’ve Found the One?
While recruiting best practices include canvassing current employees for referrals, and confirming the facts in candidates’ resumes and checking their references, the real truth-telling about a person’s behavior, attitude, and work ethic comes down to the interviews. If you ask the right questions and listen carefully, you should be able to get a handle on the person in front of you and whether he or she will be a good fit. To ensure you make the right choice, don’t limit the person to one interview and don’t do it alone.

In fact, McDonald suggests having candidates go through at least two rounds of interviews and inviting others within the department to participate. The person may act differently with different people, and your colleagues may notice quirks or comments that you don’t.

Fine-tune your interview questions to make sure you get a full picture of what a person will really be like on the job. Beyond potential employees’ basic skill-set and education, you have just a few short encounters to get to know what their résumés don’t tell you: Will they be good workers? Are they team players? Will they fit into the culture of the company?

To get at those answers, ask these key questions during your next interview:

What do you know about our company, and why do you want to work here?
Someone who stumbles at this question didn’t do his homework.

Tell me about your most memorable challenge and how you overcame it.
This discussion will give you insight into the candidate’s problem-solving skills. But also listen carefully to the answer to hear how enthusiastic the job candidate is about her work, how much discretion she uses toward her former employer, and whether she gives credit to others in her department or takes all the glory.

What has been the most satisfying achievement in your career so far?
McDonald says this is a key question for showing a person’s true self. How does the candidate view ranks and titles? “The ego may show itself here, which is not always a bad thing, but being a team player is extremely important in finance and accounting,” says McDonald.

We’re working on our next 24-month forecast. How would you recommend we build it out, and how should we motivate others to meet its goals?
Lower ranking finance and accounting employees can get stuck in the weeds. Use this question to see which candidates can see the big picture, how detailed they get, and how organized they would be if given such responsibility.

Describe the last time your company adopted new software for the finance organization and how you dealt with it.
The answer will be enlightening on several fronts, as finance and accounting professionals need to be adaptable to new software and work processes. Did the job candidate struggle through the change? Or did he rise to the challenge and actually help other coworkers learn that wasn’t part of his job? Does he acknowledge the hassle of transitioning to a new system (which would indicate his honesty)? Is he a stickler for doing all his work in Excel, or is he open to trying new programs, and perhaps is more knowledgeable about new technology than the rest of your staff?

What do you like about finance and accounting?
If the job candidate stares at you blankly after this question, you can draw a red flag next to his name.

Sarah Johnson is a freelance business writer and editor.