Essential Interview Questions to Ask Accounting Job Applicants

Interview questions to ask finance and accounting candidates

Hiring is a high-stakes endeavor. Bringing aboard the wrong job applicant is a costly mistake that wastes time, money and resources. That’s why it’s so important to have a list of good interview questions to ask and make sure all of them count when you're trying to fill accounting jobs in your organization.

Here are six critical skills and attributes accounting candidates should have, followed by samples of the best questions to ask in an interview that assess those qualities — along with the kinds of answers you should look for to identify the best of the best.

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1. Problem-solving abilities

Can you describe a workplace situation you've encountered that was especially challenging? How did you go about solving the problem? Look for answers to this interview question that include actual situations the accountant handled; they could range from an invoice dispute to a client miscommunication. The solution they describe will tell you something about their thought process, problem solving skills, customer service orientation and ability to think on their feet. 

Have you ever faced an ethical dilemma at work, and how did you handle it? An accounting position is likely to present potential ethical dilemmas that many other jobs don't. The best answers to this interview question will highlight the applicant's ability to do the right thing, regardless of circumstance.

Tell me about a time when you failed. Answers should cover not only the failure in an accounting project but also offer a view into the mind of the candidate and how he or she might have learned something substantive as a result. 

A good example of an open-ended interview question is: Can you tell me how you handle tight accounting deadlines? A good answer here would involve talking about his or her overall ability to prioritize, a critical skill for all accounting professionals. But whatever the answer, it can reveal something of the the interviewee's work style and personality. 

2. Knowledge and critical thinking

How do you stay current on accounting legislation, rules and policies? No job candidate could remain completely up to date on all of these, but the most promising applicants will answer this interview question by describing the methods they use to keep as current as possible with notable industry developments. These may include having attended a recent conference or seminar, membership in professional organizations such as the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) or subscriptions to an impressive variety of industry publications.

Another good interview question to ask is this: What trends will have the biggest impact on finance and accounting in the future? Look for answers that mention the fierce competition for top talent in the accounting field; increased use of flexible staffing; and factors influencing accounting needs in the healthcare industry besides the Affordable Care Act, such as revenue cycle improvement, value-based reimbursement, ICD-10 and big data. This will help you determine their overall commitment to the ever-evolving world of accounting and finance — and also their ability to express themselves clearly.

3. Relevant skills

What enterprise resource planning (ERP) system have you used? Candidate answers should not be vague here; either they have direct experience with an ERP system or not. Candidates should describe the brand or system they used, which tends to vary depending on company size, according to Benchmarking the Accounting & Finance Function, a report by Robert Half and the Financial Executives Research Foundation.

Applicants who worked with smaller companies may describe a more customized or hybrid ERP solution they used. The more specificity they can give around the ERP system, the better. For example, “When we installed our ERP system, we reduced the time it takes to produce our annual financial statements by 30 days." Be prepared for some to tell you that their company no longer uses an on-premises ERP system as their primary financial system, because they are switching to cloud technology. The way applicants answer this interview question will reveal how much training they would need on your system.

Another of the best questions to ask in an interview to evaluate skills: What criteria do you use to evaluate the reliability of financial information you receive? You should expect candidates to mention generally accepted standards for evaluating reliability of data, such as those offered by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB). Look for terms like neutrality, verifiability and materiality, as well as a candidate's attempt to describe how these work, e.g., "Neutrality is choosing accounting alternatives that are bias-free."

And this: How do you define business metrics, and what experience do you have developing or monitoring them? Answers should include specifics about how candidates were involved in business metrics, such as helping to determine and monitor a business's gross margin, the cost of finding new customers or the effectiveness of its social media efforts. These will give you assurance that the candidate clearly understands business metrics and how they were involved with them in previous jobs.  

4. Motivation and fit

Why do you want to work here? If you want to know how proactive the candidate is, this is one of the best interview questions to ask. You will find out whether the candidate has researched your company. The answer to this question may also tell you whether the interviewee is a good fit for your company culture.

5. Technology comfort level

How comfortable and adept are you with technology? While accounting software varies from company to company, this question will give you an idea of how open the candidate is to learning new systems. Companies today face mounting pressures to meet corporate governance regulations and to secure financial data. As a result, you need accounting and finance professionals who have strong technical know-how and the ability to quickly adapt.

6. Any red flags?

Are there any reasons for concern you'd like to clear up? Perhaps, the resume shows the candidate has been unemployed for the past few months. You might ask: Why is that? What have you been doing since then? Give the candidate a chance to account for any gaps or explain extended periods of unemployment. Interviewees who have used the time wisely (e.g., volunteering, skills training, attending industry events) demonstrate motivation and a commitment to professional development.

All of these good interview questions to ask accounting candidates can reveal key insights into both hard skills and soft skills that will help you pinpoint the right candidate for the job. Don't be afraid to ask deeper accounting questions, because when you do, you'll get a more complete picture of the candidates and a better sense of how they'll fit with your team.

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More tips on interviewing accounting applicants

Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2014 and was updated recently to reflect current information.