How to Hire a Senior Accountant: Count the Ways!

By Robert Half October 4, 2019 at 10:00am

There’s no way around it. Your company needs someone to supervise your accounting staff and bookkeeping efforts, prepare financial statements, and analyze balance sheets and income statements. But this is a tough job market. Even if you think you know how to hire a senior accountant, it’s not going to be easy to find one.

The time and effort you put into recruiting for your senior accountant position will be worth the investment. The challenge is knowing what you want, competing for top talent and vetting candidates, all without dragging out the hiring process.

“Just a few days can make a difference,” says Jill Smith, a Robert Half Finance & Accounting vice president in Des Moines, Iowa. “This is a candidate-driven market, and if your hiring process takes too long, you might miss out on exceptional talent.”

So, you know you have to push the accelerator, but where do you start? Read on for tips on how to hire a senior accountant.

1. Write a solid job description

Senior accountants typically have more than three years of general accounting experience and at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting, finance, business administration or a related field. Accreditations such as a CPA or a certified management accountant (CMA) are also preferred.

That’s all standard detail to include in your senior accountant job description. Beyond that, you’ll want to write an accurate description of the job responsibilities and required qualifications. Need an accounting professional with an in-depth knowledge of accounting principles and technology, financial statements, risk assessments and budgets? Put it in your post, along with the specific skills you’re looking for. This will help sort out unqualified applicants and appeal to those you most want to meet.

But you have to walk a fine line here.

A senior accountant might be expected to have a strong background in a number of applications, including finance-specific software such as Microsoft Excel, cloud-based systems, project management software and data modeling programs. The more skills and experience you require, the smaller the talent pool and the greater your competition.

Rather than look for the perfect candidate, decide which qualifications are must-haves and which are nice-to-haves. Be realistic, and try to be flexible, especially if you can offer training and professional development.

“In today’s market,” Smith says, “companies should choose high-potential candidates who have the most critical skills, and then make a commitment to help them succeed as senior accountants.”

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2. Make it a good fit

Besides the skills, experience and education you’d like to see on a resume, a job description should provide a realistic idea of your organizational culture and what it’s like to work at your company. Is it a loud, boisterous office setting, or a quiet, corporate environment? What is the stress level, and how does the company encourage work-life balance? What kind of training and opportunities for career advancement does the company offer? What are the company's core values?

“Show candidates how they can grow professionally if they work for you,” Smith says.

Not only is this an opportunity to showcase the advantages you offer over the competition, it also helps job seekers decide whether yours is the kind of company they’d like to work at. This kind of self-selection can spare you a lot of time vetting applicants who wouldn’t be a good fit.

3. Work with a recruiter

A specialized staffing agency can help you with that job description — and so much more. The best recruiters know the candidate marketplace in your industry and geographic area. They can effectively evaluate experience, skills and culture fit, saving you time and money as they streamline the hiring process.

With insider expertise, recruiters can also reach into their extensive networks and draw on talented professionals who aren’t aware of your open position and may not even be looking for a new job.

“Many qualified senior accountants are happy in their current roles and would need a compelling reason to make a move,” says Carrie Lewis, a Robert Half Finance & Accounting vice president in New Orleans. “Those are the passive job seekers we can help you target.”

4. Offer the right salary and benefits

If you want to compete for the best senior accountants, you have to offer a competitive compensation package. The same can be said for retaining your top performers.

Stay current on prevailing salary and hiring trends by reviewing leading industry resources. The 2020 Robert Half Salary Guide for Accounting and Finance Professionals provides starting salaries for more than 190 positions, including senior accountants. The guide also shows you how to localize the national figures for your market.

For example, the salary midpoint (or median national salary) for a senior general accountant is $80,500. To adjust that figure for the San Francisco Bay Area, apply the market variance rate of +41%. Where cost of living and demand for talent isn’t as high, the area’s variance rates will keep the market’s average starting salary closer to, or even less than, the national midpoint salary. (Robert Half’s online Salary Calculator also gives local market rates for specific roles.)

It’s not just going to be about salary, of course. Company culture, discussed above, as well as benefits, perks and other incentives can all play a significant role in your success in attracting and keeping top talent. “If your company offers additional benefits, such as bonuses, flexible work arrangements or extra vacation time, that may convince top prospects to work for you,” Lewis says.

5. Interview for hard and soft skills

You can’t just “wing it” during the interview. Prepare for it like you would any other major decision. Think about what you want to know about the candidate — and if anyone else will join the interview, decide who will ask what.

Your accounting interview questions might discuss how up to speed a candidate is with tax code changes, what their experience is in completing complex financial projects with tight deadlines and how they go about preparing budgets.

But you’ll also want to take stock of communication skills, problem solving abilities, customer service, adaptability and other soft skills. Technical skills are obviously important, but a senior accountant is going to have to collaborate with co-workers and across the business, if not manage a team. This is your opportunity to assess confidence, personality and work ethic, and how the candidate would mesh with current staff.

6. Follow up with professional references

Don’t dismiss this part of the hiring process as just a formality. It’s an important step to expand your understanding of the candidates' qualifications, and the impact they've had at an organization, beyond the resume and interview.

You might start by asking a former manager about a technical skill or strength the candidate possesses. For example: “I understand Kim took care of budget preparation and analysis for your company. Can you tell me more about her duties as staff accountant?”

Take it a step further by asking about a potential limitation, such as how the candidate might do in a more senior role: “She hasn’t had any experience managing accounting staff, which is part of the job description for a senior accountant. How do you think she’ll perform as a manager?”

A final word

While timeliness is an important consideration when hiring a senior accountant, so is careful deliberation. After every interview and reference check, ask yourself: Would this person be a good match for the company, and would the company be a good match for them? Does the candidate have the skills you need on Day 1, and can they pick up those “nice-to-haves” through training and development in fairly quick order?

There’s no perfect candidate — not in this competitive hiring market, anyway. But when you find that diamond in the rough, Smith says, “Make your job offer, then do everything you can to keep them.”

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