Why You Need to Ask These 20 Accounting Interview Questions

By Robert Half July 15, 2019 at 8:00am

Are you looking for effective accounting interview questions to ask job applicants?

You probably know about the challenges facing managers seeking skilled finance and accounting talent today. If you’ve crafted job descriptions that have enticed accounting applicants to send you cover letters and resumes, congratulations! Now it's time to start the interview process.

Certainly it’s critical to assess soft skills, personalities and fit with your organizational culture, but you also want to take the opportunity to dig deep into candidates’ technical skills and experience. But what questions are best to ask? Tailor your questions so they address the specific accounting role you’re looking to staff, and if you’re not familiar with all the concepts, bring in someone from your team who is to help you craft the questions you’ll ask.

Here are 20 interview questions along with some tips for what you should look for in the answers.

1. What is the difference between accounts receivable (AR) and accounts payable (AP)?

Begin by testing for basic skills when interviewing entry-level job candidates for bookkeeping or accounting clerk openings. Questions like this one will reveal whether they understand accounting fundamentals.

2. When a company is using double-entry accounting, what elements of a given ledger must be equal?

This is another fairly simple inquiry. Job candidates with some accounting training or experience should have no trouble with their answer. As with the question above, the manner in which the applicants reply may show that they’re under- or overqualified for a junior-level job at your company.

3. What are two or three types of special journals?

While still a fairly basic question, it can help you determine if the candidate’s experience fits your accounting needs. Alternately, you could present a few journal samples for the applicant to read and explain as a skill test. The way they respond to this accounting interview question will show their skill level in identifying mistakes or omissions.

4. If a company has three bank accounts for processing payments, what is the minimum number of ledgers it needs?

Use this question to explore a candidate’s knowledge of ledgers. Observe their initial reaction and use it as a leaping off point for further discussion of skills related to the opening you are trying to fill. Expect the response to reveal the extent to which the applicant has thought through how accounts relate to lines of business and generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP).

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5. What methods have you used for estimating bad debt?

This accounting interview question can show how the applicant has approached this routine process with previous employers. This line of inquiry allows recent grads to apply theoretical knowledge in venturing educated guesses. The answer will reveal the level of understanding of the methods most commonly used and could open a dialogue about how your company handles this.

6. Why is it easier for someone to perpetrate fraud using a journal entry than with a ledger?

Accounting professionals, particularly those who have managed ledgers or had jobs as full-charge bookkeepers for more than a couple of years, should be able to speculate on this scenario. A candidate with more formal training specific to auditing or fraud analysis will likely explain this thoroughly and be able to provide examples.

7. Which enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems have you used?

Most professionals, especially those with experience working for medium to large organizations, should have an answer for this. A response might include any of the following: Hyperion, Microsoft Dynamics GP or Oracle Enterprise Manager. For entry-level candidates, you might turn this into a discussion of accounting certifications and future training possibilities. For example, ask which ERP systems they would like to master. Discussion of these tools, how the applicants learned them and put them to work, and what applications your company uses will reveal how much, if any, training might be needed.

8. What is your experience with developing business metrics?

This question can help you evaluate entry-level business or financial analyst candidates all the way up to mid-career professionals who aspire to roles that come with budget and staff oversight responsibilities.

9. If a private company with break-even operations received a $10 million investment, how would you develop a strategy to spend or invest that money?

This is an example of a situational interview technique, a tactic useful in gauging an applicant’s ability to think through a scenario like one that might be faced in a more senior finance role.

10. What challenges have you faced in leading a team through an analysis project?

As with the previous interview question, the answers to this one will give you a hint as to the candidate’s critical thinking skills and elicit a better picture of their leadership potential.

11. What do you consider the top three skills of a great accountant?

Yes, you’re looking for someone with numerical abilities, but not necessarily a mathematician. You also need someone with analytical know-how, who can communicate with others. Look for responses that show a recognition of the importance of general business knowledge, technology expertise, customer service orientation and specialized experience that might apply to the role.

12. Can you give me an example of how you would explain a complex accounting process or finance data to a staff member?

Here’s where you’ll find out more about a candidate’s communication skills. Look for an ability to simplify information and present it so people outside the department — those who may not speak the language of “FIFO” (First In First Out, a method of valuing inventory) or “EBITDA margins” (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization) — understand it.

13. When you buy a piece of equipment for a company, what is the impact on the three financial statements?

This is another basic accounting question that lets you gauge an understanding of cash flow statements, balance sheets and income statements. Before they reply, the best interviewees will have threshold questions for you, such as, should they answer for the time of acquisition or for some time in the future, and how is the equipment financed?

14. How do you define big data, and why is it important for finance teams to have expertise in it?

The increasing use of data is prompting managers to look for these qualities in today’s accounting and finance hires. You may not need big data experts right now, but finding someone who has knowledge of data retrieval, interpretation and analysis could provide useful down the line when you decide to build your team’s expertise in this area.

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15. Describe a time when you’ve made an accounting error and how you handled it.

Rather than making a judgment on the mistake, look for the lessons learned, whether they took responsibility, and how they managed it. Were they proactive? Strategic?

16. How do you minimize the risk for error in your work?

This is the second part of the previous question. The best responses will shed light on the interviewee’s process for reviewing their work and minimizing miscalculations.

17. How do you differentiate between auditing and accounting?

If you’re interviewing recent graduates, you’re looking to see how well they paid attention in class, rather than a deep level of expertise. Look for an ability to explain the fundamentals of the roles and processes.

18. What accounting software are you most familiar with?

While it may be ideal to find expertise in the same accounting programs you use in your company — Excel, Hyperion, IBM Cognos, QuickBooks, ERP and so on — it’s even more valuable to find someone who is software savvy and able to get up to speed with a variety of programs. Some companies have embraced cloud financial solutions, and while experience in online-based software and services is valuable, the ability to get comfortable with the new technologies is worthwhile, too.

19. What criteria do you use to assess the reliability of the financial information you receive?

Look for answers that show high performance standards. Perhaps the candidate has designed methods to check for bookkeeping errors or quality-control issues in the data-entry process. What you’re looking for are answers that help you evaluate attention to detail and accuracy.

20. What do you think of the most recent updates in the accounting standards?

Unlike questions that probe problem-solving abilities or relevant skills, this one explores knowledge of current industry practices. Do they have a solid understanding of accounting standards such as GAAP? Are they aware of the new lease accounting standard? Have they had training in the new tax changes? Their responses will help you determine their commitment to the profession they’ve chosen and their ability to express themselves.

Additional factors to consider

While you listen for knowledgeable and thorough answers to your questions, you should watch for other important attributes, such as problem-solving abilities, critical thinking skills and technology comfort level. You could ask about past projects they are particularly proud of, or the kinds of work they would like to do going forward in their careers.

If you don’t find an accounting candidate who fits the bill for all of the hard skills and experiences you’re after, don’t be afraid to consider on-the-job training if the candidate checks most of your boxes and seems like a good fit for your team.

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