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How to hire the best team members by using what you learn from bad hiring experiences

Hiring a new team member for your accounting firm who then doesn’t work out can feel like a very heavy weight. You’re frustrated and disappointed at the time you’ve wasted.

You likely feel deflated, discouraged and nervous about the lasting impact this could have on you, your firm and your team. And it affects future hiring decisions, too.

Because with all these feelings and emotions swirling around, you’ll be tempted to do one or all of these:

  • Hire someone else really quickly to fill the gap which has been created
  • Delay hiring anyone else because you feel nervous after the bad experience you’ve had, and you’re worried the same situation will happen again
  • Rely on a recruiter to find you the “perfect candidate” before they’ve taken any time to get to know you, your firm or the values which you live and work by
  • Hire at the wrong level because you’re panicking about the resource gap and you haven’t taken the time to identify what it is you actually need
  • Blame the team member (“they weren’t the right person anyway”) instead of taking responsibility for what you can do better
  • Take all these feelings out on the current team by being frustrated, short of temper, or blaming (even if you don’t intend to) making it harder for them to enjoy their work

Before you rush into hiring again, take the time to turn these hard feelings and thoughts into learnings for the future so you only hire the best people for your firm going forward.

Set aside time to ask yourself the good, hard questions about hiring

Where do you find you get the best headspace? Real, proper space to think about the hard life things we otherwise push to the side (until we really have to face them). For me, it’s either going for a walk or doing yoga. That’s when my mind feels most ready to process and consider things which have been challenging or hard. However you find it best to get the most helpful headspace (some other ideas may be running or cooking or painting), set aside time to do it and use the time to focus on asking yourself good, hard questions. Once you’ve let your thoughts swirl, write them down somewhere. Documenting them in a space where the whole team can access (i.e. a shared Gdoc) will be the most effective way for both you and your team to use your learnings in the future.

What were the red (or pink flags)?

  • Red flags: these are the little things, or a combination of little things, which make the bell go off in your head. Or something which just feels wrong in your gut. Write them down with an explanation as to why they didn’t feel right to you. It is so important you dig into the WHY – or else you’re just randomly deciding based on your gut. Your gut feeling is probably right! But you need to know why, so you can fix it and learn for the future.

There WILL be red flags and there will be reasons why. Dig deep and get to the root of them so both you and your team can be aware of them for the future. For example, a red flag might be that they asked to book holidays during their first day or week of working at your firm. When you think about it later, you realise you were wondering “are they already looking to get time away from the firm and from their work and responsibilities? Is this just a job for them?” Writing this list down and asking for input from your team will be beneficial when you want to scale your firm and have your team make decisions without you.

  • Pink flags: These are a behaviour or an action which isn’t instantly rejectable, but is worth being aware of and keeping an eye on how many there are. They could go either way – to a red or white flag. For example, a pink flag might be they asked about their holiday allowance in the first week of working at your firm. Fair enough – they are entitled to holidays. Did they focus on it as a matter of priority? Did they chase it up with more requests for more days off as soon as possible? Are their requests vague? The answer to that question could lead you to understand whether it becomes a red or white flag.

Did you pretend some of the flags weren’t there? Did your gut tell you something you chose to ignore/push down because you desperately wanted it to work out?

How many times did the same bell go off in your head? Once? Twice? Three times? You may not have been conscious of it at the time, as you were so focused on making your hire a successful one, but in this reflective time, be honest with yourself about what flags you deliberately didn’t pay any attention to.

And, use this as a time to help you become a better leader. Be honest about why you chose to let them go. Were you tired? Discouraged? Hoping you didn’t have to let another person go? Doubting yourself or your firm?

Did you skip a step in the hiring process?

If you have a process in place, did you follow it step by step? Did you make any allowances because they seemed like the perfect candidate? If you’ve asked them to send a video with their tester project, and they give a reason why they won’t and you accept that and move them on to the next stage anyway, then you are skipping steps in the process and this will cause you a problem further down the line.

This often occurs because you think you know the person – they’re a friend of a friend, or a family member. That’s actually when your hiring process is MOST important. There’s a big difference between knowing someone casually or as an acquaintance, or chatting to them now and then, and having them work for you as an employee.

Is there a step missing in your hiring process?

What step(s) could you include in your hiring process which would help address the red & pink flags you’ve now identified?

  • Was the issue caused by a lack of skills? You could introduce a tester project – a task they need to complete in a set timescale which is based on a task they would be responsible for in the role they’re applying for. At PF, any applicant which gets through to stage 3 of our 7 stage hiring process (you can read more about it here) is asked to complete a project which is in line with the kind of work they’d be doing at PF. We set a deadline of 4-5 days to complete the project, and ask each candidate to send a short video (no longer than 8 minutes) explaining how they approached the task and their final submission. For example, you could create a false set of accounts and the task is for them to reconcile them and spot any inconsistencies.
  • Was it because their values didn’t match your firm’s values? How did you test whether they were a values fit for your firm? You and every single member of your team need to clearly understand what you stand for and live up to your values every single day. They are your statement of “here’s what’s okay and not okay in our business, and in our lives. If you want to work at this firm, you agree with these.” Hiring someone who doesn’t match every single one of your values, will cast doubt over the values you proclaim to work and live by and that will leave prospects (and other potential applicants) questioning whether you’re for real or not. Stage 6 of our hiring process is a ‘Value fit analysis’ form. We ask applicants to rate themselves against the PF values and explain briefly how they show how they live them out in day to day life. We also ask them for 3 references who complete a similar form on behalf of them.
  • You can also ask values related questions in an interview. For example, one of PF’s values is ‘Be gracious’. We’d never ask someone in an interview “are you a gracious person?”. Of course, they are going to say “yes”. At least they will if they want to work at PF. But how do we actually KNOW they are gracious? You can’t take their word for it. They need to SHOW how they are gracious. Instead we’d ask “tell us about a time you felt frustrated or angry about something?”. Their response to that question would show us if they fit into this value: were they patient? Were they kind? How did they handle these emotions? You and your team can craft similar questions which would help you determine whether they are a values fit or not.

Do you actually have a process?

Do you just ask for a CV or resume, and they do an interview and then you hire them? This isn’t enough of a hiring process for you to determine whether the candidate is both a values and skills fit for your team. Before you worry about creating webpages and nice images which show your process, you first need to document it and actually use it. If you aren’t sure where to start, then look at the journey your most recent successful hires took, look at what went right or wrong and why, and build a process based on that experience.

Were they transparent at every stage? In the tester project? At the interview?

People do sometimes lie. It’s not always their intention. Sometimes they say certain things because they have an impression of themselves which isn’t reality. They don’t actually realise it’s lying. They really do believe they’re patient, or gracious, or a hard worker. Your process needs to figure out who they are, and also whether they know who they are.

Have questions ready for your interview stage which will help you to really dig deep into their transparency. For example, if you asked them “tell me about a time you struggled to prioritise at work?” If they said, “That has never happened to me, I always know how to prioritise and complete all my work to the highest ever standard” then they aren’t being transparent. EVERYONE struggles with prioritising work. A better answer would be “I set aside 30 mins to go through my to-do list and identify what NEEDS to be completed that day, that week, that month and I create a plan for myself.” This is a more honest, human and transparent answer.

Consider asking questions which are a little more personal – not just work-related ones. Could you ask about the last time they got really angry, or a family member they love spending time with, or about their pet if they have one? Those things feel more natural and can give you a fuller picture than “are you a disciplined person”, to which they feel they “know the right answer” and will try to give it. Ask curious questions you don’t know the answer to – indeed, questions which don’t even have a right or wrong answer. Just an honest one.

Were you honest and transparent about the role? Did you manage their expectations? Did their experience of working at your firm match the expectations you set for them?

As much as you want candidates to be honest and transparent with you, it’s equally important you are honest and transparent with them. This includes any information you share about the role, the firm, the team. Don’t ever promise policies which don’t exist, or downplay their level of responsibility within the team. Don’t tell them you live and work by values which you don’t. All that will happen is they’ll join, and feel instantly overwhelmed and then leave because their expectations of the role were different from reality. This causes them to feel like a failure and lose their confidence, when this could have been avoided if they’d understood the full requirements of the role.

Did they have personal or other issues aside from work which needed more help than you could possibly give (mental health, physical health, family issues, etc)?

This isn’t intended as an opportunity for you to say “oh that’s me off the hook then.” But from time to time there is a person who would have been perfect for your firm and the role, but they were suffering from a serious mental health illness, or recovering from a major illness, or grieving a family death and they weren’t dealing with it. It’s a tough one, but it’s sometimes the reality of people’s situations.

Remember we’re all coming out of one of the toughest years of all of our lives – collectively, globally, and personally. Everyone has dealt with it differently, but it’s an additional factor which may be the final straw on top of other heavy things this person had to deal with. It doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. It doesn’t even mean they’ll never work with your firm. But it could mean that now is not the best time for them to start.

Are there any of these questions you don’t like facing? Any you don’t want to answer? If you’re having trouble answering any of these questions, or you find yourself making excuses for the answers then that’s even more reason to dig deep into what’s behind there. Hiring even one person who wasn’t a fit is an experience full of learnings. Make sure you learn them.

You can involve your team in this question process also. Either before or after you’ve done it yourself, give them the opportunity to ask the same questions – and answer them honestly. You can then get together to discuss the questions before you move onto sharing your learnings.

If you have any fears about doing this exercise with your team, think about why. Ask yourself, “is there a specific person I’m worried about, how they might respond to this? What makes me wonder that? Am I not sure they’re now a fit for the company right now?” We’ve heard accountants say they hesitate to involve their team because their gut is telling them there will be some team members who will resist or complain. Lean into these thoughts and explore further what your gut is telling you. If you don’t, it’s possible that very team member will leave or problems will arise later, and you’ll have to go through this whole process relating to them, with a lot more costs behind you from ignoring it. Think positively, too: catching that gut feeling now can help prevent a team member leaving or making a mistake or costing the firm in some way, because you actually stopped to ask and question and listen and learn.

Turn your thoughts into learnings and use them to build (or keep building) your hiring process

By this point, you’ll have gathered you and your team’s thoughts and experiences. You now need to turn these into learnings so you hire only the best team members going forward. At a minimum, your hiring process must be:

  1. Formalised: you need to have the process documented and every team member needs training on the process. Include it on your website and talk about it on your social platforms. Whenever a candidate applies for a position at your firm, you need to be able to show them the full process and set their expectations of what it will be like to go through it.
  2. Based on your values: you will have decided on your values (if you haven’t, learn how to do this here) and you will have these documented. Your team will know them and they work and live by them (that’s why they are your team). Your hiring process must be built on your values, and you must test the candidates values at some point in the process. It doesn’t stop there though, you need to keep monitoring your team’s values to make sure they are still right for your firm. Include a values review at every appraisal and ask your team to share their thoughts and give examples on how they are living up to the firm’s values.
  3. Test everything they say: Include a tester project, request minimum three references and ask good, deep, hard questions at the interview stages.

You can read more detail on each of these in this blog post.

If you’ve made several successful hires, and then one person doesn’t work out, it doesn’t mean you need to change everything about your hiring process. You are looking for patterns. It may be that there was just one exceptional situation and you’ve identified why and how it happened and you’re confident your hiring process is still the best it can be for you. That’s perfectly okay but I would encourage you to still question everything, just in case there is something you or your team missed in the process.

We had a situation like this recently at PF, where we questioned something about our tester project. We had a specific tester project for our graphic designer role, and one candidate hadn’t completed it as well as we thought they might. We’d made presumptions about them being a really great candidate so we were surprised when their tester project came back and our first instinct was to question the project itself. Did we explain it well enough? Did they have all the pieces they needed? Was it the right task for testing their design skills? Chryzia and Katie had a long chat about the project and the candidate (and all the other candidates) and concluded in this case it was the one person who wasn’t a fit for multiple reasons, not the tester. So there weren’t any changes we needed to make to the tester: it had done its job perfectly. They were absolutely right to question it: and they were right to say no, it’s good, let’s continue as is. It’s healthy to trust your process, and also to question any tiny flag or thought or wondering to make sure it’s still working as effectively as it can be for your firm. Remember, your firm changes. The process that worked brilliantly a year ago needs to be adapted, because you’re not the same firm anymore.

Use your learnings to help you keep an attitude of professional scepticism when hiring. You might have a candidate who flies through the stages, who seem perfect and too good to be true. You’ll be tempted to hurry up the process and cut corners because you’re getting excited to hire them. This is your opportunity to slow down and to dig deep: ask them challenging questions, the ones which will really push them. Hiring someone because you like them, or because they were funny or sent a good video or have experience with another firm you admire… that’s avoiding focusing on the facts. Of course you’ll want to hire “nice” people, but hiring isn’t about being nice. It’s about being firm, and gracious and having them fit with your values no matter what. You mustn’t get emotionally attached to any candidate.

We’ve had many people in our hiring process who have seemed amazing – they had a great video, good banter, really felt like they would fit in with our culture and our team. For a variety of different reasons, we may decide it’s a no (either their skills weren’t at the level we needed or compared to other applicants it was a no). When we communicate the no, their response tells us more about who they are. Sometimes they’re so gracious and lovely we feel rather bad and wish we could say yes (but we stick to our process and the reasons for the no). But sometimes their response to the no tells us a whole LOT more than anything else did (anger, blame, defensiveness, telling us how terrible our company is and how we need to change it). In these instances, we’re grateful for our process showing us what’s behind the front.

Be careful about going with your “gut”. Sometimes it’s right, and it feels right and maybe it even is. But as one of our Client Marketing Managers (CMMs) said recently “When you have a gut feel, stop and investigate it.” What’s not right? What feels off? Where is this coming from? What other similar experiences have I had to this? How can I explain this BESIDES “my gut told me?” What specific reasons? What facts? How can you explain the decision you’ve come to? To yourself? To your team? If you don’t have the facts, how can you get them?

This isn’t because your gut isn’t right, but it’s so you can use these learnings for the future. Otherwise your gut might lead you astray…because that person happened to have a similar name to someone else who didn’t work out… or they reminded you of them… or you didn’t stop to really listen to what they were saying. You can read more about this in this blog.

One of our clients Sharon Pocock, owner of Kinder Pocock, joined our hiring breakthrough at the start of the year (free when you’re in the PF Lab!) as she had recognised she needed a better hiring process for her firm. Sharon worked with both her own team and the PF team to craft this process which would help her test both the skills and values of every candidate.

She then added the graphic to her Careers page so it’s visible and clear to any candidates considering applying for a role at Kinder Pocock. Since creating her process, Sharon has successfully hired a new team member who followed the process step by step and is a great fit in both skills and values.

Keep adjusting your hiring process as your firm changes

Our 7-stage hiring process has been crafted over time to help us determine if someone fits the PF values, if they have the skills to do the work, and if the whole team is on board with hiring them.

When PF first started hiring, we had a much shorter process. We received applications, we had an interview, we hired or didn’t. Over the years, it’s through our many hiring and team member experiences we’ve crafted the process PF uses now. That’s not to say our process is perfect. You don’t sit back and think “that’s me done then, I’ll only ever get the best people ever now.” Processes don’t work like that. You craft your process to look for patterns and just as patterns change, your process will need to be tweaked at points too.

When I had my team interview back in August 2020, the whole PF team showed up to interview me. We’re now a team of 11 people and we’ve since decided that was too many people for an interview with only one candidate. It was overwhelming, and was a massive investment of time from the team (especially since everyone doesn’t make it through the whole process). We now choose 4-5 PF team members in each group interview, so it’s still a group, but we’re able to do more of them and still get a sense of what the person is like. (We also record them, so the rest of the team can still listen if needed.). The interview also used to be more like a chat: fairly casual, relaxed conversations with applicants. The purpose was to get to know them and assess how they fitted in with the PF values. We were finding we were coming away from the interviews feeling like we got to know the person a bit, but spent a good chunk of the time talking about PF and our experiences and the balance between them and us talking wasn’t right. So we tweaked the format and set the expectation that it’s a proper interview.

Each group interview now has a leader who preps beforehand and assigns questions (from a specific list) to every team member attending, tailored to what we want to get out of the interview. For example, if we’re unsure of their experience even after the tester, that’s where we will focus our questions. If we’re unsure of a particular value, we’d ask guiding questions which will show us how they fit that particular value. We haven’t changed a whole step in our process, we’ve just made small adjustments based on a pattern we paid attention to. You can do the same with your hiring process. It doesn’t have to be perfect from the start, you will make changes over time as you grow your team and notice your own patterns.

Here’s an encouraging story which an accountant shared with us recently. He mentioned in a Facebook group that this video from Karen was “transformational for him”: “We’ve made 3 hires so far since watching and implementing this and the quality has definitely stepped up. I made slight tweaks on what we already do. For the last 5 recruits we did a video and then I saw your video. So for the last 3 we added in a team interview and a personality questionnaire via dynamics. We’ve just added another extra layer where candidates have to fill out a more detailed application.”

Alongside changes to your actual process, you can make tweaks to your job adverts and how you communicate with candidates.

Job adverts: where are you promoting your jobs? How many suitable candidates are you getting? Have you seen a pattern of where candidates who are or aren’t a fit are coming from? You can adjust what platforms you use to promote your jobs accordingly. For example, if you’ve repeatedly hired candidates who came through LinkedIn , then focus your efforts on promoting your jobs there. Alternatively, if the quality of the applicants have been poor or unsuitable, then test out a different platform which will bring your better applicants.

Communication with candidates: how you communicate with candidates sets the tone for their whole experience of your hiring process, and ultimately, if they were to be successful, their experience of working at your firm. This starts from the marketing collateral you create to promote your job (job adverts, hiring pages, blog posts, social media posts). You need to set their expectations of what it’d be like to work for your firm and your values need to show through in all communications you have with them. Back to my example earlier of the candidates who we’ve said “no” to and then had an unpleasant response back from. We could be rude back but as two of our values are graciousness and positivity, we respond with both values at the heart of any communication.

Again, it comes back to patterns. Are there any patterns in the communication you have with candidates, and those who are then unsuitable? How did you communicate with them? Are your values clear in the communication? Were there any signs here which you missed?

The main purpose of your hiring process is to help you find out everything you need to know so you can decide if they are the right fit for your firm, and you are the right fit for them. It won’t always work perfectly and there will be times when you have bad experiences which are challenging and difficult to work through. Don’t take them personally, and don’t spend lots of energy blaming yourself for whatever has happened. Use your learnings to improve your process again and again so you only hire the very best team members for your accounting firm. Join the PF Lab and come to our next hiring training sessions for free. You’ll learn the importance of both values and skills in the hiring process and we’ll guide you on how to craft a process for your own firm.