Authored by Deanna Arteaga
By now, hiring managers at even the most traditional accounting firms know that if they hope to find the perfect candidate, they need to look for more than solid technical skills and a pedigreed education. They need to find a recruit who possesses exceptional soft skills as well.
But if you’re truly hoping to hire a candidate who will move your firm forward – someone who fits your culture, grows your business, and is primed to take on future leadership roles – there is one soft skill in particular that you need to move to the top of your must-have list: emotional intelligence (EI).
According to OfficeTeam, a division of staffing firm Robert Half, a growing number of companies are factoring EI into their hiring decisions, and they’re doing it for the very same reason they focus on developing EI in their current workers.
Employees with a high emotional quotient (EQ) can more efficiently deal with workplace changes, challenging situations, and difficult colleagues – and they make great leaders, said Brandi Britton, district president of OfficeTeam.
“Considering emotional intelligence in the recruitment process will pay off in the long run for accounting firms,” Britton said. “Someone’s emotional intelligence ties into their fit with the corporate culture, which is of utmost significance, and EI is also essential when considering future leadership roles.”
So essential that a recent survey from OfficeTeam found that nearly all human resources (HR) managers (95 percent) and workers (99 percent) said it’s important for employees to have a high EQ. Forty-three percent of HR managers identified increased motivation and morale as the greatest benefit of having emotionally intelligent staff, but three in 10 HR managers believe most employers put too little emphasis on EI during the hiring process.
In its research guide, Emotional Intelligence at Work: What It Is and Why You Should Care, OfficeTeam suggests hiring managers at all professional firms should make “EI a consideration when evaluating job candidates.”
“We believe if you want to find the best fit for your firm, it is advisable to ask behavioral interview questions to gauge how someone manages situations, and ask references how well an applicant handles criticism, resolves conflicts, listens to others, and motivates team members,” Britton said.
Many accounting professionals may question, however, whether hiring for EQ is a luxury firms can afford. Given today’s talent shortage, they may be thinking: Can we really afford to judge, and potentially turn away, otherwise talented candidates based on their EQ alone?
Britton acknowledged that hiring for EQ takes additional effort and a shift in perspective at first, but it is a small initial investment that promises a big long-term return. Initially, she said, hires with high EQ are more able to adapt to a firm’s culture, which means firms avoid the costly and time-consuming mistake of making a bad hire.
They are also better communicators, which means they will build stronger client relationships throughout their careers, and once they enter the leadership pipeline, they are also likely more capable of securing new business for the firm.
Technical abilities may be easier to assess and train, but soft skills are more difficult to develop, so “don’t overlook soft skills in the interview process,” she cautioned.
Strategies to Gauge Emotional Intelligence
Once a firm has committed to considering EQ as part of its hiring process, there are specific strategies hiring managers can use to gauge candidates’ EI.
First, Britton said, it’s important to understand the basic concept of EI, which, according to OfficeTeam’s research guide, is defined as “a person’s capacity to be aware of, control, and effectively express emotions.” Perhaps more importantly, EI “involves understanding how others feel and using that knowledge to manage how you interact with them.”
EI pioneer Daniel Goleman, PhD, co-director of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations, identifies the five key components of EI in the workplace as:
- Social skills
According to OfficeTeam, many of the specific EQ indicators – EQ “tells,” if you will – that hiring managers can look for in a simple interview or resume will present themselves in the language a candidate uses to describe his or her goals and accomplishments.
Some specific clues to look for in a resume: Are there indicators the candidate was self-motivated enough to take outside developmental courses? Are there examples of how he or she overcame objections? Does the candidate use phrases that highlight his or her communication, collaboration, and problem-solving skills?
During the personal interview, there are specific questions hiring managers can ask themselves, as well as questions designed to assess the applicants’ EI. According to the research guide, some examples of questions HR managers should ask themselves while listening to an applicant may include:
- If an applicant talks about a failure, does the comment suggest an awareness of some personal responsibility for the episode, or does he or she simply blame others?
- When it comes to handling criticism, is the person able to acknowledge any shortcomings and keep things in perspective rather than becoming defensive and making excuses?
- What about teamwork? Can candidates describe how they have confronted simmering issues and helped to solve them with a team, or are the answers slanted more individually? Similarly, do they credit team members for successes?
- Do candidates seem genuinely interested in the job and the people they’ll be working with? Or do you sense indifference?
“If any of the answers tend toward the latter in these questions, it may be an indicator [the candidate has] a low emotional quotient,” according to the research guide.
Questions hiring managers should ask the applicant may include:
- If you’ve previously reported to multiple supervisors at the same time, how did you get to know each person’s preferences and juggle conflicting priorities?
- Tell me about a workplace conflict you were involved in, either with your peers or someone else in the company. How did you manage that conflict, and were you able to resolve it?
- If business priorities change, describe how you would help your team understand and carry out the shifted goals.
When considering final-round candidates, references can also be an incredibly valuable tool for hiring managers trying to gauge candidates’ EI “in action,” as it were. Questions for references can be very similar to the types of questions asked in the interview, just revised to glean an outsider’s perspective.
For example, the research guide suggests that hiring managers ask references to comment on how the candidate handles conflict and criticism, listens to others, and motivates other team members.
If firm leaders find this EQ learning curve too steep, and if they are still leery of revamping their calcified hiring and interviewing strategies, Britton suggested that there is one additional argument hiring managers can use to make the case for EQ hiring: Employees with high EI can help ease the tensions and transitions surrounding changing demographics at today’s accounting firms.
Nearly every accounting firm today is a generational mosh pit of retiring baby boomers, an influx of millennials, and ambitious Gen Xers elbowing for management positions – all with differing expectations of work and vastly different communication styles.
Team members with high EQ, whatever generation they belong to, are the best at managing change, negotiating these differing work styles, and developing solutions to help team members adapt to new processes, so they are best for the health of the firm in these changing times, Britton said.
“Navigating interactions with different age groups is a challenge in all workplaces, including those in the accounting space. While demographics can affect certain parties’ motivations, goals, and approaches, making assumptions or stereotyping isn’t the way to go,” she added. “When employees have strong emotional intelligence, they take the time to carefully listen to and understand each other before drawing conclusions. Barriers are broken and the group’s overall ability to collaborate improves.”