Recruit Like the Big 4: A Playbook for Building a Better Firm

“Why do the Big 4 attract the best job candidates?”

“How do we get high-performing CPAs interested in working at a firm our size?”

After working with 600 firms in just over two years, these are, hands down, the questions Accountingfly gets most often. We understand their frustration. Many firms have been recruiting talent the same way since their founding. They visit campuses, post ads and use headhunters.

In building Accountingfly, we’ve found firms that compete with the Big 4 in attracting incredible high performers. What sets these strong organizations apart is simple – they understand the world is changing and they have adapted.

Four major trends are the cause of all this frustration:

  • The race for talent is tightening. For most firms, it’s very difficult to attract mid-career talent. Those who have had help from the Interview Skills Clinic and smash their interviews are snapped up quickly. After all, it’s the best job market in decades for mid-career accountants and the best job market ever for recent accounting graduates. The bad news: It’s only going to get harder. With widespread partner retirements looming, with the increase of niche opportunities and regulation, the demand for a shrinking supply of talent will only get stronger.
  • Young accountants are losing interest in public accounting. The Big 4 hire one-third of all graduates who go into public accounting. After only three years, many of those recent graduates – upwards of 70% – leave disillusioned with public accounting and never return.
  • Low awareness of public accounting opportunities. Students spend years inside accounting programs yet hear very little about career options in regional firms, so these firms are barely on the career radar when they transition to second and third jobs.
  • Your high performers are right now looking for new opportunities. In a recent poll, 100% of MPs said they had lost high performers in the last 12 months. With an economy on the rebound, your best people will leave if they get a better offer or find a better fit somewhere else.

The good news: There’s NEVER been a better time to recruit using technology. Process automation and the Internet level the playing field for smaller employers.

Here are three strategies you can implement, right now, to let technology work for you.

Strategy No. 1 – Focus on talent, not geography

Look beyond your backyard. Some of the best job seekers are those who intend to move to your location. Make sure you capture them, and any other qualified job seeker, with a strong online presence. You can gain a strong online presence through things like SEO, social media or promotion or email marketing. To learn more about how to gain a strong online presence, read this Guide to Email Marketing. Candidates tend to look for firms by asking their friends, through online searches with Google or Bing, by calling their former college professors and by checking job boards like Accountingfly. Here’s how to take advantage and let the Internet work for you.

Get Your Site Right

You don’t need a big budget to change your online recruiting efforts. You do, however, have to answer these questions:

  • Benefits: Why work in a firm of our size?
  • Mission and values: What does our firm stand for?
  • Trustworthiness: Why should job seekers trust their career to our firm?
  • Opportunity for advancement: What will their future look like if they’re effective?
  • Who you are: What is our culture like?

Online Recruiting

In today’s tight job market, you need to be visible online because that is where the candidates are, especially those coveted new graduates and seniors with three to five years of experience.

It’s a big change from when today’s firm leaders first interviewed candidates, but by understanding the shift and responding to it, the Big 4 are accessing the talented candidates you want by being proactive and addressing what job seekers are looking for. From timely news about tax changes to whitepapers highlighting research on relevant topics, they keep their names in the news.

The Big 4 post ads to various job boards as well as on their firm recruiting sites, and so should you. Visiting the Big 4 recruiting sites will give you insights you can use in your firm’s ads. After all, you don’t want the most resumes, you want the best applicants.

  • Look at the graphics. Are they stock photos or are they of smiling employees? Do they use video to enhance their firm image?
  • Read the introductory language in the career section. Phrases like “broaden your experience,” “career path,” “team-oriented” and “achieve your potential” are used because they are important to newbies and experienced professionals alike.
  • Consider how they describe who they are looking for. The Big 4 don’t use generic job descriptions. The descriptions are direct and focused, so they automatically filter applicants who don’t have the requisite skills and experience.

Sell Your Firm’s Size With Every Single Opportunity

The talent pool at all levels needs to be educated about the many benefits of working at a mid-market firm: exposure to many different kinds of work, less bureaucracy and politics, opportunity for quicker advancement, more opportunity to learn from mentors at the firm, people-friendly culture, and ability to work close to home in the communities they love.

Many Big 4 alumni leave public accounting for industry simply because they believe they will have more of a 9-to-5 schedule and a quicker path up the ladder. You may be able to attract some of these talented professionals by letting them know about your firm and what it offers.

Recognize that job seekers are also interviewing you. A lot has been written about what job candidates are looking for when they interview their employers. They are looking for hints about your firm’s culture, how happy people look and whether you have healthy food in your vending machines.

Strategy No. 2 – Become the headhunter. Automate recruitment and build talent pools.

It’s a fact that 85% of your recruiting process is taken up by administrative tasks. Automation allows you to eliminate data entry/low level tasks, respond faster to candidates, easily access notes and documents, and build talent pools that include campus recruits you didn’t hire, younger undergrads, alumni and existing employees.

Each of these groups can help connect your open position to the right candidate. Once you’ve assembled a talent pool, you can easily distribute open positions to that network. The process is even easier when you use automated tools like CollegeFrog or Accountingfly or other similar products. Recruiting talent is not a one-time thing, it’s a continuous process.

Campus Recruiting

Campus recruiting isn’t limited to career day. Instead, Big 4 recruiters visit with professors throughout the year to cultivate relationships and find out about the students. The professors, in turn, mention them to students. It is, in a sense, a different way of networking.

Nevertheless, the time and financial investment in on-campus recruiting is high, making it impractical for most mid-market firms to visit many schools. Most of these firms limit their in-person recruiting to no more than three campuses.

Most recruiting should be done online. Make your firm known through state CPA societies, Wiley’s CPA exam prep, Indeed and LinkedIn. Attend online events like Advance’14 and Meet the Firms Week. Finally, register your firm with specialized sites like Accountingfly. Not only does this give your firm visibility, it also allows you to search candidate databases and reach out to candidates. If you have the budget for it, consider a content marketing program that will alert your target audiences to your firm’s knowledge and expertise.

Strategy No. 3 – Keep Recruiting Existing Employees

The Big 4’s savvy online marketing reaches high performers at your firm too. They are constantly reminded why the Big 4 are the Big 4. Employees know that they are valuable to your firm as well as to other firms. Even those who are not actively looking for a new position may be tempted to leave for the right opportunity.

In today’s job market, everyone is being recruited. Most of our professionals have an online persona, and that makes it easy for them to be contacted by recruiters. It’s impossible to stop that, of course, but you can mitigate the risk by creating a positive firm culture and being alert to your best performers’ frame of mind.

We know small, progressive firms that routinely out-hire the Big 4 on campus and with experienced professionals. They focus on talent instead of geography. They build talent pools. They embrace online and social recruiting. And they reap the rewards of world-class teams of profitable high performers. With a little focus, your firm can do the same.