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Interviews are one of those things that you either walk into with a little moxy or you walk in terrified. Ideally, you've done your research and know almost everything and anything about the firm and the person you're interviewing with, your resume is prepped and you know whether the grey suit will fly or if the blue one is better.

But interviews aren't just for the employer — they're the gateway for the interviewee to find out everything they don't know about the job and the company. While everyone knows you should have some questions ready for the interviewer, not every question is a good question and the questions you ask can be the tipping point for whether or not you land the job.

What’s really special about this place?

Every employer thinks they’re special, so sometimes you have to dig to find out if there’s truth behind their claims.

These days, lots of firms are making news by offering truly unique perks. Grant Thornton announced unlimited vacation for its employees last year. PwC’s loan assistance program rolled out this year after its announcement last fall. Many firms now allow professionals to wear casual dress every day of the week.

Using examples like these is a good way to discover how an employer differentiates itself from competitors. And perhaps more importantly for anyone pursuing the CPA, the 150-hour credit requirement means extra schooling, oftentimes a master’s degree. Perks like tuition reimbursement or loan assistance are an especially rare find.

Advice from someone who knows

According to Jeff Johanns, a lecturer in the accounting department at McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas Austin and former U.S. Assurance risk management leader with PricewaterhouseCoopers, those questions need to be specific and distinctive enough to make you stand out from others competing for the same job.

“Stay away from the mundane questions about things like work-life balance — show specialization. Understand the industry and the employer. What areas do they practice in? What do they think are the important parts of their accounting areas and ask them: Why are you in that area? Where do you see your practice going? You demonstrate awareness of the profession: what are the important things going on in the industry and what should the employer be involved in?” said Johanns.

Johanns recommends asking questions about how the firm is handling current issues in the industry such an implementation of the new revenue recognition standards. Other questions he recommends that job seekers of all experience levels ask include:

  • What challenges are your clients facing with ____ (issue/trend/practice area)?
  • Where are you on social issues? Sustainability?
  • Where does your firm fit into society?

Corporate culture should be on your mind, too

From another perspective, the questions you should ask have everything to do with whether or not the firm is a good fit for you.

Melinda Guillemette, a communications coach who's worked with CPA firms for more than a decade, says it's important to get a feel for how people within the firm work with one another.

“I would ask them to describe their company culture. Ask lots of open-ended questions, such as how does the firm celebrate achievements and how often do employees gather face to face,” she said. “These are much more important questions than questions about the leave policy or benefits. These are the things that will sustain you, no matter where you are at in your career.”

Other culture-centric questions she recommends include:

  • How does the firm acknowledge its employees?
  • What are the company's core values and how does it demonstrate those values?

Regardless of the questions you ask, one thing is key: be specific and ask questions about things that will affect you, the employer and your ability to work well with the employer. Johanns, who interviewed many during his 22-year tenure at PwC, said the most disappointing interviews were “the ones who didn't demonstrate an inquisitive nature and knowledge of the business they were applying for. Their questions were the generic, uninformed questions.”