Indirect Tax: Who’s in charge – employer or applicant? by Guy Barrand

We all know (and bemoan regularly) that the numbers of talented Indirect Tax professionals is not enough to go round. The Indirect Tax recruitment headache is becoming even more of a migraine for many firms and companies – it prevents professional services firms from delivering the best in class service they want to; it restricts growth plans; it demands quick fix solutions that may or may not work out, taking existing staff away from what they want to be doing or indeed are best at doing. It plays havoc with work/life balance due to the need for staff to work longer hours than ideal and we haven’t even touched on the lost benefit of a new hire reinvigorating a team dynamic. As for the in-house world, who have also comparatively recently also started to feel the Indirect Tax recruitment pinch – you can well imagine the lost opportunity and potential compliance problems that an unfilled Indirect Tax role causes.

Much as I lie awake at night dreaming of a utopia where all the Indirect Tax roles are filled (it’s like collecting football Panini stickers – do you ever get to the stage where you’ve fully completed your book?); the likelihood of that ever happening is minimal. A shame really – just think of all those happy and replete clients and candidates; let alone the benefits for my bank balance and retirement plans. I guess there’s no avoiding another 20 years in the Indirect Tax CV saltmines for me….

I digress. It’s probably worth reflecting on what’s got the Indirect Tax world in this recruitment pickle to start with – here’s my view for what it’s worth: (Health Warning, controversial statements to follow):

  • An over-reliance on the Big 4 intake programmes as effectively the solitary way to enter the Indirect Tax advisory discipline, by and large.
  • The ACA qualification offered by many of the firms – it gives these preciously nurtured Indirect Tax specialists an escape route from the world of Indirect Tax, which wasn’t there when Indirect Tax specialists just did the CTA route. Whilst the accounting qualification undoubtedly develops broader-based skills and of course that’s a plus for the individuals concerned, it’s harmful for Indirect Tax retention.
  • The increasingly low exam pass rate resulting in departures when individuals struggle to get through the exams (whether because the individuals get kicked off their training contracts when they fail, or whether they simply become disillusioned with the career when the hurdle denoting success is set so high)
  • The volume of graduates recruited every year into the discipline doesn’t allow for the fall out described above.
  • Initial attraction into the field – what do you want to be when you grow up? A rocket scientist or a VAT Consultant. Errr….
  • Identifying individuals at entry point that are actively choosing to pursue a career in Indirect Tax career (and are appropriate for it), not just because they haven’t got in anywhere else or ‘audit’ was full up. Dare I mention, but when BLT helped set up the graduate training programmes for the firms in the late 90’s, we found people fully engaged in wanting to pursue this career – and 71% of those BLT grad hires from those 3 years are still operating in the field 20 years later. I bet the grad retention stats since then are nowhere near as high! Are the firms going about finding their talent at the junior levels the right way, and are the right people making the right decisions on who to hire?
  • The ‘patchy’ quality of technical and professional skills developed in HMRC and the varying quality and volume of the government department’s own recruitment into the discipline.
  • Poor education of existing Indirect Tax talent about the benefits of a long term career in the field – where it can take you and how you can get there.
  • An increasing apparent demarcation between individuals pursuing Indirect Tax advisory careers and individuals pursuing Indirect Tax compliance careers. It has become two different populations with different skills developed in each, with little cross-over deemed possible between the disciplines.
  • Over-reliance on LinkedIn, generic advertising and internal direct sourcing models as ‘allegedly’ a way to save money on recruitment costs. I’m not suggesting not using these routes to market, but one runs the danger of roles and firms’ identities losing their lustre when exclusively and solely handled by non-specialists in this niche market. You wouldn’t go to a butcher to buy a chocolate bar, now would you?!
  • Accountancy firm mergers resulting in fewer venues where Indirect Tax talent is nurtured and developed, resulting in fewer places to recruit from.
  • Cultural/social ‘mores’ resulting in departures. Accusations of sense of entitlement, an inflated sense of self-worth, and a lack of loyalty are often levelled at Gen Y/Millennials – I dislike this negative and generic concept myself. There’s nothing wrong with having confidence, and an enthusiasm and willingness to make the most of one’s potential and skills. Loyalty can after all indeed be misplaced. When taken to extremes however….

Regardless of the cumulative effect of all these points, and whether any of them can be tackled individually to help the overall whole, we are where we are as of today. What’s more concerning is how firms and companies have been reacting to the recruitment challenges, and judging by the increased numbers of appointments not lasting that I’ve noticed over the last few years (heaven forbid, not BLT placements I hasten to add!), a number of hirers are getting it very wrong indeed. I’d suggest that it’s time for employers to wrestle back control of the recruitment process, even in the age where Candidate is King. Some pointers on how to walk the tightrope of recruiting right when you come across a candidate you like the look of as follows:

  • IDENTIFY what’s so special about your role and company. Find unique points of difference that makes you stand out from the competition. BUT don’t get bogged down with generic platitudes about your company values. In an era where most companies and firms talk about diversity initiatives and flexible working, it goes without saying that you’ll need to give specific examples that you live and breathe these values. You’re better off focusing on the specific advantages of joining your specific team. And that’s not just about the role content or prospects, it’s about the team dynamic and even more specifically, you as a person i.e. your mentoring capabilities and leadership. Without coming across as self-absorbed of course!
  • SELL. Your candidate is likely to have a few different options, and won’t join you unless you’ve told them why they should join you. BUT don’t oversell; you need to talk to them honestly about what you might deem the less attractive parts of the role too.
  • BE HUMBLE. Be nice. The candidate will need to buy into you as person, and there’s nothing more off-putting to a potential employee than a boss who appears arrogant or unlikeable. BUT be yourself! Don’t end up being vanilla in your efforts to tone down your more ‘interesting’ character traits.
  • SIMPLIFY the interview process. Psychometric tests/personality profiling, case studies, formal technical interviews should go out the window. As should any idea of making candidates go through three interviews. Candidates don’t like formal tests, and you run the risk of appearing stuffy and rigid in your style. In worst case scenarios, candidates won’t apply if they think the recruitment process is too lengthy or complex. BUT still assess. Delve deep into an individual’s motivations and personality to find out what makes them tick over the course of two relatively informal interviews. Cover the technical side of things with a few verbal scenario type questions – you’ll quickly be able to work out if they know what they’re talking about.
  • ACT QUICKLY. In both arranging interviews and at offer stage. Cut through the red tape and get things done, otherwise another company will beat you to it. BUT don’t get carried away by the desire for speed. Take the time to listen to any concerns you have in your mind, and find a way to allay them (or not…in which case don’t hire!)
  • FEEDBACK in detail promptly (positively or negatively, but always constructively). Silence is perceived as ‘not interested’ and there’ll be other employers that could pip you to the post. BUT don’t forget to do the same for the candidates that you’ve decided not to take forward. These will talk to their friends/colleagues, leaving a bad impression of your firm if you haven’t had the decency to explain why they aren’t the chosen one.
  • LISTEN to any concerns that they’ve identified. Tackle and reassure. BUT don’t whitewash over insurmountable differences; they’ll only come back to bite you after the person has joined.
  • INVOLVE your team. Get their buy in as to the reasons why you need to hire. If you don’t, you run the risk of your current valued staff looking to depart, due to feeling threatened or just irritated by your secrecy. BUT don’t forget discretion! Only release the name of the potential employee to those that absolutely need to know/are part of the decision making process. In worst case scenarios, a loose tongue could result in word getting back to your preferred candidate’s current employer and then you’re in trouble in more ways than one.
  • TAKE A RISK. Perfection is unlikely to exist. BUT listen to your concerns; anything less than 85% sure should mean ‘don’t hire’.
  • OFFER WELL. Make your best and most attractive financial offer to your chosen candidate. There’s no point offering someone less than they’re earning currently, and seeing if you can get away with less than your very best financial offer can appear rather penny-pinching. No-one enjoys negotiating over salary. BUT don’t go overboard. Offering miles more than someone is worth, often in desperation, will cause you problems with your other staff when the person comes to join you.

If you get the above right, then you’ll have taken back control of your hiring, and will have a better chance of getting the right candidate through the door for the long run. Even in the age of the counter offer. However…..it isn’t over yet. When they start, you’ll need to go to considerable efforts to:

  • RETAIN them. Create the environment where they will ENJOY coming to work; where they feel they can ACHIEVE and where they are VALUED.

Struggling with Indirect Tax hiring? Think you’re getting it wrong? Or completely disagree with everything I’ve said? Do get in touch with me at gnb@blt.co.uk or 0207 405 3404

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