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One of the greatest challenges in graduate recruitment is finding genuinely great applicants accurately

One of the greatest challenges in graduate recruitment is finding genuinely great applicants accurately, efficiently and effectively. Dr Alex Linley, Founding Director at Capp, looks at the competition to attract the best graduates, as recruiters search for more effective methods of assessment to identify high potential candidates early.

Talent spotting is key, but in the current economic climate, it is getting harder and harder to identify and differentiate between talented applicants. A powerful sifting technique needs to take place in the first stage, so that employers can establish where the real talent is, quickly, easily and with minimal effort. The strengths-based can, of course, be integrated into first round sifting, to improve efficiencies for the organisation and encourage buy-in from Generation Y. For years, HR professionals have been using situational judgement tests, as part of their graduate assessment, but new innovations mean the environment is now changing. Organisations such as Ernst & Young are leading the way, by introducing new Situational Strengths Tests, as part of graduate assessment programmes. These new assessments turn the traditional recruitment methodology on its head, allowing assessors to delve into applicants’ strengths; highlighting what they not only do well at, but also what they really love to do, whilst also establishing if they would perform well and fit in with the culture.

Strengths should be at the heart of any graduate recruitment campaign. They allow an in-depth understanding of applicants; an insight into both the performance culture of the organisation and the strengths of high performers; together with the characteristics needed for specialist roles. From here, HR professionals can integrate these key qualities into their assessment techniques. First stage shifts are notoriously difficult, with companies often receiving thousands of applications over the course of their recruitment campaigns. So how can applicants’ strengths be identified quickly and fairly? By using a set number of pre-agreed scenarios or questions, tailored to the qualities, culture and values of the brand, bespoke Situational Strengths Tests can be developed. The tests are taken online, meaning high volumes of applicants can be processed quickly and easily. This ensures minimal effort from HR teams, saving the business time and money. The tests allow either a select number of applicants to pass, who meet the criteria, or all candidates who achieve a certain score to move onto the next stage of the process. This allows HR teams and interviewers to see only the best candidates possible.

“With the ever-increasing link between student attraction and selection and the need to engage the right people, a company's selection process allows it to differentiate from its competitors”

For organisations choosing to use Situational Strengths Tests as a first round sifting tool, this has many advantages – not just for the HR teams getting to talent quickly, but also for the brand. With the ever-increasing link between student attraction and selection and the need to engage the right people, a company's selection process allows it to differentiate from its competitors. With candidates applying to multiple organisations, they can often become bored, de-motivated and disengaged. This poses the challenge to organisations, how do they firstly, get applicants to apply and secondly, keep them engaged? How can they encourage applicants to learn about themselves, gain self-insight, and feel recognised as an individual? The process of attracting graduates needs to start as early as on Campus, at University. Creating stimulating and engaging presentations, events and campus games can give graduates a timely and precious insight into their top strengths, whilst subtly promoting brands and recruiters. Organisations that provide this opportunity create connections between students and their brand, which ultimately results in more applications on graduation. Crucially, the applications are also better because the candidates have had a chance to think about the type of organisation and role that will play to their strengths.

When candidates do apply, Situational Strengths Tests continues the candidate’s insightful journey by allowing a thought-provoking application, giving further opportunity to find out more about the job they are applying for, as well as about themselves as individuals. The tests work by inviting candidates to consider a range of different scenarios in which they might find themselves in their future role. Candidates with the right strengths to succeed in the role will make the right choices, helping recruiters to identify their talent and potential much earlier in the recruitment process. Through an evaluation of Barclays Investment Bank's graduate intake in 2011, 67 percent of successful candidates had a more positive view of the bank as a result of its strengths-based process and thought it had a positive impact on their applications, showing that the introduction of strengths-based graduate recruitment really is a powerful brand differentiator.

Case study
One organisation that attracts tens of thousands of applicants every year and which continues to be the first choice for graduates is Ernst & Young UK. This year, Ernst & Young, one of the largest professional services firms in the world, will be recruiting even more graduates than before the recession. Stephen Isherwood, Head of Graduate Recruitment UK and Ireland, highlights why a strengths-based approach to graduate recruitment is so important for effectively identifying high potentials in its first stage assessment sift. Four years ago, Ernst & Young made the shift from the traditional competency method of recruitment to a strengths-based approach. Following a comprehensive strategic review, there were alarm bells ringing. Ernst & Young’s candidate drop-out rate between application and acceptance was rising, the competency based-approach was too formulaic, boring and disengaging for the candidates and the selection method was not recruiting enough true talent. The main problem was that too many candidates were getting through the first interview stage and too many of these were being put through to the assessment centre, at a significant cost of time and resource.

In addition, because graduate recruitment is such a competitive market, there was nothing in Ernst & Young’s graduate recruitment process to differentiate the company from the other graduate hiring firms, including investment banks and the other three of the Big Four professional services firms. It was time for change, and by simply changing the approach to selection, Ernst & Young revolutionised its graduate recruitment strategy. Ernst & Young’s overall aim is to hire talented graduates that will prove both capable and a long term investment in future leaders for the business. This was something that a strengths-based approach to graduate recruitment helped the organisation to achieve, by understanding more precisely what success in role looked like, and then having an assessment and selection process that was specifically geared to identify, assess and select the strengths that would deliver this performance.

The recruitment strategy incorporated a number of techniques including: an application form with free text questions, psychometric ability tests, interviews, assessment centres and now this year, an innovative Situational Strengths Test. For Ernst & Young, the benefits of moving to a strengths-based approach were obvious: a more authentic candidate experience, more engaged and interested interviewers, quality hiring and the ability to spot strengths and better identify talent and potential. Feedback from across Ernst & Young’s service lines, is that a much better calibre of person is being recruited, and that the recruitment process is identifying and selecting the right talent for the business.

Tangible results, to date, include: 15 percent increase in the number of graduates deselected at first interview compared to EY’s competency approach; 12 percent more graduates accepted at assessment centre compared to EY’s competency approach; A measureable improvement in the candidate experience; Greater engagement from the business in the graduate recruitment process.

This year, to strengthen the graduate recruitment process even further, Ernst & Young has introduced Capp’s Situational Strengths Test as its rigorous first round sifting tool, screening out weaker candidates quicker, resulting in a more efficient and effective hiring process. Applicants can also be assessed on all of the core strengths that Ernst & Young are looking for, meaning a more reliable and rigorous assessment, even at this early stage.

Having been designed especially for Ernst & Young, the questions within the Situational Strengths Test apply exactly to scenarios that candidates would experience as a graduate in Ernst & Young. In this way, prospective graduates get a realistic job preview through having a real sense of what life at Ernst & Young will be like, while the company is able to identify and assess who are the graduates who have the strengths to deliver the performance they need in the role. Feedback from Ernst & Young’s interviewers from the business could not be more positive: “A great improvement.. appears to be more challenging and enjoyable to the candidates”, “I have been interviewing for over ten years and find it a refreshing change”, “I think we see more honest responses”, “Good to know we’re now not missing those candidates who are exceptional in some areas, but not all.”

From a cost per hire perspective, although strengths-based graduate recruitment is comparable to their previous competency approach, Ernst & Young is seeing significant efficiency gains, in that fewer people progress through to the assessment centre, reducing the below the line costs of people’s time to be involved in the recruitment process. The challenge isn’t over yet. To remain competitive in the race to recruit the best talent, Ernst & Young is creating a recruitment process which is interesting and engaging, while keeping ahead of the changing marketplace and its changing environment. Ernst & Young is continually adapting, assessing and evaluating its graduate recruitment process, looking at what is true talent, what predicts future performance and what strengths will fit with its ethos and values.

Dr Alex Linley, Founding Director

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6 December 2023


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