Banks are in danger of hiring homogenous characters

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With 45% fewer jobs on offer in financial services than this time last year, competition for graduate jobs in banking and finance is fierce. But just as graduates are feeling the heat of competition, employers are also battling it out to secure the best people.

Having a slick and efficient process to sift through the mountain of applications is critical to finding the best graduates and, for bigger companies, technology plays a key part in that. But when too much is delegated to the machine, companies risk interesting talent falling through the net and only a narrow range of people making it to the human contact stage.

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Employers need to strike a balance between being efficient and being effective. At one extreme is full automation – candidates applying to work at one large American credit card company can go through an entire application process, through to turning up to start their assignment, without ever interacting with a human being.

Very few firms would contemplate such a system for hiring their future leaders, but almost all would employ technology as a minimum to convert a very long list into a shortlist. Of all CVs, those of new graduates can seem the most homogenous and therefore tailor-made for automated screening, but how much do academic grades tell us about soft skills, personality and potential?

CV screening software can spot captain of the first XI, school prefect, charity work, etc. but the sheer subjectivity of some of the non-academic criteria highlight the conundrum of having no human intermediary.

A solution favoured by many firms is to combine academic score-based criteria with online tests such as verbal and numeric reasoning, personality profiling and logic assessment. Aside from the controversy over these kinds of tests and the sense that well prepared candidates can beat the system, the question of whether they actually help find the best minds still remains.

The management team of a major City firm recently lamented the lack of character emerging from the graduate intake. Seeking competitive team players with a broad set of interests outside pure academia, they sponsored a career event with a sporting twist that pitted university teams against one another, and against a team from the firm itself.

At the end of the day, a stand out candidate who had amply demonstrated all the attributes the firm wanted was approached and asked if he would consider a job offer. Yes, he said, so much so that he had already applied to the company, but he had been rejected pre-interview, during the automated stages. He got hired, so all’s well that ends well, but it was an expensive and time consuming workaround.

Companies must regularly assess their screening process to ensure that automated recruitment remains relevant and that it can pinpoint both ‘ready-made’ and potential talent. For employers in financial services to formulate their selection process to ensure that, as far as possible, it’s people and not computers that have the bigger influence on the hiring of top talent.

Introducing human contact as early as possible is also a good strategy to beat the competition. Knowing what other processes a candidate is pursuing, what they are up to, and what they think, can help inform the right strategy for getting them on board.

For big employers automation in recruitment seems necessary and is favourable to a manual process for many reasons, not least that of cost. Yet alongside that strategic priority lies the necessity to hire a diverse range of people, from diverse backgrounds, with diverse talents and automation generally has the opposite effect.

David Leithead is managing director of Michael Page Banking & Financial Services.

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