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Has competency-based recruitment reached its sell-by date?

by Fiona Christie on November 24, 2010

At a recent Graduate Employability conference, Stephen Isherwoood, Head of Graduate Recruitment for Ernst & Young (EY) outlined his company’s approach to recruitment of graduates which is based on “strengths”. EY are one of the Big 4 Accountancy firms recruiting around 1000 graduates and interns per year. As a company they have pinned their colours to the mast, saying that they think competency-based recruitment which has been a pillar of HR departments for years is outdated and too easy for individuals to be coached for. If EY are doing this kind of recruitment – there may well be many more companies that follow suit.

So what’s strength-based recruitment all about?

“A strength is a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is authentic and energising to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development and performance” (Linley, 2007)

The EY strengths are not made publicly available to applicants as EY believe this would potentially affect the authenticity of responses at interview. However, in my view the strengths (which Stephen Isherwood did go through in some detail) tend to be a blend of skills, qualities and attributes and cover the kind of things you might anticipate, e.g. around interpersonal skills, drive, responsibility, ability to work in a team and organise time as well as having integrity and having the capacity to work hard to a high standard.

This move away from competencies means the kind of questions asked at interview don’t fall into the “Give me an example…” style but tend to be harder to predict. One example which EY have used in the past is, “Tell me about your circle of friends”. Your answer to this will say something about your social skills as well as how you approach friendships/relationships.  .

I liked the list of strengths Stephen Isherwood presented; they seem more rounded than just about narrow skills/competencies. It’s harder to advise on how to prepare for such an interview but it does seem that EY, like most other companies will still need evidence from candidates which demonstrates how you have certain skills, qualities and attributes. So even for a strength-based interview it’s still worth picking up any list of the skills graduate recruiters typically want and make sure you have plenty of good examples.

Much of what is wanted in the EY strengths is what recruiters have been asking for, for a long time; it’s just that a new vocabulary has been found. I think this may be as much about recruiters at EY having competency-recruitment fatigue (who can blame them) rather than the fact that the system wasn’t working. It does concern me that some of the strengths may well be hard to measure which means that judgments about candidates may risk being more subjective.

What I also liked about the strengths concept was notion that you can’t be good at everything and that:

  • Our areas of greatest potential growth are in the areas of our greatest strengths
  • We succeed in addressing weaknesses only when we are also making the most of our strengths
  • Using our strengths is the smallest thing we can do to make the biggest difference

This is interesting as too often managers will focus on what their staff can’t do rather than what they can. Lesson for me when I am dealing with the team I manage!

In brief what EY looks for in applicants are the following:

Academic track record; Motivated – not happy with average; A team-player; Self aware;  Confidence without arrogance; A desire to work in the commercial sector

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Patricia Briggs May 6, 2011 at 6:08 am


I was just going through some finance related sites and blogs and came across your site ( too. I really found it interesting and informative. I am working and associated with many finance sites as a content writer and I write articles on various topics of Finances. I really liked the way you have presented your site. I would love to do a “Guest Post” for your site like I did for other sites without charging you a penny :)

Some of the companies I co-author for are Community Development Financial Institutions, Oak View Law Group, Center for Community Development Investments etc. It would be great to be a part of reputed site like yours :)

The article will be 100% original and will be published only on your site. If you want you can suggest me a topic and I ll write an article for you on that topic.

Looking forward for a positive reply :)


Patricia Briggs
Content Editor


Fiona Christie May 9, 2011 at 7:24 pm

Hi Patricia,

We do accept guest posts. Our focus is careers so if you were to write something a focus on careers issues around finance would be good. Maybe something on the job market right now, or the kind of jobs that there are in finance?



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