Recruitment through assessment days

Strategic HR Review

ISSN: 1475-4398

Article publication date: 18 October 2011



Taylor, K. (2011), "Recruitment through assessment days", Strategic HR Review, Vol. 10 No. 6.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Recruitment through assessment days

Article Type: HR at work From: Strategic HR Review, Volume 10, Issue 6

Short case studies and research papers that demonstrate best practice in HR

Launched in 2000, Octopus Investments is one of the UK’s fastest growing companies. It is an investment firm that is an asset manager and provider of tax products. The company is based in central London and currently has over 180 staff, including over 50 investment professionals, as well as dedicated support teams for advisers and investors.

Octopus is a successful and well-managed company, one of the few businesses that have continued to progress and expand despite the turbulent economic environment.

From 2008-2010, the staff headcount almost doubled. Experiencing rapid growth in funds under management, Octopus continues to recruit new staff, with a focus on improving its products and services for investors.

Octopus has a strong commitment to customer-led innovation and customer service, which sets it apart from other companies in the financial services sector.

This means that Octopus is highly selective about who it employs. This was the driver behind the company’s decision to adopt a new recruitment model in October 2010 that incorporated group assessment in place of the traditional method of a series of one-to-one interviews.

The Octopus recruitment policy and process

Prior to implementing assessment days, Octopus sourced candidates via recruitment consultants and online advertisements. Candidates would then undergo a relatively lengthy interview process. Any individual seriously considered for a role would typically progress through three to five interviews at the minimum, meeting HR staff, peers in role, heads of department and senior management. Candidates would also be set tests as applicable to the position.

The recruitment process stemmed from the Octopus founders’ belief that hiring and retaining exceptional people is integral to the company’s identity and success. The founders have always been determined to only recruit outstanding individuals, and set candidates very high standards. For example, when recruiting sales people, Octopus is looking for individuals who care about, and are capable of, much more than just making a sale. The team is seeking people who are very bright, can understand the products and, most importantly, are highly customer-focused, looking to provide an exemplary level of service.

Recruitment issues to resolve

With the company undergoing rapid expansion and requiring new staff across the business, and a strong desire on the part of the founders not to compromise on candidates, the Octopus team was contending with three major issues around recruitment:

  1. 1.

    High volume of potential candidates. Working with consultants and placing advertisements was resulting in the company receiving scores of CVs rather than connecting with good candidates.

  2. 2.

    Unsuitable candidates. Recruitment consultants were not aligned with company aims and were simply focusing on quantity rather than quality – sending through a large number of CVs. Similarly, advertising was bringing a large number of unsuitable candidates to the company.

  3. 3.

    Time pressures on staff. As well as reviewing the deluge of CVs, HR staff and department heads were sometimes interviewing 50-100 people for each role, spending approximately 30-60 minutes on each interview.

Development of assessment days

The assessment days were borne out of trying to respond to and resolve these issues, with some aspects being a logical progression. For example, as a way to reduce time spent on recruitment in general, HR recruiters began to conduct telephone interviews. There was some internal resistance to this and in response HR staff devised a very specific set of questions and role-plays to keep conversations highly focused. This approach became the foundation of the first few assessment days.

HR staff decided that the recruitment process could be further refined by gathering candidates together after selecting them via telephone interviews. They also decided that role-plays could be carried through into a group event.

The first few assessment days were implemented for the specific purpose of recruiting sales staff. An event of this type was perceived as especially applicable to sales, for which candidates must have strong interpersonal skills and the ability to think on their feet. An assessment day would provide an ideal forum for candidates to demonstrate these skills. For each day, HR staff typically conducted approximately 60 phone interviews, narrowing the candidates down to 20 attendees.

Structure of assessment days

Each day is highly structured, with a series of exercises. Candidates take part in speed interviews (like speed-dating), telephone call role-plays and pitching and debate sessions to give them a feeling of realistic every day working scenarios. After each stage, candidates move through to the next task or are given feedback on what they did well and what they could improve.

During the day, all participants take a brief mid-morning break and a lunch break. Refreshments are provided by Octopus and there is the opportunity to focus on the next stage of the day. During these breaks, HR staff and existing sales staff, having taken notes on candidate performance, hold discussions in private on possible hires.

These break times also give candidates an opportunity to meet other company employees and a chance for other staff to assess candidates further. Feedback from reception staff is particularly useful here, as many candidates interact with them unaware of being continuously assessed. At the end of each day, Octopus makes job offers to outstanding candidates and gives final feedback to others.

Positive outcomes

Since introducing this assessment day model, the following has been achieved:

  • Hires. There has been a 10 percent success rate for each day with approximately two hires coming out of each event.

  • Greater scope for assessment. HR staff noted that a day-long event gave candidates more of a chance to shine. Furthermore, with more opportunities to impress throughout the event, staff could better assess candidates.

  • Debate exercise. HR staff also noted that the debate exercise (in this case, candidates discussing causes of the credit crunch) was one of the most useful in assessing people. Initially seen as something of a “filler,” it gave staff the opportunity to see how candidates operated and interacted with one another, which is particularly useful in recruiting for sales.

  • Candidate feedback. Candidates stated that they enjoyed the days and appreciated the opportunity to participate – to gain not only a new job, but also an insight into financial services, and to meet Octopus staff.

  • Staff engagement. An unexpected outcome was that existing sales staff really appreciated having an involvement in the recruitment process, and delivered valuable insights to HR. This helped to bond the existing team further as well as aiding recruitment.

  • High caliber candidates. The events bought many excellent candidates to Octopus. A further result is that HR staff have been able to fill roles in other areas, such as operations.

  • Raised company profile. The days created a “buzz” within the press, the industry and among job candidates. This in turn has created the potential for more high caliber candidates to get in touch with Octopus

Areas for consideration

As a result of the first group assessment, the following areas for improvement were identified:

  • Timing of job offers. HR staff noted that both staff and candidates became very involved in the events and this affected candidates’ decision-making processes in particular; successful candidates were simply thrilled to get a job offer and accepted on the spot. It has since been decided to make job offers a day or so after events to allow both parties more time for consideration.

  • Background of candidates. Octopus often recruits outside financial services in order to find the best candidates. However, it widened the search further for its second assessment days and brought in some candidates with no sales experience. Even though several of these candidates were exceptional, it has since been decided to keep the parameters more tightly drawn and to only look at candidates with direct professional experience.

The way forward

Having developed, held and reviewed assessment days, Octopus has found these events to be highly effective in recruiting outstanding people, as well as helping HR staff to work more efficiently. With many other secondary benefits, Octopus will be continuing with assessment days, particularly for business support staff, including sales, operations, and compliance.

Karen TaylorBased at Octopus Investments, London, UK.

About the author

Karen Taylor is a Recruitment Manager within the Organizational Development team at Octopus Investments, specializing in the recruitment of front office, sales, marketing, tax, compliance, IT and operations professionals. Prior to joining Octopus in 2009, she worked for three years as a consultant at city firm GRS Group, and prior to that worked for three years at Venn Group, the consultancy for the legal industry. Karen Taylor can be contacted at:

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