If you want a job with KPMG in the UK, be prepared to tell them whether you were poor enough to eat free school meals as a child

Tejvan Pettinger/Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0Oxford University, which does not automatically produce the best graduate candidates, according to KPMG.
  • KPMG recruits 25,000 students globally each year but the company has grown tired of only seeing graduates from top universities, who tend to be white and from affluent backgrounds.
  • The company wants to make sure it gets the most talented people regardless of their background.
  • So now it asks candidates whether they received free lunches at school when they were kids, or whether their parents went to university – two standard markers of poverty in the UK.
  • “The biggest challenge is making sure we are getting to the broadest spectrum,” says KPMG UK deputy chair Melanie Richards.

DAVOS, Switzerland – For years, KPMG recruited student graduates from Britain’s “Russell Group” of universities – the oldest, most prestigious research institutions, like Oxford, Cambridge, Liverpool, and Birmingham.

The company is a voracious recruiter of new university graduates. Every year, it needs 25,000 more students globally to enter its career pipeline, of which 1,000 are hired in the UK.

The problem with the Russell Group, according to KPMG UK deputy chair Melanie Richards, is that the company ended up hiring the same people over and over again. KPMG also had a sclerotic recruitment process, involving an online application, followed by an online test, then a telephone interview. After that there was another internal assessment process “and then we’d probably interview them again,” Richards says.

“We were very focused on Russell Group universities. I don’t need to tell you that Russell Group universities have a certain type of student applying to them. And if you’re looking to get to people who are socially mobile you are not going to get them from that group of universities, particularly,” Richards told Business Insider at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“By only focusing as we did a number of years ago, too heavily on just Russell Group universities … you’re going to get a particular profile even applying to you in the first place.”

The Russell Group “profile” is dominated by white, often male candidates from solid middle- and upper-class backgrounds. People whose parents are professionals, who also probably attended a top university.

Melanie richards kpmgKPMGKPMG’s Melanie Richards.

KPMG regards itself as an innovative employer – and a progressive one. It doesn’t want to exacerbate Britain’s lack of social mobility. And it doesn’t want to miss out on talent from nontraditional backgrounds, either. So the firm decided to start looking elsewhere, to see what it was missing.

The company also has the luxury of choice, Richards says. “We have a surfeit of talent coming to us, too many people in some respects, so we can be selective,” she says. “The biggest challenge is making sure we are getting to the broadest spectrum.”

The company began looking beyond the Russell Group to less celebrated campuses, in order to find more diverse talent. It also began collecting data about its applicants in order to understand who succeeded in getting through KPMG’s pipeline, and who does not.

The school meals question

Now, one of the questions on the application form asks candidates whether they were the beneficiary of free school meals as children. Qualifying for free lunch at school is a standard indicator of child poverty. KPMG also asks whether your parents went to university – another indicator of which social class you’re from.

KPMG doesn’t make anything of the answers in its job interviews, and candidates aren’t required to hand over the information. But the indicators are a good way of measuring whether the company is actually looking hard enough to find the best people (or whether it’s simply drawing from the same stale pool).

“This is all about getting talented individuals who have just made different choices,” Richards says. People who, ordinarily, “don’t think of applying because they know they will be too different in that environment.”

Now, the company relies a lot less on the illustriousness of your alma mater and more on how candidates perform in real-life situations. Now, graduate candidates are asked to solve problems drawn from KPMG’s actual experience with its clients. They are asked to design a new app, or create a new product, in a group setting. Crucially, it is no longer focused on formal interviews in which 20-somethings summarise their CVs.

The recruitment process – which is still pretty rigorous – has been collapsed into a much shorter time-period, culminating in a single day of assessment.”Because we know that’s likely to bring the best out of people,” Richards says.

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