Assessment Centre Introduction

Assessment Centre has a variety of definitions and these are based on its methodology of assessing a candidate’s performance and aptitude. Trained Assessors observe a group of candidates performing a variety of aptitude diagnostic procedures which provide specific information on the abilities and developmental capacity of each applicant.

An Assessment Centre is actually a process applicants take part in and is not specific to any one location. Its popularity is also evident in staff growth plans where it is usually known as a Development Centre. These procedures are designed to ensure employee investment is maximised for both the organisation and the individual. Whilst the general process is very similar to Assessment Centres the subtle difference is that at a Development Centre you will be given feedback immediately and work with the assessor to agree a future plan.

Many organisations use the expertise of an HR consultant to design the exercises to meet their specific role requirements and then to conduct the actual testing and assessment of candidates. These services come with a significant cost and that is why you will increasing face testing through an Assessment Centre as you apply for higher-level strategic and technical roles.

The length of an Assessment Centre will vary from half-a-day to two full days and may be held on the employer’s premises, often within their own training facilities or on the premises of the organisations Human Resources (HR) consultant.

Candidates attending an Assessment Centre will take part in a variety of specially designed exercises which allow them to demonstrate how their skills and aptitudes correlate with those required to perform the role.  Each of the exercises simulates aspects of the job description and work environment.

Types of Assessment and Development Centre Exercise                 
The diagram below shows the most common exercises to be included in an assessment centre.

 

Assement Center Exercise


An in-tray or in-basket exercise asks to assume a particular role as an employee of a fictitious company and work through the correspondence in your in-tray. This exercise is designed to measure your ability to organize and prioritize work.

In a presentation exercise, you will be given a topic or possibly a choice of topics and asked to make a presentation of around ten minutes with five minutes at the end for questions. This is designed to measure your presentation skills including your ability to organise and structure the information and to communicate your points clearly and concisely.

Group discussion exercises involve you working with other candidates as part of a team to resolve a presented issue. These exercises are designed to measure interpersonal skills such as group leadership, teamwork, negotiation, and group problem solving skills.

Panel interviews are regarded as a more objective means of assessing your suitability as you will be interviewed by between three and five people and therefore the decision is not reliant on just one person's opinion. In addition, they are usually more structured than a one-to-one interview as the panel need to assess all of the candidates against the same criteria.

The expense of conducting an assessment centre is usually somewhere between $1,000 and $5,000 per candidate. This tends to restrict their use to situations where the costs can be justified in terms of preventing high expenses associated with unsuitable personnel e.g. high staff turnover or poor job performance resulting in low productivity.

Assessment centres are seen as one of the most effective ways of identifying top candidates who'll get on well with others and fit in with the organizations culture. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development's ‘Recruitment, Retention and Turnover 2004 Survey’, 34 per cent of employers now use assessment centres when recruiting managers, professionals and graduates. This figure will inevitably grow as organizations seek to make more accurate selection and promotion decisions.

The assessment centre method is utilized in a variety of settings including industry and business, government, armed forces, educational institutions, and safety forces to select individuals for supervisory, technical, sales, or management positions. One recent trend is in the development of mass testing. This is done by video-taping candidates as they perform various exercises and by using objectively scored exercises. This permits the assessment of a much larger number of candidates per day as the scoring is done later and requires far less observation and administration.

Assesment Centre Procedure

Assessment centres are usually used after the initial stages of the selection process, because of the large amount of time and expense in conducting them, and usually follow the initial job interview. Other measurements such as psychological tests may complement the selection process. They are commonly held either on employers’ premises or in a hotel and are considered by many organizations to be the fairest and most accurate method of selecting staff. This is because a number of different selectors get to see you over a longer period of time and have the chance to see what you can do, rather than what you say you can do, in a variety of situations.

How are the Assessment and Development Centre Exercises Conducted?
Assessment Centres may be conducted by HR personnel within the employer company or by outside consultants. They are highly structured in their design, application, and assessment procedure and are specifically adapted to assess factors such as your level of skills, aptitude and compatibility with the organization's culture. Each test measures a range of indicators within these factors.

During each test, a group of observers will rate you on a range of set indicators, using a prescribed performance scale. Results are then cross compared against the same indicators, which are measured in other tests. Following test completion, observers meet to discuss the test results and reach a group consensus about your ratings.

At the beginning of the assessment, you should receive an initial briefing about the timetable of tests, location of rooms etc. Prior to each test, you will be given instructions describing the exercise, your role, timeframe's, equipment etc. You will not be told in detail about the individual indicators which will be measured. In addition, you are unlikely to receive feedback on your results, unless you have been successfully selected.

If you are being selected for a management or graduate level position then it is a good idea to brush up on your knowledge of current affairs and global news. The international publication ‘The Economist’ is probably the most useful publication to study for this purpose. It is published weekly, is widely available and covers world & business news in an acceptable level of detail.

You should also read the most recent copies of any relevant industry specific magazine or newspaper. This will enable you to discuss any topical issues that crop up in the panel interview or over lunch or coffee, as these ‘social’ events often form part of the agenda. You may feel that this level of preparation is 'over the top'. If so, then try to imagine yourself engaged in a discussion where you don't have the faintest idea what the other participants are talking about, and knowing that the assessors are listening critically to your contribution. At the very least, this kind of experience will undermine your confidence and cause you to under perform, even on exercises that you have prepared for.

While the assessment centre process is intensive and commonly viewed as stressful, it does provides additional opportunities for you, if you feel that you are not able to demonstrate your abilities fully during an interview. The process also enables you to obtain a first-hand idea of what the employer expects, and will provide opportunities for you to interact with other participants during group exercises.


 

Many candidates underachieve on the day as they are unsure of what to expect. At the very least you need to have good background knowledge of the sector, the organization and its products and services. Creating the right impression when everyone else is attempting to do the same can be difficult. Just remember that the observers are usually looking for candidates who show evidence of being team players and who fully commit to the tasks they are set. You can't afford to appear too introverted, but you must avoid interrupting others or taking over the discussion. Also, don't try to outmaneuver other candidates or dismiss opposing points of view in a negative or aggressive way.

Some exercises involve candidates taking turns as group leader or chairperson. Try to express your own views clearly and concisely and make an effort to encourage participation from quieter candidates. Be adaptable in your thinking and recognize other candidates' good ideas but remember that talking people round to your point of view will demonstrate good communication skills provided that it is done in a positive and inclusive way. Above all, remain positive, team oriented and focused on the task.

References:
Byham, W.C. (1997). Landing the Job You Want - How to have the best Job Interview of Your Life, Pennsylvania, USA, DDI Press

Smith, A.K. (2006). How to Succeed at an Assessment centre, Warwick University, UK

Landy, F.J. (1989), Psychology of Work Behavior, 4th edition, California, USA, Brooks/Cole Publishers

Newton, T.J. (1994), Discourse and Agency: The Example of Personnel Psychology and 'Assessment centres', Organization Studies.

Robertson, I, Gratton, L, Sharpley, D (1987). The Psychometric properties and design of managerial assessment centres: Dimensions into exercises won't go. Journal of Occupational Psychology.

Woodruffe, C. (1990), Assessment centres: identifying and developing competence, London, Great Britain, Institute of Personnel Management.

It is not unusual for you to be interviewed either face-to-face or over the phone at the outset of your application. From these interviews the human resources personnel will select a group of six to twelve candidates to invite to the assessment centre where they will take part in a variety of exercises, which are being monitored and assessed by the assessors.

One recent trend is in the development of mass testing. This is done by videotaping candidates as they perform various exercises and by using objectively scored exercises. This permits the assessment of a much larger number of candidates per day as the scoring is done later and requires far less observation and administration.

Assesment Centre Procedure

Assessment centres are usually used after the initial stages of the selection process, because of the large amount of time and expense in conducting them, and they usually follow the initial job interview. Other measurements such as psychological tests may complement the selection process.

They are commonly held either on employers’ premises or in a hotel and are considered by many organisations to be the fairest and most accurate method of selecting staff. This is because a number of different selectors or assessors get to see you over a longer period of time. They have the chance to see…

  1. What you can do
  2. How you react to situations
  3. How you relate to others

 

…rather than what you say you can do, in a variety of situations which emulate your future role.
At the end of the assessment centre the assessors will select one or two candidates who will be invited for a final interview based on their scores.

Types of Exercises
There are certain assessment centre exercises that have been designed to make the assessment of certain behaviours and competencies much easier and the diagram below shows the most common types of exercises. With each exercise you will be given a brief from which to work and given a desired outcome. Each exercise has a specific time limit and you must work within the parameters assigned otherwise you will lose marks. It is essential that you remember they are assessing your competencies within the specified situation.

Assement Center Exercise


An in-tray or in-basket exercise asks to assume a particular role as an employee of a fictitious company and work through the correspondence in your in-tray. This exercise is designed to measure your ability to organize and prioritize work. In a presentation exercise, you will be given a topic or possibly a choice of topics and asked to make a presentation of around ten minutes, with five minutes at the end for questions. This is designed to measure your presentation skills including your ability to organise and structure the information and to communicate your points clearly and concisely.

Group discussion exercises involve you working with other candidates as part of a team to resolve a presented issue or deal with a critical incident. These exercises are designed to measure interpersonal skills such as group leadership, teamwork, negotiation, and group problem solving skills. Panel interviews or competency based interviews are regarded as a more objective means of assessing your suitability as you will be interviewed by three to five people and therefore the decision is not reliant on just one person's opinion. In addition, they are usually more structured than a one-to-one interview as the panel need to assess all of the candidates against the same criteria.

Use of Psychometric Aptitude Tests
Many Organisations also include psychometric tests within their assessment centres and these will be marked in the usual way and not by the assessors as they do not reflect your competencies. These tests typically include:

  1. Verbal reasoning,
  2. Numerical reasoning, and
  3. Abstract reasoning questions.

 

Preparing for these types of test is best done by practicing the types of questions that you will be asked on the day. This aspect of assessment centres is not dealt with in detail in this eBook and you should refer to the ‘Graduate Level Aptitude Tests’ and ‘Management Level Aptitude Tests’ eBooks.

Your long-term preparation is closely linked to your career plan and is something that you cannot ignore if you expect to progress upwards through the levels of your chosen occupation or profession. It is worth pausing at this point to consider what a career plan is and whether you need one.

A career plan is simply a road map which details how you expect your career to develop throughout your working life. It is not designed to be over-prescriptive or to prevent you from taking advantages of unexpected opportunities. It should evolve in response to changing circumstances whilst acting as a tool to help you get to whatever career destination you are aiming for.

One common fallacy is that career plans are only for the ultra-ambitious and that Company President is the only worthwhile objective. While it is true that many high-achievers have planned their careers in detail from the outset, a career plan is something that almost everyone would benefit from developing whatever stage of their career they are presently at.

Consider the career plan of a marketing professional – let’s call her Jane. She has been with the same organisation for four years, joining as a graduate trainee and now working as a senior marketing executive. So far her career progression has been incremental, she has progressed from performing certain tasks to performing higher-level tasks. She has also gradually assumed some supervisory responsibility for a part time member of staff and a recent graduate trainee.

However, 90% of her working day involves actually producing deliverables – press releases, advertising copy, etc. For Jane to achieve a management role she will need to exhibit the behaviours associated with managers and not those of a supervisor. She will need to show her skills of delegation, timescale setting, prioritisation, evaluation and decision-making.

The next step in Jane’s career is promotion to the role of Marketing Manager. This will represent a fundamental change in the nature of her work. As a manager, she will spend almost all of her time organising the work of other people, managing budgets and assuring the quality of the deliverables that they produce.

If Jane is going to be successful in getting the promotion, then the organisation that employs her will need solid evidence that she can make the fundamental switch in behaviour from someone who produces deliverables to someone who manages people. The important point to note is that the organisation does not have that evidence at the moment.

Perhaps in less competitive times they would have taken a chance and promoted her anyway. After all, she has been with the company for four years and has shown herself to be a very competent employee. Perhaps if the organisation was expanding quickly as it did in the ‘80s and ‘90s then internal career progression would be the norm and she would have benefited from a structured development program designed to help employees move up through the organisation.

Unfortunately, neither of these options apply now. The organisation that she works for has been under intense competitive pressure for a number of years and no longer has the spare resources to run a meaningful employee development program. They are also aware that there is a large pool of experienced personnel ‘out there’ and would be quite happy to poach someone from another organisation who brings all that intelligence with them, or take someone who has worked at this level but is currently between jobs.

 As a result, they have decided to use an assessment centre to select from a pool of both internal and external candidates. Jane’s problem, and that of many people in her position, is that she needs to provide evidence that she can display the necessary management behaviours, the competencies (Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes), even though she has not had the opportunity to do so in her career so far.

This is a very common problem for candidates who are seeking their first promotion to managerial or board level. Fortunately, Jane has had a career plan in place for a couple of years. She has foreseen this problem and has taken the necessary steps to overcome it as part of her own CPD (Continuous Professional Development).

Exactly how she did this, and how you can do it too, is described in the 'Assessment Centre' eBook, which shows you how to use the KSA Development Cycle and how to create your own KSA table for a specific Role, in Jane’s case that of a Marketing Manager. Remember, there are many skills that you cannot develop in the space of a couple of weeks. You need to be realistic about the time it takes to become an accomplished public speaker or an effective chairperson.

If you are pursuing a career where these sorts of skills are required then you will need to take the time and make the effort to develop them. This may mean that you have to do so outside of work. Volunteering for administrative work for charities, sports clubs and school parents associations can all be excellent ways to develop these types of skill.

Similarly, there may be professional qualifications that will add to your knowledge and skills, but the time taken to acquire them may be measured in months or years.


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