Fast Track: Welcome to the factory

Assessment centres: useful recruitment tools or inaccurate science?
A "sausage factory" and a "production line". Harsh judgements indeed from graduates referring to the favourite corporate recruitment tool, the assessment centre. A necessary evil on the road to employment, it leaves many interviewees feeling like performing monkeys before a team of not particularly well-qualified scientists. But for others, they're the best possible way of portraying all that you can't do in a straight interview.

"They're a total brain drain - you have to give 110 per cent and you may not even get the job," laments 25-year-old Helen Cooney. During the past year, she has taken 10 days' holiday from her job at an IT company to attend interviews for five different posts in personnel. She was offered four of them, but turned them down, disheartened by what she'd seen. "I'm sick of the assessment culture. I'd come away from most centres thinking I wouldn't want to work for that company anyway."

All too many assessment centres make the mistake of simply ticking off skills rather than looking at what's happening in front of them, explains Jonathan Wilson, a consultant at Ellis Hayward. He advises companies how best to structure centres to avoid the pitfalls that he has experienced at first hand. He walked out of his own assessment many years ago when he lost faith in those in charge. "You're trying to measure the unmeasurable. It's a science, but only up to a point," he says. Only senior managers can know what they want and have the experience to judge, he warns, so if they're not represented during your assessment, you may ask why.

Most large companies use assessment centres after an initial interview. The process usually lasts one to two days and typically tests team and leadership skills, assertiveness, motivation, ability and stamina. You can expect personality tests, business-related tasks, role-playing, group discussions and a one-to-one interview. At best, they allow employers to beat the trap of relying solely on gut instinct. At worst, they are ill-thought-out, wrongly staffed and formulaic.

For Cooney, the experience was a combination of clumsy interviewing (at one stage she was asked if there was "somebody at home" and were they "a boy or a girl?") together with disorganised, poorly tailored tasks. "We were left waiting round for up to two hours a time, or tested on areas where some people were already experts and others knew nothing at all. It just wasn't fair."

It's a story that strikes a chord with Jon Ellis, a director of the business consultants Bridge. He attended a one-day assessment with a potential employer that left him highly cynical. "The group work was farcical and took no account of individuality. I felt like a guinea-pig." Companies risk hiring people on the basis of what they know rather than their potential, he warns, hunting for off-the-shelf personalities instead of seeking out creativity and individuality. "Why not put them in a situation where they feel like human beings and make them feel as relaxed as possible, rather than forcing them to compete?"

Not everyone agrees, however. "It's the only way of seeing someone doing something rather than talking about it," says Frances Cuts, of Marks & Spencer, which has used an assessment centre for nearly 20 years. "It's the best way to combine intuition with hard evidence."

If assessments run to a formula, is it possible to fake? Yes and no. You can prepare thoroughly and make a fairly accurate guess at qualities you will be required to demonstrate - time management, communication skills and being a good listener, for example. But, as one assessor put it, when it gets to 3am on a Monday, people have stopped pretending. Nevertheless, you can improve with practice. "Your first time at an assessment centre will be contaminated by anxiety of the unknown; the second time is probably a truer reflection of your abilities," says Roger Wilson, a careers adviser at Leeds University.

A common misconception is that you must project an extrovert persona, ready to leap in and grab the group lead, he warns. But take note that it depends upon what job you are after, and you don't have to dominate a group to work well as a team. "Timid people as well as the leaders have a role to play in companies. If your other skills measure up, you may prove more suitable."

Even once you're through the recruitment process, you probably won't have seen the last of assessment centres. More and more firms are using them to find out whether junior managers are ready to progress or need further training. They will always be an artificial tool, but they are possibly the most efficient means of judgement, says Wilson. "I'm with Winston Churchill's view of democracy on this one - they're not perfect, but show me a better way."