Ensuring a bright future

Assessment centres offer both the employer and the potential employee the chance to find out if they are properly suited to each other. Philip Schofield reports
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The Independent Online
WOULD-BE vicars, officers in the armed forces, graduate management trainees and civil servants share one thing in common. All are likely to have been selected through an assessment centre. So too are many managers.

Assessments centres have their origins in the War Office Selection Boards (WOSB) that began in 1941. Traditional methods of officer selection, based on interview boards, had proved inadequate, so the WOSBs used a battery of selection methods spread over three days. Candidates were taken in groups and put through a combination of psychometric tests, interviews and practical tests, which included group discussions, giving brief lectures, obstacle courses, and a variety of leaderless group problem solving exercises. The scheme proved very successful and was soon copied elsewhere.

After the war the theories and techniques developed by the armed forces were adopted by the Civil Service, then by industry and commerce, and more recently by many of the churches in Britain.

An assessment centre is sometimes called the Rolls-Royce of selection methods. It is a much better predictor of future performance than any other method in general use. It is also popular with most job applicants. Candidates feel that they are being matched to vacancies with unusual care. If they are made an offer, they are confident that they they have the potential to succeed. They feel, rightly or wrongly, that an employer who takes such obvious pains to find the right people will take equal pains over their subsequent training and career development.

But an assessment centre has drawbacks for the employer. They are costly and time-consuming to run. However, this is balanced by the even greater costs and disruption which can arise from hiring someone unsuitable for a key post. This is probably why assessment centres are used by most large organizations and one in five of those employing fewer than 200 people.

Assessment centres have evolved since the days of the WOSB. Candidates typically are taken in groups of six and assessed together. This does not mean they are in competition with one another. So far as possible each person is assessed against objective criteria which are specific to the posts to be filled. There is usually an assessor to every two candidates, so in a group of six, each candidate is studied by three assessors. This minimises bias and subjectivity.

A whole battery of assessment methods are employed. This ensures that the skills and qualities needed to do the job are looked at comprehensively and that they are measured as reliably as possible.

A candidate can expect paper and pencil aptitude tests, and personality and interest questionnaires. It is likely there will be group discussions, and each person may also be asked to give a five minute talk to the group. There could also be individual and group problem-solving exercises. Some group exercises may be leaderless, while for others each candidate may be appointed leader in turn. There are also likely to be structured interviews.

What strategy should you adopt if invited to take part at an assessment centre?

Firstly, keep in mind the fact that you are not competing with the other candidates. Good interpersonal skills and the ability to work in a team are essential in most jobs and so will be important selection criteria. The way in which you interact with the others, both in group activities and socially, will tell the assessors how well you meet these particular criteria.

Interest and personality questionnaires often cause anxiety because few candidates are sure what they actually measure. If properly validated for the purpose for which they are being used, they are generally good predictors of future performance. It is unlikely that any tests used in an assessment centre will not have been properly validated.

The questionnaires usually consist of a large number of statements and situations, and for each you must tick one of several possible responses. People often find that none of the options reflect their view. The best way to tackle these questionnaires is not to agonise over the answers, but to answer fairly quickly and tick the option which gives the nearest fit. Unlike aptitude tests, there are no wrong or right answers. Be honest. Tests have `consistency' measures built in, and are very hard to fake.

In group exercises be neither a shrinking violet, nor seek to be the constant centre of attention. Do not use your expertise to belittle others. Be assertive, but do not try to monopolise the debate. You can win Brownie points if you resolve any conflicts that arise between other candidates. Praise the good ideas of others. If you do spot flaws in anybody's arguments, be constructive in your criticism.

Be willing to suggest possible approaches to any problems set, and use persuasive argument if your ideas are opposed. Try to win the willing support of the others. On the other hand, if someone spots a fatal flaw in one of your ideas, do not continue to fight for a lost cause. Know when to compromise.

If appointed leader for an exercise, do not rely on hierarchical authority. involve everyone on the team and encourage them to contribute ideas. Try to reach a consensus, but be prepared to take a decision if you cannot.

Originally designed for selecting new recruits, assessment centres are now also used to assess the training and development of existing managers and to identify those ready for advancement. In either case, an invitation to an assessment centre should be welcomed.