Occupational Sarah Macpherson personally experienced the dark side of a
poorly designed assessment centre. Here she describes the misery she underwent
in the name of selection.
Sarah – now an occupational psychologist who designs assessment centres
with the applicant in mind – had applied for the position of management
consultant. The process began with a series of interviews with a management
headhunter. These went well, and Sarah was pleased to be invited to an
assessment centre. However, the assessment itself was not quite what she had
"I was pleased when the firm asked me to attend the
assessment centre following a series of very positive interviews. Having heard
that I was to be assessed by a ‘professional consultancy’ I anticipated clear
communication about the venue, the process, the timing and logistics. But no. I
was eventually informed of the time and place – the rest remained a mystery.
When I arrived at the centre after a woeful two-hour journey, I was completely
unaware of what was going to happen, who it was going to happen with, and when.
"One thing that was apparent, however, was that my suit was
horribly out of place. I had arrived looking the part – business suit, hair
fixed, nails clean and briefcase in hand. Unfortunately, when I walked in I
realised immediately that the company had an informal dress policy, but no-one
had thought to tell me. My level of unease was declining rapidly. This was not
a good start.
"Unfortunately, informality of dress also generalised to
informality of process.
"I wasn’t properly greeted, not even given a cup of coffee. There
was no warm up, and still the process was not fully explained. Instead, I was
led down a corridor and thrown straight into a psychometric test on spatial
reasoning, which had no relevance to the job for which I was being interviewed.
"When I questioned the use of the test, the company response was,
‘you’re a psychologist, you’re used to the tests, so we thought we’d give you
something different’. An interesting rationale but many miles away from best
practice. My comfort level was in freefall but I decided to keep my chin up and
keep going – things had to get better.
"When the test was complete, I was shuffled straight into the next
exercise without a break or being offered any refreshments. I had been warned,
when I’d arrived, that I’d need to do a presentation, which I had felt fine
about. Doing presentations was a key part of being a consultant, and a part I
had plenty of experience in. At least I felt that this exercise was more
appropriate for the job. This had to be better.
"Wrong again. For the presentation, I had to act as though I was
running a training course for the group.
"This is quite stressful anyway, because you’re having to perform
in front of a room full of strangers, but it got worse. It soon became quite
apparent that all the ‘delegates’ had been briefed to act as the delegate from
hell. In real life, you can get one or two people on courses who are awkward,
but never a room full.
"The heckling started almost as soon as I began and did not abate.
Although I am fully trained and experienced in presentations, I soon reached
the point where I just wanted the ground to open. My strategy was to keep my
cool, act the professional and get through the 20 minutes the exercise was
meant to last. Unfortunately, the company had other ideas and decided to drag
it out to half an hour "to see what would happen."
"With my comfort level now in minus figures, I braced myself for
the next exercise. I had to read and absorb a lot of information in a very
short time span, and then meet "a colleague who needs tough
feedback". At least this time I was informed that the colleague would
"be tough work," but they did not tell me just how tough. And so
proceeded another 30 minutes of unpleasant behaviour which I had to try and
manage while I was being watched and assessed. At the end of the exercise,
feeling like a true gladiator, I turned to the panel, fully expecting to see a
row of downward pointing thumbs.
"By this time it was 3pm and for the first time that day I was offered
something to eat or drink. Beleaguered, I accepted a coffee, but had a
suspicion that I was still being watched and assessed. The only strategy left
to me was escape. I left at 4pm and went straight home and to bed exhausted and
"After that experience, I had assumed that there wouldn’t be any
feedback. In any case, I would never want to work for a company that treated
its employees like that. Friends and colleagues were warned of the consequences
of applying for the still vacant position. In the event, I did get feedback.
When the headhunter called he said, "They said you did alright but you’re
too expensive for them. My salary expectations had been discussed at the very
first interview, so why did they want to see me in the first place? Maybe my gladiator
vision was not far wrong"
Sarah Macpherson is now a senior consultant with CGR
Business Psychologists in North Harrow. The company designs whole selection