Under scrutiny

Using assessment centres to
cherry pick staff is fine if the assessors are up to the job. But with horror
stories aplenty, isn’t it time for a code of practice as well as more
involvement from employers? Caroline Horn reports

Assessment centres
have become one of the most popular tools in selecting new recruits, with more
than 30 per cent of companies now believed to use them. They are used to test a
range of competencies among a group of candidates – or sometimes individuals –
through a series of varied exercises, with candidates monitored and assessed by
a number of trained observers. The process gives the candidates a number of
different opportunities to demonstrate their strengths. In this way, a company
hopes it is getting the right person for the job.

But what is sometimes forgotten
during the assessments is the candidates themselves. Roy Davis, head of
communications for SHL, which develops and provides assessment solutions, says,
"Candidates are the most important person in the process. The first thing
they should be asking for is feedback, because that is how they learn from the

Sarah Macpherson, senior
consultant with CGR Business Psychologists, adds, "If assessment centres
are well managed, they can be a very positive experience and an individual can
learn a lot about themselves.

Even if they don’t get the job,
good feedback can help them to find out which areas they need to do more work
on. But if the experience is negative, it can knock the candidate’s confidence
and knock back their job search."

Power of word of mouth

When candidates leave
assessment centres feeling that the exercise and feedback have been poorly
managed, that has ramifications for the potential employer, since the
candidates are quite likely to share the experience with friends and

Macpherson explains, "In
small communities, word goes around and other candidates will refuse to go to a
badly-run assessment centre." It is a poor advertisement for the potential

Should the candidate’s
impression be correct, it will have also been an expensive mistake for the
employer – not just the wasted cost of the assessment itself but in the
development of the company.

While employers’ experiences
suggests that assessment centres are, on the whole, popular and generally well
managed, it is more difficult to find out about problem areas. Macpherson
argues that the problem of poor assessment and feedback could be more
widespread than is generally realised: "People who have had a poor
experience tend not to complain because they are worried about being seen as
difficult, or because their complaint will be seen as sour grapes."

Material and methodologies
being used in assessment also need to be considered, says Iain Ballantyne,
senior consultant at Assessment & Development Consultants, "As in the
early days of psychometric testing, people are publishing a lot of material
that won’t do the job that it claims to be able to do. Meanwhile, people are
selecting these exercises in good faith, and are not always fully aware of the
ramifications of the selection process."

There are, therefore, those in
the industry who argue that it is time to take a closer look at how assessment
centres are being managed, and to consider whether the introduction of a set of
agreed standards or code of practice is appropriate.

In the US, there are already
established guidelines relating specifically to assessment centres, and there
has been discussion in the UK among various bodies, including the British
Psychological Society and Investors in People, about establishing standards in
assessment. At this stage, the IIP could not provide any details concerning its
proposed module on recruitment and assessment, nor when it might be introduced.

Angela Baron, employee
resourcing adviser at the CIPD, argues that recruitment surveys by the
organisation show that assessment centres are generally held in high regard.
While the institute concedes that there may be problems – it points to a lack
of focus by companies as being the most common mistake – Baron comments:
"Assessment centres are still considered the most reliable and
professional form of recruitment, although it is expensive."

She argues for self-regulation,
rather than the imposition of external guidelines. "Anything that
de-professionalises assessment or detracts from the experience should be looked
at. But while we know that there are many examples of bad recruitment, we hope
that professional human resources departments would observe best

Davis agrees: "We need to
be self-regulatory and people who design and run assessment centres must have
best practice at the back of their mind. I’d be loath to have external
practices assess the centres because it is difficult to regulate a practice,
rather than a product."

The nature of assessment
centres makes regulation difficult, says Baron. "A code of conduct would
be difficult to regulate because assessment centres are tailored to each
recruitment scenario and the techniques are designed to test people on
particular aspects.

"The whole point of
assessment centres is that they are tailored to an organisation’s needs, so the
organisation needs to work very closely with the consultant. You can’t be too
prescriptive about how they operate because the success of the centre comes
down to the relationship between the organisation and the external

Ruth Colling, recruitment
specialist at business psychology consultancy Nicholson McBride, points to the
British Psychological Society’s codes of practice for its psychometric tests
which requires that practitioners need to be trained and qualified. But she
adds, "With something as broad and all-encompassing as assessment centres,
it would be hard to say, ‘Does that particular part of the process fit into the

"Rather than looking at a
code of conduct, what needs to be emphasised is how a company can get the most
from an assessment centre, and that includes putting in enough time and effort
to make the centre work for them. There are plenty of guidelines around."

The CIPD points out that a
successful assessment centre demands certain criteria, including: a high level
of involvement by the company and its managers; their involvement in the actual
assessment process – for example, as observers; and for there to be a good
relationship with the provider.

"I wouldn’t dismiss out of
hand a code of practice, it could be helpful," says Baron.
"Generally, the evidence is that assessment centres are useful and we need
to ensure that they stay that way. But it would be difficult to dictate what
people do. The whole point about assessment centres is that they are not

Ballantyne points out, however,
that not every company appreciates the importance of structural issues of
assessment centres, which is why standards are needed. "For example, when
you set up an assessment centre, you need to make sure you have pre-assigned
competencies when you are selecting people. It is a common error not to have
the criteria in place. You should ensure that proper training has been given to
assessors, that candidates have a number of opportunities to demonstrate their
competency, and that there is consensus in the final decision made."

And he adds: "Where there
are standards in place, people can at least check their own performance against
the standards and decide whether or not they are doing their assessments

But even if official guidelines
existed, as Dr Charles Woodruffe, director at assessment centre consultancy
Human Assets, points out, enforcing them is a different issue. "You
already have standards for psychometric tests, for example, but are the buyers
of psychometric tests sufficiently aware of the tests even to ask the question?
Pseudo-psychometry tests are two a penny on the Internet."

"Standards for assessment
centres would not do any harm but they are not a surefire solution because
there will be plenty of organisations that will not have heard of them, or who
are assured that what they are being given matches the standards, when it

Training, he believes, is key.
As the author of Development and Assessment Centers; Identifying and Developing
Competence, he says,  "I am often
rung up by people who have read the book and say, ‘We have been asked to set up
an assessment centre. Can you help?’ That is real kitchen table stuff. I know
you have to start somewhere but in any other industry you’d start as an

"Common sense should
dictate that the greatest weakness is observer training and people should
understand better what is expected of assessment centres," says Davis.
"If that could be built into some form of best practice, that would be

Issues of training are
significant – for an assessment centre to be accurate, the process needs to be
understood. Yet in a survey conducted by A&DC, it was found that nearly 60
per cent of companies give at most one day of training to its assessors, with
14 per cent of those giving no training. "They might just as well stick
with interviews," says Ballantyne.

What it actually needs, says Dr
Woodruffe, is for customers of assessment centres to be more selective.
"You have to ask the question, ‘Have you done this before and can I ring up
the person you did it for?’ It’s incredible that organisations will entrust
their future to someone who is just one page ahead of that organisation.

"It is fantastic that they
take on graduates for their future leadership and, for the sake of a few bob,
jeopardise that."

Theatre of
absurd: a recruitment tragedy in seven acts

Act 1 An individual
applying for a consultant position found he was tested for mechanical reasoning
and had to sit through various engineering tests using diagrams and pulleys, as
well as a further battery of tests in computing

Act 2 The manager at a
call centre decided to construct her own tests to see how bright applicants
were. Those applying for jobs had to undergo her version of television
programme Catchphrase, as well as a range of puzzles from quiz books

Act 3 A trained psychologist,
applying for a position as a consultant, was confronted with a psychometric
test in spatial reasoning, because, she was told, "You’re used to the
tests, so we thought we’d give you something different"

Act 4 A group of nurses
in Coventry took their employer to court – and won – after an assessment
centre, which they were told would be used for training and development, was
actually used to decide on candidates for redundancy

Act 5 A group of
applicants applying for external HR consultancy roles were taken to an isolated
country house and faced a series of irrelevant and traumatic tests, which
included working out complex statistical equations in front of the group. They
were also told to "name their salary" in public

Act 6 One candidate
found that the results of her psychometric tests were judged against the views
of her friend, who worked for the assessment centre. The assessor then asked
her in-depth, and inappropriate, questions about her childhood "to explain
the discrepancies"

Act 7 When applying for
a position of consultant, an individual was put through an inappropriate and
difficult numerical reasoning test. She knew she would not do well at it – and
in the event, the results were simply discarded

standards to qualify an event as an assessment centre

At least two
measures of every competency that is being assessed

At least two work sample
simulations among the material that confronts participants

Job analysis that clearly
demonstrates the link between competencies and effective performance in the
target job

Assessors complete their
evaluations independently, including any report form, before the integration

There are assessors who are
trained in the ORCE process, and its application in clear separation of the
component parts into discrete exercises

Clear written and published
statement of the intent of the centre, how data will be stored, by whom, and
rights of access to that data by any individual

There should be a statement of
the limits of the validity of the centre in total and/or the limits for a
particular exercise

Assessment & Development Consultants

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