Assessment Centers: The Beginnings and Beyond

Assessment centers were established by companies in the mid-20th century and the procedure has been expanding ever since. Assessment centers determine which employees exhibit the potential to earn promotions in managerial positions. This is accomplished through utilizing multiple assessment techniques that simulate realistic situations that candidates would face on the job for which they are being considered, and they are asked to handle these as if they were in the real situation. It goes without saying that there is no uniform way to design the content, administration, and cost of the process as these factors depend on the target group and its objectives.

When considering if a human resources department should utilize assessment centers, it is important to consider an assortment of factors. Let’s begin by briefly examining the history of this procedure. One of the first documented uses of assessment centers was in World War II when the United States was selecting spies to send to Europe.  The candidates were required to create a cover story and hide their identities while the interviewers attempted to break the candidates’ covers through situational tests. The next significant milestone in assessment centers occurred in 1956 when AT&T embarked on a longitudinal study to investigate which attributes of managers were correlated with success. Approximately ten years later the researchers noticed a significant trend in the data. Through the assessment intervention, the staff correctly identified 82 percent of the men who were promoted to middle-management positions. Likewise, the staff correctly identified 94 percent of the men who were not promoted. These predictions and many others made possible by the implementation of assessment centers led to their widespread usage that are still used today.

One can see the progression of assessment centers over the years when considering the development of the procedure. Typically, a job analysis is performed to identify job activities that will be important for the candidate’s future with the company. These activities are then divided into dimensions, with each dimension having specific behaviors that measure them. For example, the behavior for measuring the dimension of adaptability is maintaining effectiveness in varying environments, with various tasks, responsibilities, or people. Most assessment centers include cognitive ability, projective personality, and paper and pencil personality tests, as well as interviews to gather as much information that represent behavioral dimensions being evaluated in the assessment center. Performance tests distinguish assessment centers from other selection programs, with the in-basket method being the most frequently used procedure. It is meant to replicate managerial tasks pertaining to the applied position. Usually, candidates are presented with an organization problem written on memos, and they must devise a solution by writing a memo of their own. The candidates are then asked to present their recommendations.

The validity of assessment centers has been demonstrated through research, with many useful conclusions emanating from a study executed in 1994. The meta-analysis illustrates a much higher correlation for predicting potential compared to a supervisors’ rating of performance. This lower correlation for a supervisors’ rating of performance could be related to the fact that not many organizations employ professional psychologists as assessors. Companies continue to only utilize internal HR staff as assessors, knowing fully well that evidence points to higher assessment center validity when psychologists are used as assessors. Additionally, when assessors are certified the interrater reliabilities on an administrative dimension is much higher compared with untrained individuals.

The overall importance of assessment centers is illustrated through an increase in organizational job performance. The use of assessment centers instead of the multiple interview method led to an improvement in job performance of $2,700 per year in 1979 dollars. The cost of the procedure is negligible compared with possible losses in connection with hiring or promoting a less qualified candidate. Assessment centers provide companies with a reliable service when determining if a candidate is worthy of a promotion. With the validation of this standardized evaluation for selection, HR departments have an effective resource at their disposal; the only question is if they choose to invest the money.

IPMA-HR currently offers Assessment Centers for Police Sergeants, Lieutenants, and Captains; you can find more information about the Public Safety Assessment Center System (PSACS), here.

Cascio, W. F., & Aguinis, H. (2005). Applied Psychology in Human Resource Management (6th ed.). New Jersey: Pearson Education.

Gatewood, R. D., & Feild, H. S. (1987). Human Resource Selection (6th ed.). Chicago: Dryden Press.

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