The science of… Assessment Centres

Is occupational psychology a dark art? Do you know what you’re getting when you ask for an occupational psychology consultancy to darken your doors?
Well here’s an insight into this weird and wonderful world that I chose to put myself through. I’ll be writing a series of informative posts about the variety of topics an occupational psychologist is likely to be involved in.

At it’s core, occupational psychology aims to take psychological principles and apply them to the workplace. Concepts such as memory, behaviours, cognitive processes, emotions, communication and many others are fascinating topics. Research tells us truly interesting insights about the human condition ad nauseam.

There are distinct fields that occ psych ventures into: selection and assessment, organisational development, training and development, employee relations, counselling, human machine interaction, ergonomics, performance appraisal and research methods and statistics. Today I’ll start with…

Selection and Assessment

This can be broken into 2 categories. The first is concerned the use of assessment centres, and the second development centres. Assessment centres are for recruitment purposes, and development centres for initiatives such as personal or individual development. I’ll be dealing with assessment centres today.

For the uninformed, an assessment centre is where you have a day of exercises that are designed to test a variety of skills and elicit behaviours. For example, you might have to take part in a group exercise, an interview, a role related task and a presentation. From each of those exercises, you are ‘tested’ against criteria that have been pre-defined.

But how do these things get created? You could in all honesty, throw a bunch of exercises together, call a team meeting, decide on criteria to be assessed and Bob’s your uncle. I’d recommend you don’t do this as fairness and consistency is thrown out of the window.

For excellence though, you need to follow a formula of sorts. The first thing that is done is to do a job analysis of the role you are hiring for. This is done with people who are already in their role within the company. This forms the fundamental basis of the assessment centre. The job analysis provides information about the behaviours you expect someone to be displaying. These then form the criteria for the exercises you are being assessed in.

Once a job analysis is completed, and a list of behaviours drawn out from this, the next thing to do is create a set of exercises that will test the range of the behaviours. This is why there are typically 3-4 exercises in an assessment centre as each exercise will test a specific set of behaviours. You can then see if that same behaviour is displayed in another exercise.

The next stage is probably the most difficult part of an assessment centre – to draw up the competency framework that clearly defines each behaviour expected to be displayed in each exercise. This framework is then tested with incumbents and a group of managers who in effect validate the exercises and the competency framework.

That’s not it though! A set of mock exercises need to be carried out with incumbents and typically videoed so that you can deliver effective training to the managers expected to take part. The manager’s role on the day is to observe candidates against the criteria and make a judgement at the end of the day if the candidate is suitable or not. The mock exercises and training serve as a platform for consistency and fairness for the candidates and understanding of the exercises themselves.

The final piece is for the manages to understand how to conduct a ‘wash up’. The wash up is where you discuss the performance of each candidate once all exercises have been completed and all notes written up. From the mock exercises, there will have been an agreed pass mark, and agreed fail mark, and an agreed discussion mark. The pass and fail marks are self explanatory. The discussion marks are where a candidate has shown some of the desired behaviours but hasn’t been consistent with this in all exercises. The managers then need to discuss and decide should they be given a pass or a fail.

And that my dear friends is the science behind assessment centres. I’ve not talked about psychometrics as that requires a whole post to itself. I’ve also not talked about development centres as again that will be for another post.

Note, I’ve not said an occ psych needs to be the one who carries out all of the above. It tends to be occ psychs who are brought in to do all this, but it could equally be done by someone following the process.

Posts in this series:

The science of… Psychometrics
The science of… Competency Frameworks
The science of… Ergonomics
The science of… Appraisals
The science of… Learning and Development
The science of… Occupational Psychology

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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