The assessment center: a method for pre-employment testing

A company is nothing without its employees, so good ones are vital. Especially with employees requiring a skillset, the wrong choice can cause some problems. When choosing the right employees, it is not only the professional qualification which plays a role, but also soft skills, general problem solving ability, and agreeing with the values of the company. These factors cannot really be noticed in a resume. Short interviews only give a rather superficial impression of the candidate. The assessment center with the corresponding tests and exercises reveals much more: Does the applicant fit into the company or not?

What is an assessment center?

The assessment center (AC) is a method by which applicants go through various job assessment tests, mainly psychological tests, to check their suitability for a job. It is therefore a form of pre-employment testing. As a rule, candidates are invited to the selection procedure for one or more days and compete more or less against each other. You will be accompanied by so-called assessors: professional observers, who are usually also involved in the preparation of the tests and who at the end take over the evaluation. The observations during the entire process play just as important a role as the actual test results.

In job assessment tests, there is usually no or very little expert knowledge required. Whether an applicant has the professional qualification for a job advertised is usually checked beforehand on the basis of their resume. The AC is located in a later application round in which the circle of applicants has already shrunk to a manageable group. During the assessment, the candidates are checked for the following questions through special exercises:

  • How does the respondent react to stressful situations?
  • What is the candidate's group dynamic behavior like?
  • How well does the candidate deal with unknown problems?

These key questions already show that the results of the tests are actually of secondary importance. The examiners, on the other hand, pay attention to behavior during the task: for example, one wishes for a calm, analytical candidate who can successfully master challenges both alone and in a group – even under stress. The psychological reports thus give an impression of whether the candidate is generally suitable for such a (management) position – regardless of the actual field of work.

Fact

In more and more assessment centers the professional examination is linked with psychological tests. This can lend a more everyday feel to the abstract selection procedure.

The selection procedure is comparatively complex: While a typical job interview can be conducted without extensive preparation, on your own premises, and with the company's employees, assessment centers are far more costly and time-consuming. Many companies decide to rent extra rooms and have the process carried out by an external, specialized company. Therefore, assessment centers are usually only suitable for the selection of executives or at least for positions in the upper range.

However, some companies also allow trainees and volunteers to go through procedures like this – especially if they intend to commit themselves to the future employee for a long time. Large companies, in particular, not only use assessment centers for personnel selection, but also have employees checked by the procedure. In the context of personnel development, employees can be selected for further training.

Different types of assessment center

Since the first pre-employment tests were carried out (selection procedure like these go as far back as the Chinese Middle Ages), various versions have been established in companies. Technical developments also play a role.

Classic assessment center

The classic assessment center takes between one and three days to find an applicant for an advertised position (usually a management position). A manageable group of applicants is invited to complete several hours of exercises and tests, partly alone and partly in the group.

Individual assessment center

In the case of individual ACs, there is no cooperation within the group. The applicant is considered completely isolated from other candidates. The main reason for this is data protection. Other applicants should not always learn about each other, e.g. if invited candidates are still in an employment relationship that has not been terminated. In addition, wrong decisions, e.g. due to contrasting effects, can be avoided in individual assessments.

Management audit

In most cases, assessment centers are conducted to select the right person for a specific job. But this does not always have to be the case: The assessment center can also be used as an analysis tool for existing teams. In a management audit, for example, managers are checked for performance and development potential. This is usually followed by changes in personnel policy. Since employees are part of the company value, a management audit can also be part of the assessment of this value, e.g. in the context of a takeover by another company.

Development assessment center

The development assessment center (also known as the "development center") tries to find potentials for improvement. Participants are employees of a company. As with other forms of AC, the strengths and weaknesses of the participants are analyzed in the tests. This can be followed by an individual evaluation, which provides the employee with information on the points in which they need to improve in order to increase their performance and overall career opportunities. The company management can also provide the individual employee with more effective further training measures in this way.

Online assessment

Through further technical developments, assessment centers can also be carried out online. Participants do not have to arrive at a specific location at a specific time, but can take the pre-employment tests from home and often at a time of their choice. The candidates have to solve tasks and tests via input masks and questionnaires.

In order to simulate the stress situation of the classic assessment center, time limits or time measurements are often a visible part of the tests, i.e. the time runs as soon as the applicant activates the selection procedure. Personal conversations or group tasks are usually omitted, although this would also be possible via internet-based video telephony. The standardized tests make computer-aided evaluations possible.

The advantage of online assessment centers is that it saves time and money for both applicants and companies. The disadvantage, however, is that there is no personal observation of the candidate, which results in a more superficial result than in the classic procedure. In addition, the applicant must ensure that all technical requirements are met throughout the entire duration of the test. Even today, this is not necessarily the case.

Fact

Online assessments can also be part of an extensive e-recruiting procedure. This allows the applicant to be guided seamlessly through the application process, resulting in a positive candidate experience and allowing the company to gather all the information in one place.

Procedure of the assessment center: exercises, tasks, and tests

Every assessment center is different, and yet all are in some ways the same: certain exercises or situations occur in most ACs. What they all have in common, for example, is that they create a stress situation for the candidates. It is not intended for applicants to feel particularly comfortable. Instead, the stress factor is artificially increased. Under these conditions, they are given unique but also typical assessment center tasks.

Interview/self-presentation

At the beginning of employment testing assessments, an interview usually takes place, which comes close to a classic job interview. Instead of the question-and-answer game, however, a free self-presentation can also be required of the candidate. This serves, on the one hand, to get to know the candidate better. On the other hand, there are first hints on how the participant acts in such situations, which for most are rather unpleasant. Sovereignty and authenticity are qualities that are in the foreground here.

Role play

Role-playing is also likely to occur in all assessment centers. Role plays usually take place in a group, if it is not an individual assessment center. Different, mostly contrary roles are distributed among the group members. Typical examples are fictitious conversations between leaders and subordinates that arise out of a fictitious tense situation. The conversation between buyer and seller is also common. Both sides are observed: How do the people deal with conflicts and how willing are they to compromise, but also how convincing are the participants?

Mailbox exercise

The mailbox exercise is almost legendary: originally with actual mailboxes, but now also carried out on computers with e-mail software, messages, notes and appointments have to be processed – under time pressure. What is stored in which folder? What needs to be processed immediately? What do you pass on to colleagues? An additional difficulty arises from the fact that some tasks contradict each other and new incoming messages throw the newly created system overboard. With this assessment center test, assessors primarily test participants for organizational talent, effectiveness, and the ability to work properly even under time pressure.

Case studies

Case studies are also popular. Here the candidates are presented with concrete cases from the company’s everyday life, either in a group or individually. After a fixed time, the candidates have to present a solution. Since case studies are not as abstract as other assessment center exercises, specialist knowledge is also required. In addition, these tasks can be used to test general problem-solving competence and, under certain circumstances, the ability to work in a team. However, the solution itself is not the only thing that is considered in the end. Assessors also ask the applicants questions about the procedure. Each individual should describe how they developed the solution.

Fact finding

Another classic task in assessment centers is the fact-finding exercise, which largely corresponds to the principle of the case study, since a concrete problem must also be solved here. The difference: Not all relevant information is given to the applicants. On the other hand, an uninvolved third party is provided who serves as an expert for the research. With specific questions, the participants must obtain all the information required for the solution from the expert. In addition to problem solving, the ability to carry out searches successfully also plays an important role.

Questionnaires

Standardized questionnaires are particularly popular for online assessments, but are also used in classic assessment centers. A distinction is made between intelligence tests and psychometric tests. The former are known to measure the intelligence quotient. Psychometric tests, on the other hand, aim to find out more about the personality of the test persons. If the interviews are carried out using software, the evaluation can also be carried out very quickly.

Final discussion

Each assessment center session ends with a final discussion. In a confidential one-on-one interview, the candidate is asked about their experiences, and asked for a self-assessment. Here, the participant also has the chance to address bad performance during the AC and explain it. Then the assessors also give feedback and explain how they assess the candidate. In some cases, position acceptances or cancelations are made. However, the selection is often made at a later date after having enough time to evaluate the results.

Breaks

Since assessment centers usually last one to three days, there are regular breaks. These breaks are spent in part in the presence of the examiners, so perhaps these breaks aren’t the respite they seem. There are lots of different ways you could be assessed during a break, ranging from table manners, to driving habits to how you have a normal conversation. This doesn’t mean, however, that you need to be paranoid, or change how you normally behave. As you can see in the three examples of break assessment above, these observations are all based on every day interactions, and it might just boil down to how you fit in with the rest of the company. These are hardly part of official assessments, but assessors still perceive things as they spend time with you, and so it can be considered to be part of the AC.

Advantages and disadvantages of the AC

Due to the intense interaction with the applicants, you can get a much more detailed idea of each individual. A letter of motivation, CV, and job interview give a good first impression and convey the technical skills. But to actually get to know the applicant, it is best to see them in person. This can only happen during work-like activities. The assessment center tries to minimize uncertainty by dealing with the candidate in detail, and under special conditions.

Whether a person is stress-resistant, team-oriented, and solution-oriented can only be found out in a less intensive application process. Entrepreneurs and HR must rely on the statements of the applicant. The assessment center is usually carried out by experts. The assessments therefore take place on the basis of specialist knowledge, in contrast to the job interview, where you may have to resort to gut feeling. A thorough examination of the applicants ensures greater satisfaction on both sides, because the future employee fits in better with the company, meets the requirements, and will ultimately feel better. Fluctuations are reduced.

However, the assessment center does not just bring benefits. Most obvious drawbacks are the costs involved. Since a company will in most cases opt for an external company to carry out the AC tasks, it can be expected that the AC is cost heavy. In addition, there may be additional rent for premises and the cost of boarding and accommodating applicants. The assessment center is also very complicated for them: they invest time and travel, and in the end there may not be a new job.

However, the assessment center is only an effective selection procedure if no methodological errors creep in. Assessors must pay particular attention to three pitfalls: manipulation, conflicts of interest, and sympathy decisions. The tests themselves are also dangerous. Defectively provided, standardized tests can let you recognize which answer is favored by the assessors and potential employers. In this way, applicants in the assessment center can easily manipulate their own presentation.

It is also important not to forget, especially with external assessors, that they are only human beings and are susceptible to subjective decisions. Companies that offer assessment centers must generate sales and justify their results. This pressure can lead to falsification of the results. In addition, even auditors in an AC are not free of sympathies: Extraverted persons are usually judged better than reserved applicants – even if this characteristic does not necessarily say anything about their qualifications.

Summary

Despite high costs: If an assessment center is carried out conscientiously, the effort can also be financially worthwhile for a company. Poorly filled positions and high fluctuation generate high costs. A well-chosen employee, on the other hand, is very efficient and can provide higher profits.

Panic at the assessment center? Preparation can help

For entrepreneurs, the assessment center may be the perfect selection procedure. For most participants, however, the invitation to the AC is associated with thoughts of horror. However, this is not only unnecessary, it also reduces the chances of shining in the tasks and tests. Those who are nervous in advance will probably find it even more difficult under the artificial pressure. That's why most of the tips are less aimed at concrete task solutions, but rather at a general, above all calm constitution during the procedure.

Since the concrete tasks are not known in advance, it is hardly possible to prepare solutions. Although it may be advisable to practice the mailbox exercise in advance, it doesn’t necessarily have to be used. Due to its enormous popularity, more and more assessment centers are ceasing to use this exercise – the participants are too well prepared for this situation.

What you can actually practice in advance, if you are not already trained in it: free speaking and presenting. In every assessment center, you get the situation of having to give a presentation. Either about a certain topic or simply about yourself. By getting into a routine in presenting, the presentation becomes more relaxed and at the same time you appear more professional: less faltering, fewer filler words, more attention from the listeners.

In addition to this ability, it is above all the attitude that can be influenced. Applicants should not regard the assessment center as a tough test under continuous observation, but as an opportunity to prove their own abilities. If you bear these simple pieces of advice in mind, you’re prepared as best as you can be.

Spontaneous and authentic

As an applicant, one must bear in mind that assessors have probably been successfully carrying out their profession for several years. In the process, they have developed a knowledge of human nature. They notice immediately when you are pretending. If you recite learned phrases by heart, it will be very obvious to the assessor. Instead, participants should behave as naturally as possible. Perfection is not expected.

Be successful, but not at all costs

In most professions, a healthy level of ambition and the will to win are well received. But those who exaggerate their competitive attitude will quickly lose points in an assessment center. The other participants in the AC should not be perceived as competitors, but as colleagues – this also helps to prove the ability to work in a team.

Know your own weaknesses

Just as in the job interview, the hated question of one's own weaknesses will also arise in the assessment center. Of course, everyone wants to present their strengths, but it is important to be aware of their weaknesses – and to show them. This proves the willingness to work on the weaknesses. If you desperately try to hide your less positive side, you will convey the wrong signals.

Clear boundaries

The willingness to compromise is a very important factor, which is also closely related to the desire to work in a team. But if you don't take any standpoints, you're either dishonest or not assertive. If you express different views during individual and group discussions, you directly disqualify yourself. To speak up for important points of view, but also to show understanding for other views – that might be the better way.

Stay friendly

Under the pressure of an assessment center, you might easily lose your nerve. However, this is never an excuse for being unfriendly, rude, or impatient with the other participants or assessors. You won’t prove your own strength by making others feel worse. Therefore, saying bad things behind others’ backs is never a good idea and karma is guaranteed to get its revenge.

The world doesn’t revolve around you, the applicant

All participants of an assessment center are in the same boat. They were all invited because they stood out from perhaps several hundred applications. That's why you shouldn't feel too much in the spotlight as an applicant. If you think only of yourself and your own performance, solve tasks alone, and always want to set the tone in interviews, it shows that you cannot work in a team. You make a better impression if you support the other participants.

Summary

No reason to panic: If you are open, friendly, and motivated, the most important hurdle has already been overcome.


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