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Assessment Centers, Part I

Written by Charles Hale

The quality of a law enforcement agency is directly attributable to the quality of its personnel, from the rookie patrol officer to the seasoned middle-manager and chief executive. The men and women who serve their communities as police officers represent the single most important resource of any police agency.

In recent years greater attention has been given to the need to find fair, objective and reliable means of hiring and promoting the best possible persons in entry-level, supervisory, and management positions. Today, law enforcement agencies are seeking more sophisticated ways in which to evaluate the potential of candidates to fill critical positions in their organizations. The assessment center is one such method.

An assessment center is not a place but rather a process in which candidates for a position is exposed to a series of exercises which are designed to reflect the typical duties to be performed by persons in that position. These exercises are carefully designed so as to ensure consistency in application and relevance to the duties of the position for which candidates are being tested.

Structured rating forms and evaluation procedures are employed to achieve universality in candidate grading. Multiple trained observers and techniques are used to ensure that a fair and thorough evaluation of candidates is achieved.

The assessment center process differs from more traditional examination methods in that it is a test of skill and ability rather than knowledge. Because of this, candidates do not have the ability to study because they are tested on what they can do rather than on what they know. Used in both the public sector and in private industry, assessment centers have proven to offer a higher degree of reliability and insight into supervisory or management potential than is possible with other examination methods.

Since candidates usually feel that the assessment center is much more fair and job-related than other types of examinations, they are less inclined to challenge the results of an assessment center. Post-test surveys reveal that a very high percentage of participants feel that the test was a fair way for them to be evaluated and that the process was a meaningful and practical test of their ability.

Candidates who are honest with themselves will usually admit to their failure to “measure up,” and only the most cynical test-taker will blame anyone but themselves for failure. Fairness and impartiality are absolutely essential in any kind of promotional process and will yield positive dividends long after the process has ended.

Another important characteristic of the assessment center process is that it creates a learning environment for the participants. If they are honest with themselves, and if they enter into the assessment center process with an open mind and a willingness of learning, they will identify their own shortcomings and will learn how to improve their own job performance.

Not only do assessment centers better prepare them for the challenges of the future, but they help them learn to cope with the demands of their present job.

Unlike written examinations, which ask the candidate to read and memorize theories and concepts that may be only indirectly related to the job for which they are applying, assessment centers place candidates in the position they are seeking to determine how well they can perform tasks typical of those performed by persons in that position.

For example, a candidate competing for a position as a police sergeant might be expected to conduct an interview with a citizen complaining about rude conduct on the part of an officer, or to conduct a performance evaluation session with a marginal officer in an effort to get the officer “back on track.” These are things that a sergeant is expected to do, and these tests can determine if the candidate has the ability to perform capably in that position.

Properly-designed and well-administrated assessment centers are also easily defended if challenged in court or in civil service proceedings. This is particularly true if the process is designed and administered by a qualified consultant or tenting organization, if outside evaluators are used, and if internally-approved guidelines are strictly followed.

For example, an assessment center must comply with certain requirements: 1) assessors should be thoroughly familiar with the duties and responsibilities of the position for which the candidates are being evaluated and must be trained in assessment center methods and techniques; 2) multiple assessors are used in evaluating the performance of candidates; 3) multiple assessment techniques, including at least one simulation exercise, must be included in the process.

Assessment centers are quite versatile and can be used to evaluate candidates for a wide range of positions. While they are frequently used as a part of a promotional examination process for police and fire personnel, they have also been used to evaluate candidates for city manager, public works director, finance director and personnel manager.

Some jurisdictions have also used assessment centers to test candidates for entry-level positions. The uses of assessment centers and the scope and nature of their contents is limited only by the imagination of their creators and the financial resources of the organizations employing them.

Since they employ highly-structured evaluation techniques and multiple raters, assessment centers can be much more objective than other kinds of evaluation devices, such as oral interview examinations. Because they are based on the actual dimensions of the job for which a candidate is being considered, the results are more reliable and can predict future job performance more accurately than other testing devices.

Assessment centers, however, are not a panacea nor should they be used as the exclusive means by which to judge a person’s ability to perform the duties of a particular position. Other testing methods, including written examinations and a review of the person’s work history and educational achievements, as well as peer and supervisory ratings, can play an important role in predicting future job performance and should be considered as well.

Assessment centers also have uses that go beyond predicting future job performance. For example, assessment centers can be used to assist individuals in learning more about their strengths and weaknesses so that they can better prepare themselves to advance their career. They can also be used to evaluate training deficiencies in the individual as well as in the organization.

In some cases, an assessment center may reveal that candidates generally have a difficult time in dealing with personnel-related problems, or in trying to pacify an angry citizen, or in speaking before a public audience. This may suggest the need for additional training or for a reorientation of the training program itself. Deficiencies in organizational policies or procedures may also be identified through the assessment center method.

Clearly, assessment centers represent a significant investment in the future of the organization and in the career achievements of its personnel. They have proven themselves as a reliable and effective way to predict future job performance and they have been widely accepted by both labor and management as a fair and impartial way of determining who will be promoted.

Now, more than ever before, police administrators, civil service commissions, and personnel managers are finding the assessment center process as a preferred method of evaluating individuals for both entry-level positions and for promotions to positions of higher authority and responsibility.

Charles D. Hale is the president of Resource Management Associates, an organization that specializes in designing and administering customized written examinations and assessment centers for police and fire personnel. Charles is the author of Police Patrol, and The Assessment Center Handbook for Police and Fire Personnel. He may be reached at RMA2500@aol.com.


Published in Law and Order, Feb 2005

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