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Pros and Cons of Assessment Centers

Written by Charles Hale

The assessment center process offers an alternative to traditional promotional examination processes. But it is not for everyone and it is not the ultimate solution to all problems associated with examinations. There are both advantages and disadvantages associated with the assessment center process.

Advantages
Properly designed and administered, assessment centers are more reliable than traditional testing methods in evaluating supervisory, managerial, and administrative potential. While there is not a great deal of empirical data to support the reliability of the assessment center method, its success is amply demonstrated by the growing number of police agencies that have chose it over other testing methods.

The materials used in the assessment center can be directly linked to the job for which candidates are being evaluated. For example, in the case of an assessment center for police sergeant, the employee-counseling, shift-meeting, and citizen-interview exercises clearly reflect the typical duties performed by a police sergeant in many municipal police agencies.

The assessment center is highly adaptable to all types of positions and assignments. Assessment centers, for example, can be designed for juvenile officers, community service officers, detectives, dispatchers, and jailers as well as for all ranks up to and including chief of police.

Assessment centers are easy to defend if challenged. Assuming, of course, that the assessment center included a thorough job analysis of the position for which candidates were being evaluated, and that the proper guidelines were following during its design and administration, successful challenges to the assessment center method are rare. This cannot be said for other types of testing programs.

The assessment center is eminently fair and objective. Properly-constituted assessment panels should reflect gender and ethnic diversity, and as such are fair and open to the dynamics of diversity in the workplace. In the vast majority of cases, there is little if any adverse impact in an assessment center compared with more traditional oral examinations and written examinations.

Assessment centers test what a person can do, not what they know. It is not enough to memorize abstract principles or philosophies. What is important is the ability to apply formal education in a real-world situation. A person may have a high intellect and a college degree but will be worthless as a supervisor if he is unable to make critical decisions under pressure or lacks the leadership ability to get subordinates to do what he wants them to.

For the most part, assessment centers are widely accepted and favored by candidates. The centers are usually seen as a fair and objective way of evaluating candidates for promotion or assignment. Most candidates participating in an assessment center believe the process to be a good test of their ability to do the job for which they are being considered.

Assessment center results can be used for multiple purposes. In addition to helping to make decisions about promotions and job assignments, assessment center results can be used to identify organizational deficiencies (such as poor internal communications), the need for new or revised procedures (citizen complaint procedures, for example) as well as organizational and individual training deficiencies (for instance interpersonal skills and report writing skills). Their versatility makes assessment centers an excellent and useful management tool.

Depending on how it is designed and administered, an assessment center can play an important role by providing feedback to candidates about their strengths and weaknesses, thus allowing them an important insight into their skills and abilities. Videotaped or written feedback from assessors, for example, may be very useful to candidates in preparing them for future advancement and may help them improve in future assessment centers. As a result, candidates receive a very tangible benefit from their participation in the process.

Disadvantages
The assessment center may not solve all the problems associated with promotional examinations. Some definite limitations are associated with assessment centers.

They cost much more than traditional testing programs. You can plan that, on an average, it may cost an agency up to $2,000 for each candidate to administer an assessment censer. While this cost can be diminished if you are able to do it “in-house” without using a consultant, or if you can obtain assessors at no or little costs, this is not always possible. Assessment centers are highly labor-intensive and time is money. They are often beyond the price limitations of an agency that is forced to live within a modest budget.

Assessment centers are difficult to administer and many things can go wrong. If you are using a professional testing firm to administer an assessment center, you will probably be relieved of many of the problems associated with them, but you need to nevertheless be aware of the problems.

Role players may fail to show up or may play their roles poorly. Video cameras can break down with the result that vital parts of the process are lost. Assessors may fail to conduct themselves in a professional manner and may be opinionated biased or intemperate. Improper instructions may be given with the result that a candidate is not given vital information. Candidates may talk among themselves about the process, thereby damaging the credibility of the process.

Some candidates feel uncomfortable in an assessment center and may complain that it is merely “role playing” and that the assessors don’t get a chance to know “the real me.” Others complain that the time spent with the assessors is too limited for the assessors to really know about a candidate.

Still others complain because all the things they have achieved prior to the assessment center—recommendations, degrees, special training and assignments—are not used by the assessors in evaluating their career potential. They don’t seem to realize that an assessment center is designed to predict future job performance rather than reward past accomplishments.

Assessment center results are not infallible. An assessment center can predict with uncanny accuracy whether a person has the capacity to perform, but may not predict how the person will perform in that position. A candidate may possess the ability to perform, but lack the willingness or motivation to do the job. This is why the results of an assessment center must be weighed against other factors, such as the person’s past work history as well as supervisory evaluations before making a decision to promote someone.

Improperly designed assessment centers may yield poor results and damage the reputation of the assessment center method. Some consultants refer to group oral interviews as “assessment centers,” while they fall far short of what an assessment center is supposed to be. The old adage that “you get what you pay for” is nowhere more thus. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right and any attempt to do an assessment center “on the cheap” is not likely to produce satisfactory results.

If you plan on using a professional firm to conduct the assessment center you must be prepared to relinquish control over an important part of the testing process to an outsider who has no vested interest in the outcome of the process, other than that of ensuring that it is fair and equitable to all. Some police administrators like to have strict control of their promotional testing process, and this is not usually possible when you use outside evaluators. However, that is an important part of the objectivity that reinforces the real value of an assessment center.

There is not much you can do to prepare for an assessment center. While there is usually a direct correlation between the amount of time you spend studying for a written examination and how you fare of that examination, this is not the case with an assessment center because you are measured on what you can do rather than on how much you know. This can be frustrating for someone who likes to study and always scores high on a pencil and paper test but who fares only averages in an assessment center. In the case of an assessment center, experience, not books, is the best teacher.

Before deciding whether to use an assessment center as a part of your promotional examination process, you would be well advised to talk to other people who have used them and learn from their experience. If possible, get an invitation to sit in an assessment center as an observer so that you can see first hand how it works. This will give you a much better idea about whether this is something you may want to consider in your next promotional examination.

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, Apr 2005

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