Assessment centers are used in many different types of organizations to evaluate personnel. Assessment centers may be established for a variety of human resources applications, from recruiting and hiring to determining training needs in the organization. While the specifics of assessment centers vary with their application, they share certain characteristics. These include a trained group of assessors, situational tests or exercises that participants must complete, and an assessment method that involves pooling the judgments of the assessors to reach a final evaluation of each participant.

Assessment centers function as integral parts of an organization's human resource management system. When an assessment center is being set up, it must be designed with a specific purpose in mind. A preliminary statement of organizational objectives may be drawn up, indicating who is to be assessed, who the assessors will be, what target positions will be tested for, and other considerations.

Once the basic objectives have been determined, the first step in creating an assessment center is called job analysis. The requirements of the target job or position are defined, as are the dimensions required for success in the target job. These dimensions include such factors as skills, qualities, attributes, motivation, knowledge, and tasks. The job analysis provides a basis for building situational exercises, observing behavior of the participants, evaluating their effectiveness, and giving feedback.

Once the job analysis has been completed, situational exercises are designed. These are simulations that portray important aspects of the target job. Typical exercises used in assessment centers include preparing written reports, making oral presentations, answering mail or memos, and talking with customers about a complaint. The situational tests or exercises provide assessors with an opportunity to observe different behaviors of the participants that are related to the target position. Thus, it is important that the situational exercises represent essential features of the target job, but not necessarily the entire job.

An essential feature of assessment centers is that the situational exercises must elicit some form of behavior from the participants that is consistent with the performance required on the job. The participants must display overt behavior, rather than covert behavior that is characteristic of taking an exam, for example. Typically there is some interaction between participants, as in a group discussion or oral presentation. The participants' overt behavior provides assessors with a basis for evaluation. Assessors should not need to make any inferences about covert behavior, such as what the participants were thinking.

The situational exercises should be complex enough that assessors are able to use multiple assessment techniques. Participants are expected to engage in complex behavior, and that behavior is observed by trained assessors. The assessors' observations consist of specific statements about observable behavior, without any inferences or interpretations. For example, an assessor may report that a participant spoke loudly (observable behavior), but not that the participant was angry (an inference).

It is essential that multiple assessors be involved in an assessment center, and that each participant be evaluated by more than one assessor. In this way the effect of any bias among the assessors is minimized. After the situational exercises have been completed and the assessors have completed their evaluations, all of the assessments are then pooled.

There are different methods for pooling assessments. The two major methods used are group discussion and statistical integration. In the group discussion method, the assessors meet and discuss their evaluations of each participant. Discrepancies between different evaluations are noted and discussed. Ultimately, a consensus is reached and a final evaluation produced for each participant. The group discussion process is highly judgmental, with individual judgments playing an important role throughout the pooling process.

Some organizations prefer using statistical integration to pool the different assessments and reach a final evaluation of the participants. Under this method, a five-point scale is typically used, and assessors rank participants for each dimension they are evaluating. Each dimension may be weighted in terms of its relative importance to the target position. At the end of the session, the weighted rankings are mathematically combined to reach a final evaluation for each participant.

Assessment centers have proven to be successful for a variety of human resources applications. Assessment centers have been set up to show job applicants from outside the company what they would experience under the company's management, to show them what management entails, and to discover their own managerial strengths. They can be used to select job applicants and identify those most likely to succeed on the job. They can be used to place new employees in the most appropriate departments. They have also been used to diagnose employee deficiencies and identify areas that need additional training.

In the area of performance appraisal, assessment centers can be used to certify the competence of individuals to perform specific technical skills. They can be used to evaluate candidates for managerial positions, usually in combination with current performance appraisals. When layoffs are necessary, assessment centers can give employees the opportunity to demonstrate their qualifications for other positions with the company.

The most difficult types of assessment centers to design are those for an organization's own employees. Often, assessment centers are set up to sort people into two groups: those with high potential and those without, or those who will go on to a management development program and those who won't. Those employees not chosen may suffer from a lack of motivation and a sense of failure. To address this problem of demotivation, organizations have added an element of staff development to their assessment centers.

In true development centers, as opposed to assessment centers, information about employees is not used by the organization to make decisions about them. In hybrid centers, which combine aspects of assessment and development, the problems associated with traditional assessment centers can be avoided. Participants receive feedback on their performance and are encouraged to create their own personal development program. In this way, the experience has a developmental and motivational effect on the employees and avoids the problem of demotivation associated with some assessment centers.

[ David P Bianco ]


Griffiths, Peter, and Peter Goodge. "Development Centres: The Third Generation." Personnel Management, June 1994.

Kirksey, Jay. and Robert A. Zawacki. "Assessment Center Helps Find Team-Oriented Candidates." Personnel Journal, May 1994.

Spychalski, Annette C., et al. "A Survey of Assessment Center Practices in Organizations in the United States." Personnel Psychology, Spring 1997.

Woodruffe, Charles. Assessment Centres: Identifying and Developing Competence. New York: State Mutual Book and Periodical Service, 1993.

——. "Going Back a Generation." People Management, 20 February 1997.

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