An assessment center is a process used to make personnel decisions in which participants engage in a variety of exercises and have their performance evaluated by multiple assessors. The goal of an assessment center is to simulate job tasks so that an applicant can demonstrate skills or characteristics that would be effective on the job.

According to the International Task Force on Assessment Center Guidelines, assessment centers:

Behavioral dimensions that are frequently measured in assessment centers include planning and organizing, leadership, oral communication, tolerance for stress, and initiative. Participants have their performance on these and similar dimensions evaluated while they engaging in two or more of the following activities over a one- or two-day period:

Evaluations of assessment center participants can be used for employee selection decisions (hiring and promotion), and to help identify training and development needs. The most common use of assessment centers is to evaluate participants' management potential. When used for selection or promotion decisions, the emphasis is on identifying participants who do well on essential job performance dimensions. When used for training and development purposes, the focus is on identifying participant deficiencies on critical job dimensions. The feedback and employee development suggestions that result from an assessment form the basis for training programs that are designed to correct performance problems. For organizations, assessment centers can serve as needs assessment programs that identify employee development and hiring needs.

Early versions of assessment centers were used by the military in the 1940s. The first use of an assessment center in an industrial setting was in the 1950s, when AT&T used the process in an attempt to evaluate participants' potential for managerial success. The results of this early assessment center application were encouraging, and assessment center use increased following AT&T's apparent success. According to one study by Gaugler, Rosenthal, Thornton, and Bentson, by 1987 more than 2,000 organizations, including Pepsico, IBM, Rubbermaid, and the FBI, used assessment centers to select and promote managers.

As the use of assessment centers increased during the 1960s and 1970s, researchers identified several ways in which their utility as a personnel selection tool could be improved. In 1973, Bender suggested that companies should undertake validation studies to ensure that assessment centers actually predicted managerial success. He also pointed out that assessors should be more thoroughly trained before they evaluated assessment center participants.

In an attempt to encourage uniformity and professionalism in assessment center practices, the Task Force on Assessment Center Guidelines published Guidelines and Ethical Considerations for Assessment Center Operations in 1989. These guidelines were updated in 2000 and endorsed by the International Congress on Assessment Center Methods. They spell out the essential elements of assessment centers and provide recommendations regarding the content of assessor training, information participants should receive before beginning the assessment center, data usage, and validation methods. In addition, these guidelines provide a standard for judging assessment center practices employed by organizations.

The preponderance of research evidence indicates that, when designed and conducted in a manner consistent with professional guidelines, assessment centers are valid predictors of future promotions and job performance. Additional research suggests that assessment centers have less adverse impact on women and minorities than many other commonly used selection tools, and courts generally have upheld the use of properly designed assessment centers.

The primary criticism of assessment centers is that they are very expensive in terms of both development and implementation, which makes their use infeasible for many small organizations. Other researchers question the convergent and discriminant validity of the measurement of behavioral dimensions in assessment centers. One method used to overcome the expense problem is to videotape the candidates' performance and have the assessors evaluate them later. This avoids costs and problems related to the logistics of assembling candidates and assessors. Another technique is to use "situational judgment tests," or written simulation tests. Candidates either choose the best course of action from a selection of choices or provide a written course of action. Research indicates that situational judgment tests are good predictors of job performance.

SEE ALSO: Employee Evaluation and Performance Appraisals ; Employee Recruitment Planning ; Employee Screening and Selection

Tim Barnett

Revised by Judith M. Nixon


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