How to get the most out of Assessment Centres

Assessment centres are a great way for employers to test various competencies from a vast array of candidates. They help to give an overall picture of a candidate and how they might fit into your organisation. How can you make the most of an assessment centre and when is the appropriate time to use one? We talked to Ciara Holohan, Occupational Psychology consultant at Aon’s Assessment Solutions, who helped answer the questions above as well as many more.

Assessment centres may be defined as a method for assessing candidates’ aptitude and performance to obtain information about their abilities or development potential to understand if they would be suited to a particular role/organisation.”, began Ciara when we asked her to define assessment centres.

She continued, “Assessment centres can indicate whether an individual has the ability to do the job that they have applied for, and how they might perform in that role if they were hired. Trained assessors look for certain behaviours in the candidate which indicate whether they would be a good fit for the role/organisation.”

To assess the criteria Ciara outlined above, assessment centres contain different group exercises which will help an employer to assess various candidates.

  • A case study is when a group is asked to deal with a scenario based on a real-life business situation and to present its findings.
  • For a discussion group, candidates are given a topic, often a recent news story, to discuss amongst themselves.
  • A leaderless task is when Each member of the group is given an individual briefing document. As a group, they must come up with a decision acceptable to everyone within a time limit.

As assessment centres are designed to test a range of abilities and personality traits, individual sessions also form part of the experience. Some of the tests that can be used are outlined below.

  • For an in-tray exercise, candidates are presented with a series of letters or emails varying in degrees of importance and given about 30–60 minutes to tackle it.
  • In a case study, participants will be given a business scenario and asked to imagine they are advising a client or colleague based on the evidence provided.
  • For presentations, graduates will be asked to prepare this in advance. They will be told the subject and length of the presentation and the visual aids available.

But why should an employer use an assessment centre and are they used in conjunction with one-on-one interviews or instead of them?

Ciara explains, “An employer would choose to use an assessment centre as they allow candidates multiple opportunities to display specific competencies that are important to the organisation. Assessment centres can indicate to employers whether candidates are capable and have the potential to develop in the role. An interview is usually included as one of the exercises in an assessment centre, and this may take the form of a one-on-one interview or a panel interview

As outlined previously, there is a myriad of ways to test potential candidates in an assessment centre but what specifically should an employer be looking for in each specific candidate?

Employers are looking for a specific set of competencies that are important to the organisation”, says Ciara, “a competency can be described as the knowledge, skills, abilities and personal attributes that contribute to enhanced employee performance. Examples of competencies that we may be looking for at assessment centres include effective communication, teamwork/collaboration, problem-solving, and customer/client focus.”

There is no single method that is right for all employers to use to evaluate candidates. All of the various methods present their own challenges and assessment centres are no different. Ciara outlined what challenges an employer may face when preparing for and using an assessment centre.

The most challenging aspects of setting up an assessment centre from an employer’s perspective is logistics. Usually, there are three different activities during an assessment centre – group exercise, individual exercise and an interview. It takes a lot of planning, scheduling and organising to ensure all candidates are allocated to each of the three activities at a different time, in a different room, with a different assessor. It is also really important that the timetable is followed correctly and is strictly adhered to so that the assessment centre runs as smoothly and successfully as possible

Based on what Ciara has said above, this information can help an employer determine whether or not using an assessment centre is the right method to use when recruiting candidates for their organisation.

Assessment centres require meticulous preparation as well as a considerable amount of labour depending on how many actives the candidates have to engage with, “Assessment centres usually run for half a day, but may run for a full day if there are several activities to get through”, she said.

To make the most out of assessment centres from an employer perspective, they have to be fun for the candidates whilst also being challenging. The day or half-day dedicated to assessing must bring out the best in each candidate so that an employer can truly evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. Ciara explains how best to make assessment centres a good experience for candidates whilst also challenging them to the best of their abilities.

Employers can make assessment centres a good experience for potential candidates whilst also challenging them in several ways. Firstly, tailoring the activities to the organisation or industry creates a good experience for the candidates, as the exercises are relevant to the role that the candidate has applied for and may provide candidates with some insight into what the role would involve. Secondly, sticking to the timetable and ensuring that the session runs as smoothly as possible is important, as this ensures that candidates are not waiting around between exercises for long periods and creates a better candidate experience. Finally, having assessors who are interested and engaged is really important, as this creates a good experience for candidates, whilst also possibly challenging them in the individual exercise or the interview where there is opportunity to engage with the assessors.”

Depending on the size and values of an organisation, assessment centres may not be the best way to assess candidates for an employer. It’s important to consider all of the points raised above before a business decides to use an assessment centre. If this is the road an organisation wants to travel, then all of the insights that Ciara has spoken about will help an employer to put together a centre that is not just right for them, but for the candidates also.

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