Imagine: several job applicants are invited to spend a few days in the same place, where they are given a variety of more or less difficult tasks, and their attempts at solving them are scrutinized by psychologists and executives from the company. All of this is done simply in order to determine the early-career candidate or home-grown ‘high potential’ employee who is most suitable for the job.
This is a costly procedure in terms of both time and money, and quite a few businesses wonder whether it is worth all the hassle. But is it possible to determine how efficient or inefficient assessment centres are? Capabilities are difficult to judge. The institutional memory of businesses is so poor that no one realizes that the successful managing director of one’s biggest competitor was, ten or fifteen years ago, judged unfit at one’s own assessment centre.
One insurance company found itself in the happy situation of actually being able to assess the effectiveness of its selection procedure. The sales department, along with human resources, organized an assessment centre and selected a number of sales employees who seemed suitable. But then the market exploded, and the company found itself having to offer jobs to candidates it had originally rejected at the assessment centre. It then handed the sales figures of those two groups of employees to a student, who was charged with calculating the extent to which the originally accepted candidates outperformed those who were originally rejected in terms of insurance policies sold.
The company was in for a surprise: the figures for the two groups did not differ significantly. On some measures, the erstwhile rejects were even better than those who had originally been accepted. In seeking to explain this failure, the usual suspects are easy to name: the process was insufficiently rigorous, the psychologists were not professional enough, and the assessor training for the internal managers was ineffective. This perspective implies a call for progress in the assessment industry as a whole, a call for even better procedures, better training for advisors and assessors, so that similar mishaps can be avoided in future. And a brief look at the growing number of dissertations, research projects, and publications in this area shows that this call has not gone unheeded: the field is booming.
The hidden functions of assessment centres
Some critics, however, adopt an altogether different perspective. The quality of the decisions produced by assessment centres, some suspect, is no better than that of those produced by other established selection procedures, such as school leaving examinations, drawing lots, nepotism, or the more or less arbitrary decisions of superiors. Heretical voices point out the ‘cattle market’ character of assessment centres: all the breeding bulls need do is strut around and present themselves confidently, and this says little about their future performance within the company. As ‘conclusive evidence’ of the uselessness of assessment centres some point to the fact that, as a rule, those consultancy firms that offer them do not use them to choose their own employees.
Is this reason enough to do without assessment centres and to adopt cheaper selection procedures instead? Not necessarily. For there are two functions performed by assessment centres that are not to be found in the brochures, handouts, and PowerPoint presentations of assessment advisors and human resource departments. When it comes to these two functions, the applicants, officially the raison d’être of the whole affair, only play the part of extras. The lead actors are to be found on the other side: the internal managers and assessors.
Managers of long standing often resist any attempts at teaching them cutting-edge leadership skills. Citing lack of time, their highly satisfied employees, or the inefficiency of leadership training, they will typically reject any invitation to reflect on their own leadership style. Over the course of their training to be an assessor, however, it is possible to subtly teach them the crucial criteria for success in modern leadership. The application of these criteria in the observation of applicants then allows the criteria to sink in, without the managers feeling as though they have been sent back to school.
Rationalizing what cannot be decided rationally
But assessment centres have an even more important role. Hiring new staff and deciding on promotions are delicate matters: personal taste, departmental self-interest, nepotism, and the professional background of the decision-makers all play important roles. This is an ideal breeding ground for serious micro-political conflict, which is often aggravated by the absence of clear rules about who has ultimate decision-making authority. In this situation, assessment centres offer a formal way of making hiring decisions.
Interested parties among the company’s leadership can be involved in the decision-making process in the role of assessors, allowing them to see at first hand that the hiring procedure is impartial and objective. Being able to point to the ‘objectivity’ and ‘rationality’ of the assessment centre procedures allows any criticism of the decisions made to be effectively deflected. Should one of the applicants turn out to be a flop, it is not possible to hold an individual manager responsible; instead, responsibility lies with the procedure or the advisors involved. For instance, Miller was selected because she received the highest scores in all the exercises and conversations, so it was not possible to foresee that she would fail so miserably in the actual job.
Pacifying the organization
The main function of the assessment centre is thus to pacify an organization faced with high-risk decisions and to provide managers with an effective method of rejecting any blame. The applicants and their qualities, in the end, play only a subordinate role. Of course, this method of pacification only works as long as everyone involved is convinced of the objectivity of the procedures followed in the assessment centre, or at least pretends that they are.
This means that criticism of the assessment centre must be kept to a minimum – not because the quality of the applicants is what matters but because there is really no other way of pacifying organizations in the context of high-risk decisions, such as employment decisions. Incidentally, the study of the sales department employees is not publicly available; it rests securely in the insurance company’s vaults.