Surviving an Assessment Centre



The term assessment centre does not refer to a physical place, instead it describes an approach. Traditionally an assessment centre consisted of a suite of exercises designed to assess a set of personal characteristics, it was seen as a rather formal process where the individuals being assessed had the results fed back to them in the context of a simple yes/no selection decision. However, recently we have seen a definite shift in thinking away from this traditional view of an assessment centre to one which stresses the developmental aspect of assessment. A consequence of this is that today it is very rare to come across an assessment centre which does not have at least some developmental aspect to it, increasingly assessment centres are stressing a collaborative approach which involves the individual actively participating in the process rather than being a passive recipient of it. In some cases we can even find assessment centres that are so developmental in their approach that most of the assessment work done is carried out by the participants themselves and the major function of the centre is to provide the participants with feedback that is as much developmental as judgmental in nature.

Assessment centres typically involve the participants completing a range of exercises which simulate the activities carried out in the target job. Various combinations of these exercises and sometimes other assessment methods like psychometric testing and interviews are used to assess particular competencies in individuals. The theory behind this is that if one wishes to predict future job performance then the best way of doing this is to get the individual to carry out a set of tasks which accurately sample those required in the job and are as similar to them as possible. The particular competencies used will depend upon the target job but one will often find competencies such as relating to people; resistance to stress; planning and organising; motivation; adaptability and flexibility; problem solving; leadership; communication; decision making and initiative. There are numerous possible competencies and the ones which are relevant to a particular job are determined through job analysis.

The fact that a set of exercises is used demonstrates one crucial characteristic of an assessment centre - namely that it is behaviour that is being observed and measured. This represents a significant departure from many traditional selection approaches which rely on the observer or selector attempting to infer personal characteristics from behaviour based upon subjective judgement and usually precious little evidence. This approach is rendered unfair and inaccurate by the subjective whims and biases of the selector and in many cases produces a selection decision based on a freewheeling social interaction after which a decision was made as whether the individual's 'face fit' with the organisation.

The Use of Assessment Centres in The UK

We can trace the existence of assessment centres back to 1942 when they were used by War Office Selection Boards (Anstey, 1989). Their introduction stemmed from the fact that the existing system was resulting in a large proportion of those officers it had predicted would be successful being 'returned to unit' as unsuitable. This is hardly surprising when one considers that the system as it was relied on interviewing to select officers and had as selection criteria things like social and educational background. Even the criteria of 'achievement in the ranks' which one might imagine as being more job relevant included things like 'exceptional smartness'. No wonder unsuitable people were chosen as officers and potentially excellent officers overlooked. The assessment centre approach subsequently adopted was an attempt to accurately elicit the types of behaviour that an officer was required to display in order to be successful in their job. The tasks included leaderless group exercises, selection tests and individual interviews by a senior officer, junior officer and psychiatrist respectively. This new system resulted in a substantial drop in the proportion of officers being 'returned to unit' as unfit for duty. During the post war years this system was so successful that it was introduced for selection to the Civil Service and a variation of it is still used for officer selection in the armed forces to this day.

The Use of Assessment Centres in The US

In the United States assessment centres were initially used by the Office of Strategic Studies to select spies during the Second World War. Subsequently the use of assessment centres was taken up by the private sector especially the giant American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) which began using assessment centres for management selection in 1956 as well as Standard Oil Ohio, IBM, Sears and General Electric. There were differences between the US and UK approaches which largely stemmed from the original background to their introduction. In the UK a greater emphasis was placed on group exercises with an appointed leader, group discussions and long written exercises whereas in the US more emphasis was placed on in-tray exercises, leaderless group exercises with assigned roles and two person role plays (Woodruffe, 1993).

The use of Assessment Centres in Industry

Modern assessment centres in the UK tend now to follow the American format although there are still some which have their roots in the public sector Civil Service model. The growth of the use of assessment centres in the UK has been rapid. In 1986 Robertson and Makin reported that slightly more than one quarter of organisations who employed 500 people or more used assessment centres, in 1989 Mabey reported that more than one third of companies employing over 1000 people used them while most recently Boyle et al (1993) reported that 45% of organisations who responded used assessment centres and that their use was more prevalent in the private sector and by larger organisations. We have also seen a rise in the use of what we could term 'pure' development centres. The main reasons behind this have been the realisation that centres that have an element of selection decision making to them can have a demoralising effect on those individuals who have been deemed unsuccessful. Organisations have also come to realise that to be competitive they must constantly invest in the development of their staff in order to enable them to respond effectively to an increasingly uncertain marketplace. This has meant that rather than selecting new employees organisations are now investing more in their existing workforce. Traditionally companies who wished to train their staff would send them on a training course external to the organisation, indeed many still do, but there has been an increasing emphasis placed on delivering training that is relevant to the organisation's needs and business objectives. A development centre run as part of an integrated training strategy is an excellent way of ensuring that training is carried out in a context of organisational relevance. A final reason for the growth in use of development centres has been the widespread adoption of the idea of behavioural competencies in the human resource field, because development centres are designed around the job simulation format which requires the participant to actively do something they are a naturally effective way of assessing competencies in individuals.

The type of centre can vary between the traditional assessment centre used purely for selection to the more modern development centre which involves self-assessment and whose primary purpose is development. One might ask the question 'Why group assessment and development centres together if they have different purposes?' The answer to that question is threefold. Firstly, they both involve assessment and it is only the end use of the information obtained which is different i.e. one for selection and one for development; secondly, it is impossible to draw a line between assessment and development centres because all centres, be they for assessment or development naturally lie somewhere on a continuum somewhere between the two extremes; thirdly most assessment centres involve at least some development and most development centres involve at least some assessment. This means that it is very rare to find a centre devoted to pure assessment or pure development. The issue is further confused by the political considerations one must take into account when running such a centre, it is common practice for an assessment centre with internal candidates to be referred to as a development centre because of the negative implications associated with assessment.

It is easier to think about assessment centres as being equally to do with selection and development because a degree of assessment goes on in both. Development centres grew out a liberalisation of thinking about assessment centres and it is a historical quirk that while assessment centres were once used purely for selection and have evolved to have a more developmental flavour the language used to describe them has not. Another problem with using the assessment - development dichotomy is that at the very least it causes us to infer that little or no assessment goes in development centres. While you will hear centres being called assessment or development centres remember that assessment goes on in both and so to some extent at least they are both assessment centres. The end result of this is that it is not possible to talk about assessment or development centres in any but the most general terms. It is more useful to talk about the constituent parts and general processes involved in each. In these terms we can identify a number of differences between assessment and development centres that one might typically find:

Assessment centres usually -

  • have a pass/fail criteria
  • are geared towards filing a job vacancy
  • address an immediate organisational need
  • have fewer assessors and more participants
  • involve line managers as assessors
  • have less emphasis placed on self-assessment
  • focus on what the candidate can do now
  • are geared to meet the needs of the organisation
  • assign the role of judge to assessors
  • place emphasis on selection with little or no developmental feedback and follow up
  • give feedback at a later date
  • involve the organisation having control over the information obtained
  • have very little pre-centre briefing
  • tend to be used with external candidates

Development centres usually -

  • do not have a pass/fail criteria
  • are geared towards developing the individual
  • address a longer term need
  • have a 1:1 ratio of assessor to participant
  • do not have line managers as assessors
  • have a greater emphasis placed on self-assessment
  • focus on potential
  • are geared to meet needs of the individual as well as the organisation
  • assign the role of facilitator to assessors
  • place emphasis on developmental feedback and follow up with little or no selection function
  • give feedback immediately
  • involve the individual having control over the information obtained
  • have a substantial pre-centre briefing
  • tend to be used with internal candidates


Tips for Succeeding at an Assessment Centre

Note : The Career Development Report gives you valuable information about what you are like as a person and could help you prepare for an Assessment or Development Centre.

Assessment centres typically involve the participants completing a range of exercises, which simulate the activities carried out in the target job. Various combinations of these exercises and sometimes other assessment methods like psychometric testing and interviews are used to assess particular competencies in individuals. The theory behind this is that if one wishes to predict future job performance then the best way of doing this is to get the individual to carry out a set of tasks which accurately reflect those required in the job and are as similar to them as possible.

You may probably come across Interviewing, Psychometric Tests and Work Sample Tests as part of an Assessment Centre. There are other things that are frequently used in Assessment Centres, such as:

  • Group Exercises

  • Group discussions

  • In-tray exercises

  • Angry Customer Exercises

  • The presentation

  • Analytical/problem solving exercises

  • One-to-one Role play exercises  

Group Exercises
Group exercises aim to replicate the types of group activity that the jobholder performs as well as the circumstances under which they must carry it out. The exercises can be written or practical and because there is an increasing emphasis being placed on teams in organisations we find that group exercises are being used more and more in assessment centres. The size of the group has be small enough to allow each participant a chance to contribute and also to allow close observation of each. Usually six to eight is the usual number per team. Frequently one will find a group exercise being carried out early in the assessment centre because it is a good way to break down inhibitions and help candidates to get to know each other.

Group exercises are often used to assess the following competencies:

· Negotiation and co-operation
· Communication
· Listening
· Analysis
· Presentation
· Interpersonal skills

Group Discussions
The discussion topic can be open, or as is more commonly the case, a work related topic determined by the exercise designer. These can include leaderless group discussions or exercises where decisions must be made under pressure, often without sufficient time or information.

These often take the form of business management games and can be used to assess tolerance to pressure, ambiguity or uncertainty
There are two types of group discussion:

Assigned role exercises
In the assigned role group discussion each candidate has an assigned role and a unique brief before they enter the discussion. The format allows for the exercise to be designed so that every individual is obliged to display the competencies required. This reduces the risk of individual members of the group making little or no contribution. These are commonly used in the Ministry of Defence Officer Selection Boards where one individual has to take command of a group for the purpose of completing a problem solving exercise

Unassigned role exercises
In the non-assigned role group discussion there are no assigned roles, each participant receives the same brief and the purpose of the group is to reach a consensus. There tends to be less competition in groups of this type, not because the potential for conflict does not exist, it most certainly does, but because the format of the exercise makes the need for teamwork clear to the participants. This also tends to emphasise to participants that some activity is required on their part but there is still the risk of individual members being ‘left behind’ and not having a chance to display the competencies that are being measured.

In-tray Exercises
Exercises of this type are designed to simulate the sorts of written work that the jobholder is required to do and tend to be visibly job relevant. This format is typically used to measure competencies such as written communication, problem solving, judgment and creativity.

In-trays consist of a representative sample of documentation, which a jobholder has to deal with. Typically this will involve the participant taking on the role of a manager and completing the in-tray alone over a period of one or two hours. During this time they may have to handle a variety of strategic and tactical issues concerning finance, business strategy, human resources etc.

Angry Customer Exercises
This type of exercise is used to assess interpersonal and communication skills, as the candidate has to deal with an irate employee or customer. In the US Office of Strategic Studies one of the exercises involved the candidate having to explain under the cross-examination of a lawyer why they had been caught searching through secret files in a government office late at night.

The Presentation
This can include trying to sell a product or idea to a sceptical audience or giving a lecture on some subject of the candidate’s choice. These may be used to assess persuasiveness, self-confidence or communication skills.

Analytical/problem solving exercises
Analytical/problem solving exercises involve the participants carrying out a piece of work, which is analytical in nature, usually focusing on an issue, which is job relevant.

One-on-one exercises
One-on-one exercises involve the inclusion of an individual whose task it is to play a particular role and act out some scenario while the behaviour of the participant (who plays the job holder) is observed by the assessor. The role could be that of a customer, competitor, subordinate, superior, supplier any other person or agency that the jobholder comes into contact with. Because this is a very flexible method it is one that is frequently included in assessment centres.


Tips For Dealing with Group Exercises


  • If you are working in a group, check that all members of the group have the same information.

  • Make sure that someone is keeping an eye on the time and giving the group reminders of the amount of time they have left.

  • Try not to get trapped by the flip chart, that is, if you volunteer to write on the flip chart/board, make sure you also make a contribution.

  • Try to involve the quieter members of the group and listen to what they have to say.

  • Smile, maintain eye contact and encourage people to talk to you.

  • Present a confident image of yourselves to the other people in the group.

  • Show that you are enthusiastic and motivated about the exercise.

  • Acknowledge other people’s ideas; don’t adopt them as your own.

  • If the exercise is very complicated – plan how you are going to accomplish the goal.

  • Allow other people to speak, don’t interrupt or shout over them.

  • Make sure that you get ample opportunities to speak – be assertive, but don’t take it too far.

  • Acknowledge other people’s ideas.

  • Don’t be afraid to disagree with other people.

  • Don’t be afraid to state your own opinion and defend it.

  • Challenge others – ask them to clarify anything you don’t understand

  • Don’t be afraid to take control if you all are getting nowhere.

  • Look for the wider picture – don’t get completely bogged down by the detail.

  • It is very important to contribute to the group discussion/exercise as if you do not, the assessors do not have anything to mark.

  • Try to use the names of people in the group.

  • Use the exercises as an opportunity to demonstrate your abilities and to learn new ones.

  • Stick to the time allocated for each exercise.

  • Listen to instructions carefully and if in doubt ask.

  • Expect to be stretched.

  • Expect to get better as the day goes on, as you get to know the other participants and feel more relaxed.

  • You should not work like you are in competition with the other participants, you will be looked on more favourably if you work well with others and are friendly and polite.

  • If you feel you have done poorly in one exercise, do not get your self down; make sure you do better in the next! Poor performance on one exercise will not automatically fail you.

  • Be yourself, relax and enjoy the process as much as you can.

  • If you are given an opportunity to ask the assessors questions about the organisation, make sure you ask a relevant question or two, this will help you get noticed. 



Feedback is usually provided after the Selection Event. If it is not explicitly offered, you should ask for it. You will find that your feedback from one selection event is extremely useful for your future development and future Selection Events.
What Happens Next?

After you have left the selection event, it may be very useful to think about what exercises you did and what you felt you did well or not so well on. It may be useful to jot some notes about your impression of the selection process and the organisation and what you have learnt about yourself. Selection events are very valuable learning experiences and it is important to learn from your mistakes and the things you feel that you have not done well.

You should have found out what the next stage is, it may be a second interview, assessment centre or a job offer. You will usually have to wait until you receive a phone call or a letter to find out what has happened with your application.

If you have been unsuccessful, then you should put it all down to experience and learn from it. It is understandable to feel a bit down, but the most useful thing you could do is to call or write to the company to ask for feedback on your performance. This will help you in your future selection activities and will give you points to improve your performance. If you are offered telephone feedback, make sure you take notes, so you remember what they have said.

You also have to remember that you got to the selection event stage for this company, so it will only be a matter of time before you get asked to another one.

If you have been successful in this round, you may have to face another round of selection activities, in which case you should feel a sense of achievement that you have got this far.