What is an assessment center, and what role does it have in a skills-first workplace?

What is an assessment centre
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Hiring for a leadership role is an ordeal for both employers and candidates because the stakes are high. 

The morale and engagement of the entire team working under this new leader hinges on the success of the hire.

It feels next to impossible to confidently fill such an important position while providing a candidate experience that doesn’t completely exhaust your applicants.

This is exactly why assessment centers exist – they give you a preview of each candidate on the job before you hire them.

But there’s a caveat: They’re too expensive and intense to be used for every position.

This article is broken into two parts to help you learn to use assessment centers strategically:

  1. Explaining how assessment centers work

  2. Explaining their role and use cases in a skills-first future

What is an assessment center?

An assessment center, or assessment day, puts a group of candidates through individual and group tasks and simulations based on the available position requirements to assess their competencies and how well they fit the role and company culture.

It’s an immersive “day in the life” experience, like a boot camp for hiring.

The objective is to eliminate ambiguity by putting your candidates in the same room and examining them side-by-side.

You can also use assessment centers to evaluate existing employees’ skills and training needs to help with succession planning and internal mobility.

In this case, they’re called assessment and development centers.

What exercises are used in assessment centers?

Assessment center exercises involve simulating situations and problems that are regular parts of the job description.

Generally, assessment centers use a combination of:

  • Personality tests

  • Aptitude and skills tests

  • Job-related simulations and role-play scenarios

  • Timed tasks

  • Assessment center interviews

Let’s say you’re recruiting a senior software developer.

The job responsibilities include designing, testing, implementing, and updating software programs, as well as managing and leading the development team.

The assessment center exercises you’d use to hire this person might include:

  • Role-playing simulations of team members reporting problems

  • Group tasks that bring out their leadership and team collaboration skills

  • Timed

     

    programming tests

     

    where they demonstrate expertise in the right languages

  • Presentations and case studies on a relevant topic

The idea is to show individual performance, collaboration skills, and compare candidates as they perform the same tasks side-by-side.

Who typically runs an assessment center?

Trained assessors, hiring managers, human resources professionals, and occupational psychologists usually run assessment centers.

Depending on the role they’re hiring for, they are often joined by a decision-maker or stakeholder who is adequately prepared for the task, such as the supervisor for the role or a future close associate.

It’s good practice to have multiple people on the hiring panel to limit the chances of personal bias driving the final decision.

Assessment center examples

L’Oreal routinely uses assessment centers to filter the candidates that best match what they’re looking for.

These events last one or two days and typically include the following:

  1. A group exercise

  2. A case study presentation

  3. Relevant aptitude tests, completed verbally and in writing

The group exercise is based on a relevant real-world scenario like L’Oreal launching a new product. The applicants must solve a problem together and present their solution as a group.

The case study presentation is an individual assignment.

Each candidate receives a brief with information about a hypothetical business scenario for L’Oreal, such as a gap in the market providing an opportunity for a new type of product. 

In this example, the candidate analyzes the provided information and develops a marketing strategy for the new product.

Finally, L’Oreal utilizes aptitude tests to measure certain key skills across the board, including:

  • Communication

  • Problem-solving

  • Leadership

  • Adaptability

The next assessment center example comes from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), one of the leading accounting and professional services companies in the world.

PwC uses assessment centers as the final step in the recruiting process to determine suitability for the role. Before that, candidates have to go through:

  • An online application

  • A situational judgment test

  • Game-based psychometric assessments

  • A video interview

Candidates who pass all the preceding steps get an invitation to a half or full-day event at one of the PwC offices. This assessment center includes five main activities:

Activity

Summary

1. Written psychometric test

More complex than the previous, game-based one

2. Written communication exercise

Candidate has 30 minutes to write a report based on a brief

3. Group exercise

Between four and six people must come to a conclusion based on a business-related scenario

4. E-tray/In-tray exercise

Candidate sorts through emails and then writes a report outlining the day

5. Coaching interview

Informal conversation reflecting on the day and getting to know the candidate better

The candidate who passes all five activities with the highest mark is automatically considered a perfect match and receives an offer from PwC.

Why do companies pick assessment centers as an employee selection method?

As you can see, assessment centers take serious dedication from both applicants and employers. 

This begs the question: Are they really worth the trouble?

Below are the main reasons companies choose to hold assessment centers and invest heavily in them:

REASON

EXPLANATION

Hire for senior and highly specialized roles

Uncover nuanced contextual information; Test skills in relevant and realistic simulations; See how candidates’ experience matches specific role duties

Base the opinion on more than the resume

Get to know candidates in person; Observe their behavior, personality traits and soft skills; Get objective and honest information

Compare candidates side-by-side

See how candidates with similar experiences differ; Put everyone through the same tests for easier comparison; Limit personal bias with a team of trained assessors

Test internal talent for internal mobility

Give existing employees a chance to get a promotion; Spot gaps and identify training needs for better internal mobility; Get valuable data for succession planning and leadership development

Assessment centers are by no means a fix-all hiring solution, but they are a highly valuable tool when implemented correctly. 

To use them effectively, you need to know the pros and cons.

The advantages of assessment centers

These are the advantages of assessment centers that make them worth the effort in the right situations.

Advantages of assessment centers

Provide an accurate multi-measure view

Let’s face it: Resumes often repeat things that the applicants think you want to hear.

All the developers are problem-solvers and critical thinkers. Every editor is proud of their merciless attention to detail.

Every project manager is great at communicating and wearing multiple hats – whatever it takes to run the project.

Assessment centers give you the opportunity to test abilities in a standardized setting and learn more about your candidates than what school they went to or how they describe themselves.

You can choose the specific skills and traits you want to focus on, which lets you:

  • Draw more accurate conclusions about each candidate

  • Learn things about their personalities that you can’t glean from a resume

  • Avoid basing your decision on information that’s at best an indicator of performance, at worst not even true

Enable you to see candidates in real-world simulations

Continuing off the previous point, if everyone describes themselves the same and has similar past experiences, does that mean they are going to perform the same way?

How do you choose between them?

You need a way to filter and eliminate applicants, especially if you have a large number of them.

Putting candidates in the same room together and having them complete tasks both individually and in a group uncovers nuanced differences between them.

You get to see their skills and traits in the real world, in relation to one another and to your objective scale.

In other words, if you’re checking for attention to detail, you’re able to answer some important questions:

  1. Are they more or less attentive than their competition? 

  2. Are they attentive enough to meet your criteria for the role?

Establish a standardized, objective benchmark

Assessment centers give you benchmarks by which to judge applicants.

Similarly to structured interviews, assessment centers are designed to provide all applicants with the same opportunities and experiences.

The exercises go in the same order, on the same level of difficulty, and a panel of assessors judges everyone.

This minimizes the risk of bias and discrimination.

Show company culture to applicants (including unsuccessful ones)

Candidates are testing you as much as you’re testing them, so it’s important to make a good impression.

Assessment centers provide an immersive company experience to several applicants at the same time, giving you the opportunity to show off your company culture.

This is a nice perk because even the applicants that don’t land the job still get to experience the company culture and hopefully bookmark you for the future.

It’s an opportunity for you to impress them and add them to your talent pool.

Plus, applicants talk.

Their praise of your hiring process is an irreplaceable boost to your employer brand, sending an even larger queue of future applicants to your door.

Present a learning event and opportunity for existing staff

Assessment centers aren’t necessarily only oriented toward external candidates.

You can use assessment centers to evaluate internal talent and identify development opportunities. Running an assessment center for existing staff enables you to:

  • Assess current skills and gaps in your workforce

  • Prevent future skills gaps by providing the right training

  • Identify leadership potential

  • Test staff for succession planning

  • Evaluate internal candidates for an open position

Providing on-the-job education and career growth options is crucial for internal mobility.

It’s also one of the most important factors employees link to job satisfaction.

Assessment and development centers give you valuable insight into your current workforce abilities and needs. You can predict and uproot potential problems but also recognize and reward outstanding performance.

After all, why hire a stranger if you have an adequately skilled employee that already knows the business inside-out, sitting on the bench, waiting for their chance to shine?

Eliminate miscommunication and get crucial contextual insights

Sometimes you think you’re on the same page with a candidate, but the reality proves otherwise.

Let’s say you’re hiring a manager with previous managerial experience.

They’re talking about staying on top of the workflow, knowing where every piece of the puzzle fits, communicating with employees to ensure they’re well and that everything runs smoothly…

Music to your ears. It seems like a perfect fit!

But it turns out that this person was managing an in-house, onsite team and not a team of remote contractors, which is the role you’re hiring for.

Suddenly this confident and fit candidate can’t keep up with the job because the logistics are totally different from what they’re used to, and they struggle to adapt.

After some futile attempts to train them, you end up having to rehire.

An assessment center reveals these expectation misalignments and incompatibilities before the damage is already done.

In an age when it’s becoming more and more common for managers to hire candidates they’ve never even met, this gives an instant edge.

The disadvantages of assessment centers

Let’s take a look at the reasons why companies reserve assessment centers for the final stages of particularly demanding hiring processes.

Disadvantages of assessment centers

Tend to be expensive

It’s safe to say that hosting an event that can last for a couple of days and paying your assessors isn’t the cheapest route. And this amount goes on top of your other hiring costs because assessment centers usually aren’t used in isolation. You still need other tools like online applications, tests, and interviews to eliminate a portion of your candidates before you put the most promising ones through the assessment center. Most roles don’t require such a labor or cost-intensive process.

Consume time

As mentioned above, assessment centers can last from one afternoon to a couple of days. It’s a lot to ask from candidates.

They want the process to be short and straightforward, so you have to ensure using the assessment center model makes the most sense for everyone involved.

A needlessly long recruitment process discourages applicants and affects your employer brand.

Are difficult to manage

It takes very involved and attentive work to manage multiple candidates, guide them through various exercises, and keep them engaged throughout. You need highly-skilled observers on the job. Such an intense event requires a lot of careful planning and structuring to make sure everything runs smoothly.

Not suited for high volume, high turnover positions

For many roles, it simply doesn’t make sense to do such a labor-intensive examination as an assessment center. For example, if you’re hiring quick-service restaurant or retail store staff, the requirements are fairly straightforward and can be learned quickly on the job. Similarly, entry-level positions in any industry don’t need such thorough testing because the whole idea is that applicants aren’t experienced.

Finally, it doesn’t make sense to use assessment centers while hiring for seasonal jobs or positions with a high turnover rate.

All of these scenarios are money down the drain.

Allow for bias and discrimination

Assessment centers still aren’t an equal playing field for everyone. Personal bias still exists. Your hiring staff might subconsciously favor certain candidates because of their appearance, accent, or another trait they deem favorable. Extroverted and assertive personalities and people who work well under pressure might naturally outshine others during the assessments, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to being the best person for the job. What’s more, the cut-and-dry setting and synchronous schedule of the assessment center disadvantage and even disqualify certain candidates:

  • Single parents or caregivers who aren’t able to attend an in-person, whole-day event at the set time

  • International candidates who can’t travel or move for the job

  • Candidates with disabilities who can’t physically access your office or need special accommodation

  • Neurodivergent people with sensory sensitivities prone to being overstimulated by the environment

  • Applicants with anxiety who get overwhelmed under pressure or when surrounded by a crowd

This is a shame because, in reality, some of the candidates who wouldn’t be able to perform at their best during the assessment center or even attend it might actually be excellent at the role.

Typically require in-person attendance 

Even though virtual assessment centers do exist, in-person events are still the norm. And, much like the office-only work model, in-person events automatically exclude a portion of people. You could have perfectly qualified candidates who can’t make it onsite for the required amount of time (or at all), limiting you to fewer options. What if your best applicant isn’t a local face? What if they live in another country and don’t have the ability to move for the job? You could miss out on some star candidates.

How do assessment centers and skills-based hiring fit together?

So, what’s the verdict here?

In short: Assessment centers have a role in a skills-first world, but they should be reserved for specific situations where the returns on the investment are worth it.

Assessment centers have a time and place

Assessment centers are great as a “heavy duty” practice when you need to get all the information you possibly can from all angles, like when planning or hiring for senior and highly specialized roles. This also includes graduate recruitment, where there are many interested candidates with the same level of experience to sift through, especially for industries like healthcare or law. However, assessment centers are too resource-heavy to be used for every role. Additionally, they don’t fully eliminate bias, and they aren’t as inclusive as tests. With that in mind, it only makes sense to use assessment centers at the final stages of the recruitment process for specific roles that warrant them

Skills-based assessments should be the default

You can cover most of your hiring and training for internal mobility purposes with skills-based assessments for much cheaper than the assessment center method. Tests eliminate the on-the-spot performance anxiety and personal bias so you can judge candidates by the skills that truly matter for their role. Plus, tests are more inclusive. Candidates can complete the tests in a time that works for them, in an environment that supports their needs, instead of being put into a setting that might set them up for failure. Case in point: Working parents might be unable to make your whole-day assessment center. Autistic people might be sent straight into a shutdown by your fluorescent lighting or another sensory nightmare. But maybe those were your best candidates. Why exclude them? With skills-based assessments, you get a larger talent pool competing for your roles, leading to more experts to choose from and better hires.

Use assessment centers strategically for skills-based hiring

Assessment centers are particularly useful if you’re hiring for a senior, specialized leadership role, or trying to narrow down a large pool of similar-level candidates, like in graduate recruiting. However, they’re highly resource-exhaustive and unnecessary for your everyday needs.In skills-based hiring, pre-employment assessments and interviews are the reliable go-to options for most positions. They’re just as customizable, too. You can make your own combination of personality, cognitive abilities, situational judgment, and soft and hard skills tests to cover all the bases and hire an all-around best candidate. All of these can be found in our test library. Continue down the skills-based rabbit hole and learn how to adopt the best practices for cheaper, more efficient, and inclusive hiring.

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