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The Assessment Centre session is regarded as one of the hardest personnel-selection processes

Sense and Sensitivity

By Dörthe Schmidt


is he the best?

Types of tasks to be performed in the Assessment Centre:

  • The group discussion
  • The role play
  • The presentation
  • The in-tray task
  • The interview
  • Personality, intelligence, performance and concentration tests
  • The concluding conversation
  • Small talk over a glass of wine

What the observers look out for:

A. Social processes

such as:
an ability to cooperate:
e.g. by taking up and extending other people's ideas, opinions and proposals
by not wishing to assert oneself at other people's expense
by sharing successes
by not employing any coercive means

e.g.: an ability to make the first move, to talk to other people, to initiate conversation
to present clearly to others one's aims, intentions and methods
to offer advice and support
to show trust in other people
a conflict-solving ability
an ability to integrate
an ability to respond to information

B. Systematic thoughts and deeds

such as:
abstract and analytical thinking
an ability to take decisions
an ability to plan and control processes
an ability to organize one's own work

C. Activity

such as:
professional motivation, drive, initiative,
an ability to lead and drive others on in pursuit of work-related goals
an ability to assert oneself
stamina/ability to cope with the pressure of work
stress tolerance

D. An ability to express oneself clearly and concisely

such as:
an ability to communicate, both orally and in writing

These criteria are not only useful in connection with ACs but also with regard to preparation for job interviews in general. The tasks cited in the above are taken from: Jürgen Hesse / Hans Christian Schrader, Assessment Center für Hochschulabsolventen. Bewältigungsstrategien für das härteste Personalausleseverfahren, Frankfurt am Main 1998. .

A good source of useful tips is the book by Jürgen Hesse /Hans Christian Schrader, Assessment Center für Hochschulabsolventen. Bewältigungsstrategien für das härteste Personalausleseverfahren (Strategies for coping with the toughest personnel-selection methods), Eichborn-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1998.

In this book the two authors reserve a chapter for each of the AC task types and discuss them in suitable depth, neither too discursively nor too briefly. They provide examples taken from real ACs, explain the demands and point out the snags in each case. Care is also taken to provide useful help in solving the particular tasks. The third chapter contains reports of people's experiences with AC methods as applied in large enterprises. Included here are reports from candidates who have successfully completed AC assessment programmes run, for example, by Lufthansa, the Deutsche Bank and the Dresdner Bank. Thanks to the book's training programme comprising the widest range of tasks and solutions, the applicant is provided with good material for the purpose of both self-assessment and preparation for AC selection processes - in so far as this is possible without a group of people or observers. It is just a shame that there is no reference to sources or references enabling further reading on the subject of assessment.


  "The whole day you have the feeling that they are trying to unseat you, bucking first in one direction and then the next. Then there is a pause. Time for a smile and a stare. All the while, though, they employ all the tricks under the sun to disturb you: pulling faces or playing with their mobile phones". This is how Elina Evers felt in retrospect about her day at the Assessment Centre of a leading agency for temporary employment. The 27-year-old was battling it out against 11 other applicants for the post of personnel-placement officer.

  When selecting personnel, many companies put their faith in the instrument known as the Assessment Centre (AC for short), sometimes described quite harmlessly as an applicant-selection process. Concealed behind this term is a test programme developed by psychologists and personnel advisers which is designed to ensure thorough examination of the applicants in terms of their personality, intelligence and ability to cope with stress. For a period of one to two days they must discuss complex and critical situations with each other, perform role plays, solve intelligence and personality tests and do much more besides. All of this under the watchful gaze of the observers. As a rule, there is one observer for every two applicants. The observers don't miss a thing. Each evasive glance and verbal contribution is noted in the relevant assessment forms.

  Someone who knows the type of employees a head of personnel is looking for is Jana Bäsler-Coumans. She develops tasks for ACs and is involved in Assessment Centres right up to the point of assuming control and observation roles: "The prime aim is to reveal personal abilities, in fact exactly what I am not able to determine in the course of a normal interview".

A fine balancing act - group discussion

  Take as an example group discussion, the classic component in ACs. The following everyday situation faced by an agency for temporary employment was the subject of discussion for Elina Evers and her co-applicants: "A secretary has already worked for a good client for weeks. According to the agreement, she is due to remain there until Friday and, on the following Monday, be sent to a new client. However, as all too often happens, the existing client rings up in a state of panic. An emergency. It is essential for him to have the use of the secretary on Monday, too.
  What do you do in a situation like this? Is the secretary to be left with the good client or sent to the newly acquired client? It must be assumed that a replacement cannot be found." It is now the potential personnel-placement officers' job to come up with a solution by means of joint discussion and constructive criticism." Elina Evers describes the dilemma facing them: "The problem is that all the group members want to speak at the same time to demonstrate to the observers that they are able to take the initiative. On the other hand, it is not good policy to overwhelm the others either". What is required here is the personal skill to find the right balance, to play a sufficiently active part in the proceedings while continuing to contribute towards the exchange of opinion within the group.

An ability to work under time pressure is essential

  In serious Assessment Centres the tasks are oriented towards the everyday demands of the relevant post. The candidates have to develop marketing strategies, take personnel-related decisions or make appointments with clients. The observers wish to find out how the applicant handles information. Does he or she come up with creative solutions? How active or systematic are the applicants, how do they express themselves? In addition, there are tasks such as the correspondence in-tray. Here the candidates must work their way through a large number of documents that have built up in the in-tray on their own, under time pressure, and only using pen and paper. Decisions relating to the business, family and financial spheres must be taken in a split second. "There too I wish to find out how the candidate behaves in a situation characterized by considerable time pressure. What is the quality of the person's decisions then? After all there is always time pressure," Jana Bäsler-Coumans explains. The expert is keen to emphasize, however, that the participants are only to be subjected to additional stress in a minority of task situations. What is measured is the ability to cope with stress: "How does the participant come to terms with the situation represented by the Assessment Centre session? All are nervous at the outset. The stress then subsides somewhat. But how does the candidate survive the day? And stress is not always expressed by the person having a psychological break-down but instead by his or her ability to be alert and concentrate throughout the entire day."

Don't allow yourself to be intimidated

  Whatever else happens, Elina's tip is for the candidate to display a high degree of self-confidence. "You are forced to examine the extent to which you believe in what you are saying since the observers secretly try to unnerve you. And if you allow yourself to be unnerved, you might as well go straight home. You must believe in yourself, in what you are, and what you have got to say for yourself. You must be one hundred per cent certain. If you are not, you have to pretend that you are."

Prepare yourself, but how?

  As a rule, the Assessment Centre situation is adapted to the demand profile the company expects from the prospective employee. Is there anything at all you can do to prepare yourself? According to Jana Bäsler-Coumans, the critical issue is that applicants are forced to ask themselves whether or not they are willing to prepare themselves at all. The person concerned may be able to solve many of the problems. However, it then becomes apparent that he or she is perhaps not up to the job after all. Even so, her advice is for applicants to prepare themselves to a certain extent:
- Interview section:
  Almost every AC includes an interview component. The candidate is asked about his or her previous professional career or course of academic studies, about strengths, weaknesses, success or failure. It is possible to prepare oneself to the extent that one is able to talk about these aspects fluently.
- Presentation:
  It's also possible to acquire basic knowledge of relevance to presentations. "Presentation has something to do with visualization, how flip charts, transparencies or metaplans are used and designed." Most sectors of commerce and industry require an ability to handle these tools of the trade.
- Role playing:
  It's possible to run through situations mentally and ask oneself: how do I react when conflicts arise or how do I handle problematic situations? Jana Bäsler-Coumans emphasizes that it can be dangerous to endeavour to achieve a super-optimized form of behaviour. "At the moment people in management positions are told that cooperative behaviour is the order of the day. However, companies with an authoritarian style of management still exist. The employees there are treated in an authoritarian manner and are not necessarily satisfied with the situation. If then someone with a cooperative style of management appears on the scene it is quite possible that he or she will meet with a great deal of resistance." - Information on the company:
  Since the desired behaviour is highly dependent on the culture in the particular company it is essential for candidates to inform themselves about the company in advance.

Black sheep of the AC sector

  The Assessment Centre landscape is itself not free from black sheep. Caution is the order of the day if at the start of an Assessment Centre session there is no explanation of what is going to happen, how the day is structured or if the candidates are forced to reveal intimate details about themselves. In the opinion of the personnel adviser: "If as the participant in an Assessment Centre session I had the feeling that games were being played with me without any explanation as to why, I would seriously consider whether I wished to work in such a company".

Assessment Centre = successful employee?

  Critics of the wonder weapon known as AC claim that it cannot deliver what it claims to achieve. According to them, ACs are only employed in response to a wish on the part of employers to probe the hearts and minds of applicants in order to determine whether the candidate would indeed be a valuable addition to the company. It is claimed by critics that this degree of certainty can never be achieved.
  Further points of criticism are that many of the factors are too nebulous. What is meant by "personality" for example? What are leadership qualities or what is vocational aptitude? In the view of the critics, these characteristics are dependent on numerous external conditions and are therefore not measurable. The observers themselves are felt to be a further uncertainty factor. They are criticized for simply being people who assess others through the prism of their own standards.

An important experience

  Nevertheless, it is possible to derive benefit from ACs. Where else can the applicant test himself or herself, be extended to the point where personal limits are reached and then, in a concluding conversation, receive an analysis of how he or she is perceived by other people? Elina Evers would not wish to have missed out on the AC experience: "It's a great experience and you also receive feedback. Would I like to go through it all again? To be honest, no. If at all possible, once is really enough. It was quite an ordeal."

Links Assessment Center:
The web pages belonging to the International Congress on Assessment Centre Methods provide information about tests and the latest Assessment Centres as well as, however, about ethical considerations.

The web pages belonging to the academic service in Berlin Akademische Dienst Berlin provide comprehensive, practical information about Assessment Centre test methods. Many tips for the preparatory phase help candidates build up their self-confidence for the AC. All types of tasks are presented. The highlight is the online AC test. Anyone who wishes to do so can answer questions on general knowledge, concentration, spelling, punctuation, technical understanding and logic within the recommended time of 30-40 minutes. But no cheating here! The correct solutions are only conveyed to those persons who have sent their results to the service by e-mail.

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