RTT – The Benefits and Pitfalls of Assessment Centres

RTT – The Benefits and Pitfalls of Assessment Centres

These are the thoughts and takeaways from the latest Resourcing Think Tank (RTT) held on Thursday 1st November 2012 hosted by Harrods’ Jenna Davies (Lead Resourcing Partner), titled ‘The Benefits and Pitfalls of Assessment Centres’.

The following summary has been prepared to reflect a segment of the discussion held amongst senior HR and Resourcing professionals from leading UK and other international businesses.  Specific company details, experiences and examples have been omitted from this summary as all discussions are held under ‘Chatham House Rules’.

Assessment Centres (AC) can act as a fantastic tool for successfully measuring talent on mass or recruiting for those hard to fill roles. However with fears that this model is outdated and laborious, what can be done to revitalise this process and maximise assessment time, when coupled with the following challenges?

  • Focus on assessing potential and not specifically performance
  • Getting buy-in and adequate resources from the ‘non-believers’ in the business
  • Breaking down cultural barriers within countries who see this model as ‘alien’
  • Making ACs relevant for the level of employment
  • Developing a global suite of tools which can be used locally and consistently
  • Assessing candidates responsibly, with diversity and inclusion in mind
  • Ensuring that assessment methods are objective and fit for purpose.

What are Assessment Centres?

Many organisations hold a different understanding of what ACs actually are. Based on the input from the Think Tank, the following description was applied to the discussion:

A collection of tests, exercises and business simulations which encapsulate an employer’s organisational environment, in alignment to the expectations of a specific role. They help to uncover the most favourable candidate attributes and allow multiple applicants to be assessed simultaneously in the presence of key decision makers.

Managers often have preconceived negative perceptions of ACs, which is why it is crucial to understand which roles actually warrant the implementation of this tool and to develop a bespoke framework for delivering relevant talent. Traditionally, this method is used for either low or entry level hires; however, can ACs be applied to mid level careers without it feeling patronising? The irony is that these lower level candidates often have to jump through far more hoops than Executive hires, who often get instated following a cup of coffee with a ‘top dog’!

Developing your Assessment Centre

In the first instance, it is essential to identify what you are actually trying to measure as a result of holding an AC. This should absolutely be in relation to the ‘blueprint’ you have developed with your hiring managers. This is why it is so important for HR to work in partnership with the business in order to understand exactly what good looks like and to clarify the D&A of the department; both from a delivery perspective and to tailor the AC to reflect the teams’ needs.

From a delivery perspective, it was agreed that ACs are more successful when run by a functional line manager; most notably because they truly understand the intricacies of their business unit and have a clear understanding of benchmarked talent. HR and Recruitment should absolutely be involved from a strategic, regulatory and measurement perspective, but hiring managers should be integral to the process. However, this is often incredibly challenging when a large volume of ACs are being run on a weekly basis, as functional line managers quite often don’t have the time to spare.

Our experts’ views:

a) Incorporate a ‘day in the life of…’ activity into the AC by highlighting the real types of exercises candidates will be undertaking in the role. Being transparent about the job in the initial stages positively impacts on future retention levels and also enhances engagement levels during the AC

b) Whilst group exercises can be a positive element of the AC, do not neglect one-to-one interaction, as this is often the best gauge of potential and future performance

c) Don’t forget to validate the AC process in terms of its efficiency, cost-effectiveness and the calibre of candidates who come through the process.

Assessing potential not performance

A key theme that emerged from this Think Tank was hiring based on potential rather than simply performance or experience. In order to do this, a business must first understand what potential is within the company’s culture before attempting to measure it. There are a whole multitude of models which attempt to quantify potential, some based on the situation of measurement and others on the level of employment; however, it’s crucial to identify a model or blended approach which works for your business, and stick to it. It should be noted that in order to measure potential at ACs, there must be a solid one-to-one element included in the process.

There is certainly a challenge with this type of recruitment surrounding management’s reluctance to base a hiring decision on something with no proven track record. However, you can demonstrate success by finding a ‘believer’ who will let you pilot this form of assessment within their department. Capture the results of the AC and the ROI to the business and use these metrics as your business case for recruiting based on potential over performance. If you fail to prove the case, then you probably shouldn’t be operating this model for that particular hire.

The next stumbling block for businesses might be hiring too many people with too much potential. Potential is great when an employee knows they are on a set path which will enable them to exert the skills or traits which makes them ‘high potential’. However, if the business can’t offer an individual that progression, then ultimately they will be left feeling unfulfilled and potentially looking for new opportunities. Are you creating / identifying fantastic talent for your competitors to harvest?

Assessing ‘on mass’ and the consequences

An important element of the AC process is the relationship you create between your business and potential employees. ACs should be used as a vehicle to positively portray your brand. Therefore, they should be viewed as an opportunity to showcase yourself as an employer and persuade candidates that they would be making the right decision, should they choose to work with you. However, when assessing ‘on mass’ are you in danger of damaging this relationship before it’s begun? Whilst some of the personal experiences associated with one-to-one interviews can be hindered within the AC process, it’s essential to leave candidates feeling positive about your business based on: great efficiency, a fair process, timely response, engaging interactivity and a warm reception from employees (regardless of if it’s their 6th AC that week!).

Online Assessment Solutions

With advances in technology, online assessment solutions can act as a great alternative to face-to-face testing / interviewing, in terms of reacting to the fast-paced market environment. Additionally, online assessment can be used for screening applicants before they get to interview or AC stage to reduce the candidate volume of popular roles. It begs the question, do all ACs need to be face-to-face? With the likes of Skype, e-learning tools and online situational gaming; can we develop an AC ‘for the ages’ which can be used across multiple territories, simultaneously and potentially more efficiently than ever before? There’s certainly scope for developing such a process, but once again the positioning needs to be carefully considered and aligned to the employer brand.

When using online interviewing tools there needs to be an element of damage control, as realistically how long before candidates publicise your assessment materials / questions on sites like Glass Doors for all other future applicants to see? Moreover, with automated interviewing, candidates aren’t able to benefit from seeing the expression on their interviewer’s face following a strong or poor answer, and the interviewer is also not able to probe further into candidates’ responses. It was agreed that these tools might be more applicable for high volume, low skilled hires and perhaps would never actually be quite as good as face-to-face assessment.


  • We don’t really talk enough about ROI with regards to ACs; therefore  we need to make sure that what is actually being achieved is effectively communicated back to the business
  • The phrase ‘Assessment Centre’ is perhaps outdated and negative to the business (and the candidate) – does it need renaming?
  • Ultimately, when the AC process is implemented, it’s out of recruitments’ control, so how do you train people to deliver on a global basis?
  • Line managers should be fronting the AC process. Recruitment should be involved purely from a strategic / regulatory perspective
  • Collaborate with the business – if you’re not aligned with the company, all the positive work you do could go to waste. Get them engaged and bought into process
  • Decide how you define potential and measure this consistently within in the recruitment process and across the business
  • Learning and Development need to engage more with Recruitment to ensure they are bringing on board the right type of individuals through the AC model
  • Online assessment can work effectively for low-level hires; however, are we really ever going to beat face-to-face?
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