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9 Assessment centre exercises & practical steps to select the right combination

Assessment centres have been around for almost a century now. What began as an evaluation technique during the World War 2 to select military officers, is now viewed as a prominent process to assess talent by organisations world over.

Out of the many employee evaluation techniques used by HR practitioners, Assessment centres have gradually evolved as one of the most prominent ways to select & develop talent.

This paved the way to the present scenario where a significant percentage of Fortune 100 companies & organisations worldwide are using assessment centres to evaluate their graduate population, internal promotions as well as for their talent development initiatives.

While a CV and an interview were enough in earlier times, most employers discovered that this wasn’t the most effective way of selecting the right candidate because there were many instances in which they missed the negative traits and also forgot to credit positive skills at times. Assessment centres aim to reveal any candidate’s true potential to perform well in the job and they have a proven track record of finding the most suitable candidates for the job.

As an HR practitioner, making an assessment centre successfully work for you is all about the process: proper selection of the right combination of tools, techniques & exercises to test skills which may otherwise not be assessable through traditional methods. It usually lasts for an entire day though usually they can last for anything from half a day up to several days. The more senior the role, the longer the assessment.

You could use an application form along with an aptitude test as an initial screening to shortlist the attendees for the assessment centre.

Conducting an assessment centre is usually a time consuming activity involving a lot of resources. Hence it is always a better practice to pick only the best candidates shortlisted through a proper screening process.

You could use assessment centres for evaluating talent for all kinds of roles and for talent at different career stages including:

▪       Graduate hiring

▪       Middle-level and executive roles

▪       Identifying High Potentials (HIPOs)

▪       Ongoing employee training & development

So what really happens in an assessment centre? 

A group of candidates are required to perform a variety of specially-designed tests that simulate aspects of the job description and work environment & allow candidates to demonstrate how their skills match with those required to effectively perform that role.

The exact exercises used by individual employers will most likely vary across organisations. However, here is an overview of the type of exercises that you will usually come across as part of an assessment centre:

  1. Meeting and briefing session

 While this may not necessarily qualify as an ‘exercise’ in itself, most assessment centres will include this ‘meeting & briefing’ which is more of an introduction of the hiring & development managers, HR representatives and the participating team members. This session is an opportunity for the other company members to evaluate how well a participant is able to interact with others in a more informal situation.

This exercise also sets the tone for the rest of the assessment centre exercises where the ice is broken and the participants get an initial sense of what they could expect in this overall time frame.

  1. Competency-based interview

Competency-based interviews are usually structured interviews where the attendees will be asked a series of standard questions. Every candidate will be asked the same questions which ensures a fair process and there could be a panel of two or three interviewers. Instead of questions about industry experience, these interviews require candidates to demonstrate a particular skill or a core competency. Candidates are asked to do this using situational examples from their real life experiences that illustrate their personality, skill sets as well as individual competencies to the interviewer. With competency interviews, you can also probe candidates on their knowledge of the company and industry they have applied to.

What actually happens in a Competency Based Interview?

A typical competency based interview usually lasts for one hour. Organisations will usually create a job design for any particular role which is known as a competency framework. This framework usually consists of 4-5 key competencies, which are necessary to perform well for that specific role. For instance, a financial analyst would require to have analytical thinking and hence it is likely to be considered as a key competency by most organisations recruiting financial analysts.

Competency frameworks are customized and usually vary based on the organisations culture, industry, sector etc. The questions in this interview will look for competencies within this defined framework thus helping you to gauge the candidates understanding/experience along with a particular skillset. Competency based interviews are highly structured, usually with a static & inflexible list of questions to be asked to your candidates.

These interviews are tailored specifically to the competency that ought to be demonstrated by the candidates to be successful on the job for which they are being evaluated. Research has proven that structured, competency based interviewing is one of the most effective method of selection due to their predictive ability. Furthermore, they even compliment assessment centre exercises and psychometric assessments which increases the overall validity of the selection process.

  1. Psychometric assessments

Psychometric assessments are used to measure various aspects of personality, ability and competency that need to be exhibited by the individuals on the job. Technically, it is not a test, as there are no right or wrong answers. As an employer you would surely like to gain deeper insights into the quality of talent by letting them answer a series of carefully chosen questions which helps you build an analysis of their personality and working preferences.

Personality tests are also on most occasions completed online, prior to the assessment centre or at times they can be completed at the event itself. The majority of personality tests are in a format where a particular personality trait or competency is expressed in the form of a real life situation. The person assessed may have to select from the options: Strongly disagree, Disagree, Not sure, Agree, Strongly Agree. On certain occasions, you might be presented with a slightly different format.

At times also referred to as personality assessments, they are often used to assess your workplace behavioural style as well as to evaluate how you typically like to act during different situations. These assessments are designed to measure those aspects of personality that determine successful work performances; ability to handle relationships at work, thinking style as well as insights on how your people manage tasks, feelings and individual motivations.

Psychometric assessments for Recruitments:

Many employers use psychometric assessments as it helps them identify the right person for the job role. These assessments provide deep insights on the competencies, abilities, personality & motivation levels of individuals. This helps you build a comprehensive picture of any candidate’s suitability for the job role while evaluating them objectively.

Psychometric tests for development initiatives

Psychometric assessments can also be used as part of your appraisal reviews or for your learning and development programs. As part of an assessment centre, these tests can help you can gain valuable insights into the strengths and improvement areas of the talent assessed thus helping you further drive your development plans.

Ready to witness a Psychometric test in action? Here is where you can see it for yourself

  1. Group-based exercises

The group exercise is a common assessment centre activity that is widely used by most employers across the world. The aim of group-based exercises is primarily to assess a participant’s ability to work effectively as part of a team.

What happens in a group exercise?

A group of candidates usually work together as a team to perform an activity while they are being watched & evaluated by assessors. These assessors will make their observations, note them and eventually score the candidates based on their respective contributions to the overall exercise.  During such exercises, the participants are presented with a hypothetical scenario which involves a problem or dilemma of some kind and they are required to provide solutions as a team. Typically the groups include 4-6 people. The participants are presented with a number of competing problems and they need to prioritise which issues are of utmost importance and for what reasons.

The group exercise can happen in various forms such as a group discussion on a topic of current affairs or even a general topic. It could be a debate related to a work related issue which requires them to work on the solution and make a presentation to the assessors or even as simple as completing a task.

What you will be able to assess:

  • Team working abilities, leadership potential and the ability to influence.
  • The quality of ideas as well as the ability to consider the same issue from different perspectives.
  • The ability to put forward their ideas and influence the other members of the group.
  • A participant’s standard of communication, social skills, interpersonal skills – ability to listen, convince, mediate & confidence
  • Problem solving abilities that suggests whether they are able to arrive at an effective conclusion within the provided timeframe.
  • Critical thinking ability as well as decisiveness.

Because of the relevance of group exercises, you can use group exercises to predict how a candidate will perform in real workplace situations thus making it a highly effective selection tool. These exercises can be used to highlight and identify strengths while at the same time, they can help identify negative behaviours which might be detrimental to the long term progress.

  1. Presentation exercise

Presentations are often used for positions that require a high levels of customer interactions or those roles that require presenting information such as sales, finance and consulting. The topic provided for their presentation usually varies depending on the format.

What happens in a presentation exercise?

Participating candidates may be asked to give a presentation based on a prior case study or group exercise that they have already undertaken. Similarly, some candidates may be given information regarding a topic with a set amount of time (usually about 30 minutes) in which they have to prepare or they may be given the topic in advance of the assessment centre date. The brief generally highlights some problem or requires them to make recommendations on a particular course of action. The presentation will usually be concluded by a series of follow-up questions from the assessors.

The preparation time is to allow the participants to read through the information, identify the key messages, and prepare a presentation outlining their solutions. Presentations usually last for 10-20 minutes and candidates may be allowed to use presentation tools such as charts, powerpoint or any other that can help them convey their ideas effectively.

Presentation exercises are designed to assess the following abilities:

  • Organise and structure points effectively
  • Communicate ideas clearly and concisely
  • Analyse the information presented and the quality of the solutions/recommendations made.
  • Public speaking ability, persuasion and influence
  • Ability to interpret and relay information
  • Confidence and ability to stay calm under pressure

Presentation exercises are almost always used to complement other exercises, such as other group exercises, case study exercises and therefore a decision should ideally be made on the basis all these abilities and not just the presentation itself.

  1. Case study exercise with written report

These exercises usually are in the same format as the presentation exercise, the difference being a case study includes a written report summarising findings and recommendations from the information presented which needs to be prepared and submitted by the participants. The choice of this exercise over presentations depends on the key tasks and duties involved in the job role. When a large part of the role is to deliver oral presentations, the presentation exercise is more likely to be a preferred choice. Alternatively, if the job role is more about submitting written reports, then the case study exercise is more likely to be conducted.

Case study exercises present candidates with very realistic problems faced by real world professionals. Participants are typically provided with a variety of documents stating a specific situation requiring them to formulate a plan of action. These situations will resemble those that will be encountered in the actual job role itself or one which is prominent in the industry that your organization operates.

What do case studies predict?

 Case study exercises are very useful predictors of future performance on the job as they very closely resemble the work that one would usually completed on the job. Most assessors will give considerable weightage to a case study exercise when evaluating the participants. If a presentation exercise is based on the case study exercise, the quality of the case study is more likely to directly impact the presentation exercise rating. The case study may also be conducted as part of a small group, wherein assessors evaluate the participant’s ability to work in a team, alongwith their individual contributions thus giving you an overall indication of the participant strengths & weaknesses.

How is the Case Study prepared?

Case study exercises may be customized specifically for your organisation, or could even be purchased off the shelf. Some organisations may have internal staff qualified to assess case study exercises running the assessment centre, or the organisation may outsource the process to consultants working in this field. Practice case study exercises also can be shared with a focus group to provide an ideal insight into the inner workings of case study exercises, and getting an understanding of how they analyse the case. Practice case studies can even be shared with the actual participants to prevent any surprises occurring during the real case.

  1. Role play exercises

Role play exercises are often used in assessment centres to assess certain traits such as communication, the ability to influence or negotiation skills. These exercises again are more relevant for customer facing roles that involve a higher level of interpersonal interactions which is mostly sales or customer service.

What happens in a Role Play exercise?

Ranked amongst the most popular assessment tools that are presently used by employers at assessment centres, role play exercises can also be used to assess suitability for managerial and leadership roles.  While group exercises may include many aspects of role-play, there are some typical role play exercises which may be even conducted one to one.

Any participant’s performance throughout the exercise is observed and their performance is assessed, thereby making a note of their respective strengths and weaknesses. The content as well as the context of these exercises varies quite a bit depending on the role assessed as well as the organization.

Typically the participants are required to role play for the position they have applied and need to act out a common workplace situation. Thus for a customer service role, the participant will have to demonstrate his skills at problem solving and helping a customer with any issues faced with the product /service.

What are participants of Role-play exercises assessed for?

 For these type of exercises, the participants will be assessed for their communication & interpersonal skills, resilience, ability to handle pressure, negotiation skills as well as the ability to conduct an effective conversation to achieve the desired outcomes.

  1. Inbox/in-tray exercise

This is one of the most common exercises that is usually a part of an assessment centre exercise. It enables assessors and employers to test a wide range of skills in situations that very closely resemble those that might be faced in a real workplace.

You would like to evaluate the participant’s behavior during an in-tray exercise as it offers a more accurate indication of characteristics and behaviours as compared to abstract measurement techniques. This is also the reason for these exercises to be more popular. As a recruiter, you would definitely like to see how you will cope with real-world situations & problems.

What happens in an in-tray exercise?

These exercises place the participants in a role that requires them to work through various tasks assigned via an email inbox. These tasks could be in the form of incoming emails and at times could even be through memos or reports. The aim of the exercise is to simulate a ‘day in the life’ of the jobholder which then replicates a typical ‘inbox’ of the jobholder.

What skills are assessed with an in-tray exercise?

During this exercise you can assess a participant’s ability to prioritise and successfully execute work. It also helps you evaluate the ability to analyse information and make effective decisions. You may also be able to understand how good the participant is in summarising a report or drafting an email response.

  1. Situational judgement test

A situational judgement test is used by quite prominently in assessment centres. These tests measure the participants’ behaviour as well as attitude while responding to various work related scenarios. Popularly referred to as SJTs, these tests can be administered in various forms and have been increasing in popularity as an assessment method.

What happens in a Situational Judgement Test?

These tests present your participants with a wide range of diverse situations that they could possibly experience on the job or the role that they have applied for. For each such situation, multiple actions are suggested. The participant needs to choose between the possible options on offer and make a judgement as to which is the most effective course of action to follow. SJTs are primarily multiple-choice questions and a candidate can only choose from the options listed. These tests are almost always a reflection of real life situations on the job.

SJTs are a very powerful, yet cost effective way to select potential strong performers from a large participant pool. The likelihood of using an SJT is also higher if there is a high volume of candidates applying for a given role or position.

What will you assess with a Situational Judgement Test?

SJTs will help you evaluate various competencies by presenting unique real life situations to the participants and testing their responses to the ‘real’ demands of the job.

Some typical traits assessed are as follows:

  • The ability to communicate and influence, people skills
  • Planning, organizing and result orientation
  • Analytical thinking & Decision making skills
  • Ability to cope with challenging situations
  • Customer service orientation
  • Teamwork

These are some of the prominent exercises that constitute a typical day in an assessment centre. Once you are aware of the options available to you, one of the important decisions to make is choosing the appropriate exercises.

To make sure that you are able to make the right choice of assessment exercises, you would need to:

1. Conduct an initial job analysis of the vacant position:

Conducting a job analysis of the job role will help you determine the nature, content and purpose of the position in question. This also helps you identify the key skills and competencies that employees will need to exhibit to perform in the given role.

2. Prepare an elaborate job description

 A job description states the overall duties as well as responsibilities that ought to be performed by the employee. This description enables the organisation to identify the skills, knowledge, capabilities & experience which will be required to perform the job successfully. Thus there are some essential factors which cannot be compromised upon such as basic experience and qualification while there are desirable factors which includes specialized skills.

3. Decide which competencies to assess

 The organisation should produce a typical competency profile from the specifications earlier charted out thus setting the required standard expectations from the role. These competencies are based on the knowledge, skills and abilities that are required on the job and organisations be able to evaluate these competencies during the assessment centre exercises.

4. Identifying the assessment method

After producing a job and person specification as well as defining the competency framework for the role, the next stage is to decide which selection tests it will use as part of assessment centre exercises.

Organisations should choose the selection exercises relevant to the job using the job analysis data. These exercises should be those that will ultimately measure the abilities and role relevant characteristics and they must ensure the earlier prioritisation of needs as “essential” and “desirable” factors.

The assessment exercises should assess these chosen competencies atleast once. Ideally, a single exercise should not assess more than five competencies as it makes recording and evaluating difficult. You can even use a table or matrix that lists and plots the competencies against the exercises.

You can thus prepare an ideal candidate profile that indicates the expected scores on exercises.

You may also consider holding a pilot assessment centre to conduct a trial of the selected exercises and then review whether they are effectively assessing the identified criteria. This will allow you to make any modifications in exercises if required before the actual assessment centre.

This is how you can go about identifying and choosing the best combination of assessment centre exercises.

If you have any suggestions or exercises that you may like to recommend as part of an assessment centre, please feel free to share with us in the comments.

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