Careers – Close encounters

If you are applying for a new job or being considered for internal promotion, you are likely to be about to encounter an assessment centre programme.

Surveys show that assessment centres are one of the fairest forms of employment selection. They are far better able to predict future performance than interviews and psychometric tests, bio-data and other techniques.

So you should see being sent to one as good news. Nevertheless, many accountants are intimidated by the idea of going through an assessment centre.

To overcome this fear and perform well, it is helpful to arm yourself with the facts. Assessment centre courses may last anything from half a day to three days, but most last one or two. Their purpose is to assess those competencies that a thorough job analysis has shown to be most relevant to the position in question.

The programme will involve a range of activities, with the emphasis on job simulation techniques such as group discussions, team exercises, presentations and in-tray exercises. You are also likely to have to complete ability tests and personality questionnaires and undergo one or more interviews.

In a full assessment centre programme, several candidates are usually assessed together. If the job is an external one, however, the fact that competing candidates are participating together can create obvious problems of confidentiality. The amount of time off work required may also cause a problem, since most people would not want their current employer to know that they are looking for another job. So in circumstances like these, you may be asked to attend an assessment centre for just a half-day session at which you are the only candidate.

Full assessment centre programmes are, however, common for internal selection.

They are also used for external selection both at the graduate level – when time and confidentiality are not issues – and in the public sector, where employees are more open about applying for new jobs.

If you work for an organisation which genuinely has a strong commitment to its employees, you may also be asked to attend what is known as a development centre.

Although the format is broadly similar to that of an assessment centre, a development centre places greater emphasis on self and peer-assessment.

Used properly, these centres can yield great benefits.

One crucial issue at both assessment and development centres is the amount and quality of the feedback you receive. Feedback tends to be more comprehensive at development centres. In assessment centres, there is usually a better chance of getting proper feedback when the participants are current staff rather than external candidates.

If you are an external candidate, bear in mind that you have just as much right to receive feedback, given the investment you have made in time off work to attend. Unfortunately, what happens all too often is that organisations try to duck the issue by telling candidates to ring in if they want feedback, hoping that not many will actually do so.

It is, of course, difficult for organisations to provide feedback immediately.

Assessors have to spend a long time together discussing their observations about each candidate, measuring each competency and evaluating each exercise before they are able to arrive at a reliable analysis.

The cure to this problem lies largely in the hands of participants. If they assert their rights vigorously enough, employers will be forced to honour their ethical obligation to provide essential feedback.

Remember also your right to be properly briefed before you attend an assessment centre. Some employers deliberately tell you as little as possible, presumably perceiving some kind of advantage in springing surprises. But good practice dictates that the participants should have the purpose, format and content of a course clearly explained to them before they attend.

If you don’t get an adequate briefing in advance, take the initiative and telephone to ask for one. Knowing what attending the assessment centre will involve is fundamental to being properly prepared.

A briefing about the assessment process is not enough on its own, though.

You also need to be told as much as possible about the position you are being considered for, the criteria against which you will be assessed and – if you are a candidate applying for a new job – the organisation you are planning to join.

Thus briefed, you can give some thought to what situations you are most likely to be faced with in the various exercises and how you may be able to play to your strengths.

Do not, however, be tempted to go any further than this and try to role-play your idea of the ideal candidate. Unless you are a consummate actor, you will be lucky to be able to keep it up for even an hour or so, let alone for a whole day.

Many candidates feel that, because they are competing with the other participants for a job, they must try to dominate any group activities.

In practice, this can be a dangerous strategy, since the purpose of at least some of the exercises may be to assess how the candidates collaborate with each other as members of a team, rather than to evaluate leadership qualities. You should certainly not try to put other participants down, or be negative about their contributions to group discussions. You will probably score better marks by giving praise and support.

You do, however, need to make a contribution and be noticed by the assessors who, unless they are exceptionally experienced and perceptive, often tend to over-value verbal fluency and social confidence. A good strategy is to let someone else pitch in first. Then, having listened carefully to what has been said and noted any conflicts which may be building up, come in with a clear summary of the situation and a well thought out suggestion as to how the potential problem can be resolved.

Don’t let yourself be downcast if you feel you have not done too well on the first activity. You will be judged over the full one or two days, so keep your spirits up and make sure you pace yourself. Assessment centres can be as much a test of stamina (both physical and mental) as anything else.

It obviously helps if you have been through an assessment centre before but unfortunately, unlike job interviews, which are relatively easy to obtain, it is difficult to find opportunities for this kind of practice.

If you are willing to invest some cash as well as some time, however, there are consultants who will provide you with coaching.

A final point to remember is that, like interviews, assessment centres should be regarded as a two-way process. The way company representatives behave towards you over the day or two you spend at the centre, together with the quality of the briefing and feedback you receive, can provide useful clues to the culture of an organisation and the way it treats its employees.

It is not unknown for candidates to decide, on the strength of this information, that they would not accept the job even if they were offered it.


Geoff Wilson, director of training and development at Hogg Robinson Skillbase, says: ‘More and more organisations believe that the best way to match their needs with the abilities of staff is to measure them against a number of competencies at an assessment centre.

‘Attending a centre over a 24-hour period allows more time to evaluate a candidate’s strengths and potential than a single 45-minute interview.’

Jane Lewis, a partner at Woodward Lewis Associates, comments: ‘Presentation skills are very important. There is less and less room these days for shy and retiring candidates.’

Ceri Roderick, head of the organisational psychology unit at Development Associates Group, advises: ‘Be yourself: don’t try to role play someone you are not. Don’t assume you always have to be competing for leadership – some exercises may be about collaboration. It is difficult to tell how well you are doing, so don’t try to second-guess the process. Use the assessment centre process to tell you about the organisation and decide whether you would want to join it.’

John Seear, head of the English ICA’s careers service, adds: ‘Avoid being negative about the other participants or their views. Be constructive at all times. You have a right to receive feedback, so do not be afraid to ask for it. Make sure you get feedback and chase the company if necessary.’ Graham Perkins practices as a career counsellor and is the author of several books on career management and related topics

Related reading