Apply for any graduate or management position now and there's a 50 per cent chance you'll be asked to attend an assessment centre. In theory, this gives employers more to base their decision on and candidates get various opportunities to demonstrate their strengths. But according to a recent report from the British Psychological Society (BPS), the reality is often different and can have an adverse effect on both company and applicant.
"Candidates are often confronted with tasks which have little relevance to the job," says Charles Woodruffe, a specialist in assessment and development centres. "Lack of focus is the most prevalent mistake of the centres, even though the programmes can last for several days. There is the typical `crossing shark- infested waters' simulation, which is fine if you are joining the SAS, but irrelevant if you are going for a job as a consultant."
A further problem, says Jonathan Wilson, a consultant at Ellis Haywood, which advises on structuring centres, is that many assessors simply tick off boxes of skills rather than observing the whole picture. "They create a crude model of assessment and attribute it with more power than it actually has."
Dr Rob Yeung, a chartered psychologist, agrees. "This is a particular problem when it comes to personality inventories. Assessors may decide against a participant because, according to the results, she is XYZ when what the role requires is ABC. But a good assessor will feed the results back to participants to ask if it is a fair representation and how they might work around specific situations. These assessors often find this is the right person for the job after all."
Another criticism of the centres is that ethnic minority and female candidates get poorer results in some psychometric tests. Certain questions answered by entrants to the Royal Navy, for example, have appeared racially biased because a large proportion of ethnic minority candidates got the same ones wrong.
Sarah Macpherson, a consultant with CGR Business Psychologists, has experienced the negative aspects of poorly designed assessment centres. …