The Application of Assessment Center Technology to the Evaluation of Personnel Records

By Thornton Iii, George C.; Morris, David M. | Public Personnel Management, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

The Application of Assessment Center Technology to the Evaluation of Personnel Records


Thornton Iii, George C., Morris, David M., Public Personnel Management


Elements of traditional police promotional examinations (e.g., written tests and assessment centers) do not take into account candidates' work histories, and performance appraisals on records are fraught with problems. This article describes a new method of having panelists systematically review several source documents to evaluate behavioral evidence of past work history related to dimensions needed for the target job. This information can then be combined with information from the traditional assessment methods to improve promotion decisions.

"The two most important days in a candidate's career are the day he/she takes the written test and the day he/she takes the assessment center. What about the other 363 days of the year of reliable and outstanding performance?"

--Chief of Police

Traditional promotional examinations in police organizations often consist of the following elements: a written knowledge test, an assessment center, credit for seniority, and a score based on recent performance appraisal ratings. Each of these elements may evaluate some job-related attributes, but they also have limitations. The purpose of this article is to highlight the strengths and limitations of these traditional elements of police promotional examinations and to describe an innovative method for gathering and evaluating additional job-related information from the personnel records of candidates.

Strengths and Limitations of Traditional Methods

What is wrong with the traditional methods of evaluation? Credit for seniority certainly recognizes the contribution of long-time service to an organization and deserves inclusion in the overall ranking, but it is limited in that there is often little variation in years of service among the finalists. At the lower end, candidates usually must have at least a few years of service; at the upper end, long-time officers have often been promoted or do not put themselves up for advancement. More importantly, length of service in a lower-level job is no guarantee the person has the skills needed for higher-level positions.

Performance on a written test of knowledge and an assessment center also provide relevant, but limited, information. The written examination certainly provides the best way to evaluate whether a candidate knows the rules of the organization and conceptual principles of policing. That information is a basic, necessary starting point for good supervision, but it is not sufficient for success in police administration and leadership.

An assessment center certainly goes beyond the written test by tapping into the decision-making, administrative, and interpersonal skills that are necessary for effective management and leadership.[1] The long history of research on assessment centers clearly demonstrates their effectiveness in measuring skills related to effective management and in predicting success in a variety of organizational settings.[2] A potential limitation of the assessment center method is that it measures the ability to execute the skills ("can do" variables), but not necessarily the willingness to do so over the long haul in an organization ("will do" variables). In addition, assessment centers typically measure task-related aspects of performance, but not necessarily attributes related to the willingness to do extra "good citizenship" behaviors related to the organization's survival.[3]

Errors in Prediction

One result of these limitations may be two types of error in prediction: false positives and false negatives. False positives are those candidates who test well on the written examination and assessment center, but do not actually perform well on the target job if they are promoted. False negatives are those who do not test well and thus are not promoted, but would have performed well if they had been promoted. Both of these errors can be minimized by gathering behavior information about actual past job performance, which is relevant to performance on the higher-level job. …

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