Winter 1986 // Volume 24 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA2

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Is There a Better Way

Using the assessment center method for staff selection.

D. James Brademas
Associate Professor and Community Recreation Specialist
Office of Recreation and Park Resources
Department of Leisure Studies
University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign

Selecting the best candidate for a position on your staff is a demanding task-personnel judgments can be the most difficult made by an organization. The Northern Illinois 4-H Camp Association was faced with hiring a camp manager/director for its Camp Sha-waw-nas-see, located north of Kankakee, Illinois. The camp operates year-round, with heaviest use in the summer, and is available for rental during fall and winter to community groups and other organizations.

There's a full-time camp manager living on site. In the summer, the paid staff include mostly college students with specific skills in swimming, arts and crafts, archery, riflery, botany, and general programming. The paid staff are supplemented by volunteers who come with the children from various counties. These leisure experiences can be meaningful to children, and the quality of their experiences depends greatly on the quality of the staff and, most particularly, the camp manager.

Personnel Assessment Center

The area advisor for Camping and Outdoor Education suggested the use of a relatively new and innovative method, the Personnel Assessment Center, for selecting the camp manager from the final group of promising candidates. The Personnel Assessment Center is not a place, but rather a process that identifies managerial potential for purposes of selection, placement, promotion, development, or a combination of these factors. It's an objective attempt to provide more complete data than can ordinarily be obtained from personal interviews, supervisory ratings, and written and oral tests alone. The assessment center gathers relevant information, under standardized conditions, about an individual's capabilities to perform a job.1

An assessment center puts candidates through a series of group and individual exercises, interviews, and tests designed to simulate the conditions of a supervisory job, to determine if they have the skills and abilities necessary to perform that job.

Trained assessors, judging the candidates' behaviors, see all individuals from a common frame of reference in the various assessment activities. These procedures ensure that the judgments made are relatively free of the many forms of rater bias, are reliable, and can serve as the basis for meaningful predictions of a candidate's potential. Ideally, no more than six candidates should be assessed at one time.

Basic Assumptions

The assessment center concept is based on two assumptions: (1) that differences exist in the personal characteristics of more successful and less successful managers and (2) that these differences can be identified. These assumptions point to a threestep criteria for predicting managerial potential: selecting criteria of management success, identifying characteristics associated with successful managers, and developing valid instruments to measure predictors of success.

Thornton and Byham reviewed a series of research studies dating from 1956 to 1979 on the validity of assessment centers. They found that data generated in assessment centers can yield a more accurate prediction of managerial success than paper and pencil tests alone. They also found that assessment centers have a minimal adverse impact on protected classes and that the process is one of the fairest predictors available.2

The effectiveness of simulation to appraise behavior has been well-documented. Simulation is an attempt to create situations that resemble those in which supervisors or managers frequently find themselves-dealing with written material or dealing with people. The use of these exercises minimizes prediction error, because the performance observed is similar to the performance actually required of a manager. The exercises are "job samples" of the kinds of work managers perform.

Determine Skills To Be Assessed

The managerial skills to be assessed must be carefully determined before developing simulation exercises and must relate directly to the job requirements. It's not enough to say that a standard set of managerial skills will apply to every managerial job. A careful analysis of the job must be done to determine the task behaviors and necessary skills related to those behaviors.

Skills To Be Evaluated

Some of the skills to be evaluated, revealed by the job analysis for the camp manager, were: intellectual and interpersonal skills-including decision making, organization and planning, perception and analytical ability, behavioral flexibility, and sensitivity to people; communication skills-including oral and written communications and poise; and leadership skills-including decisiveness, leadership, forcefulness, and energy.

Job Skills Exercises

In-Basket Exercise

Assessment center exercises should be selected or designed based on their ability to measure one or more of the skills found in the job analysis process and determined necessary for performance on the job. One of the most common is the in-basket exercise. The candidates are asked to assume a managerial position and given background material on the agency, including a calendar and an organization chart showing staff members by title and name.

Included in the exercise are about 20 memos, letters, bills, reports, and telephone messages, which must be dealt with under a time constraint of 1 to 2 hours. This package of problems has built-in priorities and relationships. The candidate is asked to read all of the material and write at the bottom of each situation exactly what action he/she would take to resolve the problem.

The in-basket exercise may tap several skills related to decision making, organization and planning, sensitivity to people, and written communications. After the in-basket exercise is completed, assessors conduct an in-basket interview, at which time the candidate explains how the in-basket problems were approached and what specific actions were taken in each situation.

Leaderless Group Exercise

Another type of exercise used in the center is referred to as a "leaderless-group" exercise. In this exercise, no one is designated as chair or group leader. It encompasses two types of exercises-one competitive in nature and the other cooperative.

In the competitive exercise, each camp manager candidate was given the role of representing the employees of a different department. The task of each candidate was to nominate and defend an employee from the department for an exceptional performance award. Candidates were given background statements on all nominees and had 10 minutes to study the facts and prepare a 5-minute statement on why their employee should receive the award.

At the conclusion of the presentations, an open discussion was held during which the candidates questioned each other, further explained their positions, and fought for their nominees. The competitive nature of this exercise relates to the managerial skills of behavior flexibility, sensitivity to people, and oral communications. Assessors viewed the discussion and recorded specific behaviors, both verbal and nonverbal.

In the cooperative group exercise, the candidates were asked to review the camp's personnel policy manual and make recommendations for additions, deletions, and changes in wording. The policies were purposely written to be overly restrictive and narrow. The policies had to be revised and accepted by all candidates. Again, there were time constraints and the assessors observed and recorded behaviors.

Interview Exercise

An interview simulation may be an effective exercise if the job analysis specifies duties related to the personnel functions of hiring, counseling, and appraising employees. In our situation, each camp manager candidate had to conduct a disciplinary interview with a problem employee. The part of the employee was "played" by the area advisor. The candidates were given full details on the past performance of the employee and had 10 minutes to develop a strategy for the interview. The employee was advised to act alternately sullen, aggressive, passive, indifferent, and argumentative. Assessors had the opportunity to observe candidates' skills in perception, sensitivity to people, poise, forcefulness, and decisiveness.

Written Exercises

Written exercises may take many forms and deal with a host of problems that might face a camp manager. Some of the problems might include responding to a letter from an irate parent, resolving differences between two employees, and writing memos to staff. Our camp manager candidates were given one hour to write a presentation to the Camp Board on recommendations for promotional strategy for the coming year, including a news release on any camp-related topic or event of their choice. Their writing was read carefully by the assessors for skills in grammar, sentence construction, vocabulary, organization and planning, and analytical ability.

Typical Assessment Center Day

A typical assessment center schedule usually lasts from one to three days, depending on the job to be filled. Our center was 1 day beginning at 8:00 a.m. and ending at 5:30 p.m., with the following schedule:

8:00 Coffee and arrival of candidates
8:30-9:30 Cooperative exercise
9:30-9:45 Break
9:45-10:45 In-basket exercise
10:45-11:00 Break
11:00-Noon In-basket interviews
Written exercise
Noon Lunch
1:30-2:30 In-basket interviews
Written exercise
2:30-2:45 Break
2:45-3:45 Oral exercise
3:45-4:00 Break
4:00-5:00 Competitive exercise
5:00-5:30 General discussion

At the conclusion of the center day, assessors wrote narrative profiles of each candidate describing his or her strengths and weaknesses in the predetermined skill areas. Their profiles were submitted to the Camp Board for evaluation, combined with whatever information the Camp Board had from personal interviews and reference checks on the candidates. The narrative profiles provided detailed information on specific behaviors of the candidates, enabling the Camp Board members to select the person they believed to be the most capable candidate based on performance.


The traditional methods for selection of job applicants or new employees don't give enough knowledge about the potential performance of a person. One of the new ways of determining how an applicant might actually perform on the job is by using the personnel assessment center method.


  1. Joseph J. Moses and William C. Byham, eds., Applying the Assessment Center Method (New York: Pergamon Press, 1977), p. 4.
  2. George C. Thornton III and William C. Byham, Assess ment Centers and Managerial Performance (New York: Academic Press, 1982).