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Assessment Centres: Observing human potential in context

26 February 2013

± minute read

    Assessment Centres: Observing human potential in context
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If for each environment there is a best organism, for every organism there is a best environment. [Cronbach, 1957, p. 679].

Assessment Centres (ACs) have been used extensively across a wide variety of organisational settings worldwide for selection, promotion, and development purposes. Emanating from the need to assess candidates’ typical performance in a more contextually nuanced approach, ACs gained prominence in the organisational setting after WWII (Duncan, Jackson, Lance, & Hoffman, 2012). Although, ACs are often confused with a physical place, it is rather a process or technique designed to elicit, observe and classify behaviour in a given context. Although ACs can consist of conventional ability and personality measures, simulations are the critical ingredient that differentiates ACs from other selection procedures (International Taskforce on Assessment Centre Guidelines, 2009). This important design principle allows expert observers/ raters to observe desired behaviours that are critical to successful job performance and at the same time, those situations in which these behaviours need to be displayed.

Consider the following scenario:

A large manufacturing company is looking to fill a regional VP role. In conjunction with HR, the hiring manager has identified the following critical skills: develop innovative solutions, motivate others to perform, drive execution through the promotion of team-work, develop talent and demonstrate adaptability. In the client’s view these skills are critical to success. The hiring manager has also pointed out significant business and job challenges that the regional VP would face: manage sales, services, local marketing and HR; lead the outsourcing of all the company’s service offerings; accomplish results by empowering others; drive improved business results; coordinate work with peers across divisions; and renew key clients’ commitment [Adapted from Brock, Ramesh, & Hazucha, 1957, p. 253]. Given the situation outlined above, what kind of assessment procedure should the recruitment officer utilise to identify the right candidate? Not only is a technique needed that is able to measure the candidate’s critical skills and abilities, but more importantly to measure these skills within the context of specific business challenges. Observing an individual’s ability and personality in a standardised and controlled environment is obviously invaluable, however observing that same individual’s behaviour when confronted with specific business, industry, and functional job challenges is likely to provide much richer information. Given the unique perspective the technique allows recruitment officers to gain on candidates’ performance, it comes as no surprise that the popularity of ACs has increased dramatically over the last 50 years since their inception in the 1940s. Businesses, predominantly in the US and UK, have been using this approach regularly for placement, development and selection of candidates in organisations. Encouragingly, the use of ACs has spread to developing countries including Africa in general and South Africa specifically. Despite ACs relatively high cost compared to standardised assessment techniques, the approach seems to be growing in popularity due to the numerous benefits they hold for organisations. Strong research support has been found for the predictive validity of ACs as well as the perceived fairness of the approach given the “real-life” feel of the ACs. As a result, the use of the technique has helped to project a positive, professional employer image to potential applicants, which proves extremely beneficial in the “war for talent.” A key advantage in the South African context seems to be the relatively small sub-group differences and minimal adverse impact in selection compared to traditional selection measures (e.g. cognitive ability and personality) (Povah & Povah, 2012; Thornton & Rupp, 2006). For this reason, Thornton, Wilson, Johnson, and Rogers (2009) found in their research that ACs faced fewer legal challenges globally compared to other assessment techniques, especially unstructured interviews and cognitive ability tests. However, as the success and popularity of ACs has grown over the years, so too have the impersonators who lay claim to being ACs but fail to meet the minimum standards described in the International Taskforce Guidelines (2009). Lievens and Thornton (2005) highlight some of the typical shortcomings of these so-called impersonators:

Typical shortcomings of AC "impersonators"

  • ACs where participants are not required to display any overt behaviour
  • ACs comprising solely of psychometric tests or interviews
  • ACs without multiple assessors or multiple methods of assessment

The violations of the strict criteria stipulated in the International Taskforce on Assessment Centre Guidelines (2009) are likely to erode most benefits associated with the AC approach. Practitioners and scholars alike are encouraged to be sensitive regarding the basic requirements of ACs and should attempt not to steer too far from these guidelines.


In an attempt to leverage the benefits of the AC approach whilst limiting the subjectivity which can creep into the AC ratings, JvR Psychometrics has completely revised their AC product range, called the Competency Assessment Series (CAS V3).

Some of the benefits of the third generation revisions include:

  • Revised and updated competency library based on two extensive meta-analyses on competency-based assessment
  • Introduction of Trait Activation Theory (TAT) to reduce subjectivity in rating
  • Introduction of four new exercises
  • Introduction of more exercises developed specifically for Middle and Senior Management levels
  • Updated manual which contains the administration instructions for all exercises in the CAS range
  • Decision-trees to guide Role-Plays, Leaderless Group Discussions, and Strategic Presentations
  • Introduction of two newly developed Case-studies
  • New Rating scale procedure and Behaviourally Anchored Rating Scales (BARS)
  • Electronic In-baskets
  • Two new Frame-of-Reverence training programmes to compliment the third generation CAS series.


For more information, please contact us on +27(0) 11 781 3705/6/7 or send an email to

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