The role of assessment centres in personnel selection

Published: 2019/12/10 Number of words: 3013

Critically evaluate the contribution of Assessment Centres to the development of the psychological contract between newcomer employees and the organization. Also compare and contrast different views that selection methods solely perform ‘predictivist objectives’ versus the view that selection methods can also serve the development of a ‘viable psychological contract’ between the individual and the organization.

A particular area of Human Resource Management has received much attention and investigation. Selection methods have received intense scrutiny in the past decades with studies debating their value, outcomes and approaches. However, much research has focused primarily on the practical value of selection methods, whilst neglecting other aspects that have emerged with their implementation. These could be vital for an enhanced understanding of the employer-employee relationship. Furthermore, this relationship develops once selection procedures begin, so this would be the starting point of a psychological contract between the new employee and the organization. Literature in the field argues that ‘from the point of view of practical value, the most important property of a personnel assessment method is predictive validity’ (Schmidt and Hunter, 1998). However, much investigation has maintained that ‘while it is nonsensical to claim that selection techniques do not act as predictors, it is equally nonsensical to claim that this is all they do’ (Anderson, 2001). Thus, the contribution of selection methods to the emergence of a relationship between the organization and the new employee seems to encompass a wide range of properties. These are not only a ‘predictive objective’, but can also help serve the development of a viable psychological contract.

This research will investigate the different dimensions of personnel selection methods with specific focus on assessment centres. Even though they generally come last in the selection process, they ‘expose the candidate to considerable contact with members of the organization’ (Anderson, 2001) and could arguably be a crucial factor in the formation of a realistic and trustworthy psychological contract between an individual and the organisation.

To begin with, selection methods have been carefully designed, usually by human resource practitioners, researchers and psychologists, to select a new member to join the organisation from a pool of available candidates and to predict that individual’s future job performance. Selection methods need to be based on job analyses, descriptions and specifications and need to find the person who best fits the job characteristics as well as with the organizational culture. Firstly, one must look at the ‘predictivist paradigm’ (Anderson et al., 2004) of selection methods to comprehend what it is based on and how it emerged. However, one must not ignore the valuable literature that argues about other important aspects of the nature of selection methods, particularly that of assessment centres. A more subjective perspective on the methods must be considered. Such an understanding of the dimensions of assessment centres would allow further insight into the initiation of the psychological contract.

Traditionally, hiring methods have been seen as ‘unimpactful measurement devices’ (Lievens & Anderson, 2002) and ‘neutral predictors of applicant suitability and subsequent job role performance’ (e.g. Schmitt, Ones and Hunter 1992; Guion 1998; Schmidt, current issue, Borman, current issue; cited in Anderson 2001). In other words, their validity seemed questionable. Even today, there are diverse views on their validity.

Some perspectives in the literature seem to indicate that selection methods are reliable in some instances for content validity, ‘only when you want to sample a current level of performance’ (Dreher & Sackett, 1981), while ‘in criterion-related work, the selection procedure, or what Grant (1980) calls the selector, is characterized as a predictor of future performance and not as a measure of performance’ ( Dreher & Sackett, 1981). This concept allows one to further comprehend that selection methods perform predictivist objectives. Nonetheless, these are undoubtedly ‘some of the main reasons for their continued use’; ‘their demonstrated content validity (Klimoski & Brickner, 1987; Thornton & Mueller-Hanson, 2004), criterion-related validity (Arthur, Day, McNelly & Edens, 2003; Gaugler, Rosenthal, Thornton & Bentson, 1987; Hardison & Sackett, 2004), and perceived fairness and practical utility’ (cited in Lance et al., 2007).

On the other hand, ‘their internal structure consistently fails to demonstrate construct validity in the sense that assessment centers apparently do not measure the constructs they were intended to measure’ (Lance et al., 2007). This creates a paradoxical stance known as the ‘construct validity paradox’. It is further accentuated when regarding the specific popularity of 57 per cent of assessment centres (Anderson & Cunningham-Snell, 2001). In addition, ‘although Assessment Centers are generally considered valid predictors of managerial success, the nature of those predictions and the underlying dynamics of Assessment Center practices remain a puzzle’(Klimoski & Brickner, 1987), while the reason for their popularity could be that they lend themselves to ‘content-based validity’ ( Dreher & Sackett, 1981).

Schmidt and Hunter (1998), in a classical article on the validity and utility of selection methods, argue that the validity of assessment centres is directly affected by their predisposition to their ‘practical value’ and is also directly determined by ‘the variability of job performance’. Gaugler and Thornton (1989) (cited in Lievens (1998)) demonstrated that ‘validity was affected by the number, the distinctiveness, the nature, and the definition of the’ hiring method, particularly of the assessment center dimensions’ and that ‘the number of dimensions wielded effects on the level of convergent validity’.

It would seem, then, that in the literature, the scores of predictive validity of each selection method have been determined and it is asserted that these methods, indeed, give valuable predictions of future job performance and behaviour. The predictive validity was highest for GMA tests which scored 0.51 (Schmidt & Hunter, 1998) on a scale where 1 is the perfect prediction (Anderson & Cunnigham-Snell, 2001). Work sample tests scored .54 and structured interviews, .51 while assessment centres had a rather low score at .037. Nevertheless, assessment centres still exhibit high popularity (Anderson & Cunnigham-Snell, 2001). ‘Use of hiring methods with increased predictive validity leads to substantial increases in employee performance as measured in percentage increases in output, increased monetary value of output, and increased learning of job-related skills’ (Hunter, Schmidt & Judiesch, 1990; cited in Smidt and Hunter, 1998).

Hence, it can be noted that organisations have the option of choosing selection methods with the highest validities. Although hiring methods have solely predictivist objectives, they can still contribute to an understanding, to a certain extent, of the future possible performance of an employee, along with their expectations from the organisation. In addition, the firm would also clarify the potential consequences of a breach of expectations of the individual by the organisation. When selection methods are viewed from a traditional perspective, the indications are that their mere practice would provide insight for organisations into the individual’s expectations and possible future performances, which would be directly proportional to the fulfillment of those expectations. Vice versa, they would provide an indication for the new employee of the possible expectations of the organisation and the consequences and outcomes proportional to those expectations held by the organisation.

It should be noted that, ‘changes in labor market conditions’ ( Lievens et al., 2002) and the search for ‘technological-literate’ applicants has ‘generated challenges to this predominant predictivist paradigm’ (Lievens et al., 2002). Hence, one can presumably highlight that selection methods should be seen from a broader perspective; that is, from a predictivist as well as a more subjective lens that encompasses all the different dimensions on which selection methods impact. Adhering to only the predictivist approach would be superficial because the reasons behind assessment centre predictive validity remain unknown. (Klimoski & Brickner, 1987).

Selection occurs at different stages. Candidates could first be exposed to certain tests, interviews, self-assessments and so on. As assessment centres are generally the last stage and have documented validity, they would exert much greater influence on the fructification of a psychological contract between the new employee and the organization, hence demonstrating much more than just predictivist properties.

It has long been debated whether assessment centres really yield novel results that organisations can use. Moreover, ‘[A]ssessment centers are combinations of simulated work exercises and other assessment procedures designed to assess the job-related skills and abilities of job applicants and incumbents’ (Collins et al., 2003). They expose the candidate to ‘a day or more of exercises and discussions that are observed by various trained assessors or raters’ who asses the candidates. However, in some of the literature it is argued that ‘a careful evaluation of personnel records and employment history could provide much of the same information (or at least the predictive power) as a lengthy and expensive assessment program’ (Klimoski & Brickner, 1987), thus shedding light on the elusive results that research and practice have yielded in the field. It has been argued that the exercises at assessment centres depend on a multitude of factors and variables, which are, in turn, determined by many other factors such as environment, candidate experiences and emotions, organisation-person fit and so on. These factors could influence the candidate to act in a more persuasive manner than in general (Klimoski & Brickner, 1987), resulting in low performance prediction authenticity.

On the other hand, much literature has illustrated that assessment centres play a pivotal role in the selection process. This paper asserts that whether or not assessment centres have been demonstrated to be quintessential for predicting accurate future performance and behaviour, they do have a strong influence on the relationship between the new employee and the organisation. This relationship begins evolving at the assessment centre stage when both the candidate’s personality, skills and abilities have emerged and the organisation’s culture has been clarified to the candidate. Additionally, as noted in Anderson (2001), these type of interactions with the organization exert ‘a longer impact upon candidates than subsequent on-the-job behavior’, and thus must be taken into account. More research is needed to illustrate how it could equally also serve the development of a viable psychological contract.

The concept of a psychological contract was first introduced by Argyris in 1960, and by Levison

et al. in 1962 ( Thomas & Anderson, 1998). They argued that ‘the contract is implicit, mutual, and frequently antedates the formal employment contract’ (Thomas & Anderson, 1998). This could perhaps prove the validity of assessment centres to initiate a viable psychological contract. Additionally, it ‘has been viewed as a relevant construct to explain important employee attitudes and behaviors like commitment, turnover, and organizational citizenship behaviors’ (e.g., Conway & Briner, 2000; Lester, Turnley, Bloodgood & Bolino, 2002; Robinson & Morrison, 1995; Turnley & Feldman, 1999, 2000; cited in De Vos, et al., 2003 ). Hence it can be understood that the nature of the psychological contract incorporates not only predictive validity but also plays a pivotal role in the new employee-employer relationship.

In addition, the ‘strength of the psychological contract construct is that it has high face validity with employers and employees’ (Anderson & Schalk, 1998, cited in Pate et al., 2003). This concept has been regarded, to a certain extent, as a genuine determinant of certain predictivist objectives and, moreover, has brought forth a feasible stance where both parties could understand and meet the expectations of the other. This is a vital part of the relationship: on one hand, from the organisation’s perspective, it could implicitly predict future employee behavior if expectations are met; on the other hand, from the employee’s perspective, it could allow a good understanding of the benefits and outcomes of joining that specific organisation if enough information is provided, albeit implicitly. Thus, Rousseau (1995) defines the psychological contract as dependent on ‘promises, reliance, acceptance, and a perception of mutuality'(p. 22; cited in Thomas & Anderson, 1998).

From an analysis of the different views on the viability and performance of selection methods, it can be asserted that assessment centres, by subjecting individuals to longer interactions with the organisation, not only predict future job performance and aid the ‘pre-entry socialisation’, but also help construct a viable psychological contract. The literature shows that selection methods, particularly assessment centres, serve the function of public relations (Anderson 2001), as they allow the individual to initiate a dynamic type of psychological contract.

There has been a shift from the old, outdated psychological contract that viewed employers as ‘care takers for employees’ (Cavanaugh & Noe, 1999) to a more authentic, contemporary type of contract that is impacted by fast-paced globalisation and embeds, for example, ‘lower expectations of long-term employment’. As technology is advancing, selection methods are becoming more realistic and the emergence of a psychological contract will be based on mutual expectations that are much closer to real life circumstances, making the contract more trust-worthy.

This research would also propose that more exploration is needed in the area of assessment centres to fully determine the dimensions that they construct. Assessment centres, unlike other selection methods (while not discounting the necessity of other methods), play an important role in helping the organisation to assess the candidate and to construct clear expectations of the individual that are often based on the measurements and predictions obtained from the exercises and assessments the individual was exposed to. This, in turn, highlights the importance of seeing that this is the starting point of the psychological contract. De Vos et al. (2003) cited in Louis (1980), mentioned how the formation of such a contract can be seen as a ‘sensemaking process’. In this approach, ‘newcomers could change their perceptions of employer promises about career opportunities (1) as a function of their evaluation of the career development opportunities their employer actually offers or (2) as a function of their evaluation of the contributions they make to their employer’ (De Vos et al., 2003).

Assessment centres, due to their nature, could allow the employers to more clearly portray their stance on employee career opportunities, whether implicit or explicit, so that the candidate is able to form real expectations of what is feasible or not within the organisation. Moreover, the candidate can also form a realistic perception of what they will be expected to do to meet the obligations of the organisation. Vice versa, the organisation could form the same realistic expectations of the candidate. This process would facilitate the development of a viable psychological contract; one that is based on expectations that could be authentically met by both parties for the well-being and success of both.

In conclusion, this research has provided both the writer and, hopefully, also the readers with interestingly presented facts about the nebulous nature of selection methods. The specific focus has been on the different interpretations of what different methods are meant to accomplish. The close attention paid to assessment centres has allowed an enhanced understanding that regardless of the standpoint one adopts, these centres play a fundamental role in the emergence of a genuine psychological contract between the new employee and the organisation. This paper argues that more research in the field will elicit additional beneficial expertise so as to facilitate selection and future adaptation of both parties involved.


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