The Benefits of Assessment Centers

By Jerrod VanLandingham and Micah Holmes

In a 25-year-long study described in First Break All the Rules, the Gallup organization found that the most important factor for an employee’s job satisfaction was the relationship with his immediate manager. Incredibly, these employee/manager relationships hold more importance than company policies, benefits, and even pay. For this reason, the promotion of the most excellent leaders is essential to the lasting legacy and further growth of an organization. This article discusses tools your department can use to maximize its promotional assessment center, including selecting the right candidate for the job and using the information gathered to benefit the organization for the long term.


The fire service typically uses assessment centers for promotional purposes. The reasons for this are the enhanced predictability and validity of the assessment center process in future job performance and the favored outcomes of all of those involved, no matter the results. However, many departments fail to use the assessment center to full potential. They conclude the assessment center once the promotional list is established. Whether the fire department, the human resources division, or an outside consulting firm creates the assessment center, the fire department can use it in many ways.

Assessment centers can tell a department a lot about itself. They help in diagnosing organizational needs and personnel development. Assessment centers are adaptable and can be tailored for many situations and positions. Additionally, some basic aspects of an assessment center dive into the culture and nuances of the job that can be used to add value to the department’s mission beyond a promotional list.

Job Analysis

For an assessment center to be completed appropriately, a thorough job analysis must be conducted. To see why this is important, ask anyone who has been in the fire service for 10 years or longer how any particular position changed in its scope over those 10 years. New chiefs come in, new responsibilities are created, and new areas are developed. Just think of how involved fire departments have become in areas that were once unrelated such as hazmat and emergency medical services. According to the International Congress on Assessment Center Methods, “Guidelines and Ethical Considerations for Assessment Center Operations,” the position changes over time, and the assessment center must dive into the intricacies of the position for which it is assessing.

There is also a trove of information available to refine the job description, reorder responsibilities, and diagnose the status of the organization. The job analysis “results in the common language of the competency dimensions that differentiate the successful from the average performer.”1 What this means is that candidates can judge their own performance by the standards the department sets based on the job analysis.

Job Descriptions and Compensation Packages

Attracting and retaining the best talent are important to the organization’s remaining competitive. Initially, the compensation package plays a critical role in attracting talent. At each level of promotion, particularly in the public safety services, the compensation package is just as important. Packages should reflect a competitive position throughout the market of similar positions to retain good talent. This is where the job description comes in; it should be written to meet the needs of the organization and can determine how the position is priced out in the market.

Each promotional exam is another good opportunity to assess your current job descriptions and to make needed changes to meet organizational goals and values. Organizations should consider how the job has changed since the last assessment by surveying incumbents and other staff members. One way to accomplish this is to create a list of categories covered by a position and have employees prioritize each category. Note differences in prioritization among incumbents, higher-level management, and lower-level subordinates. Viewing a position differently at various levels might be an indication that organizational goals and values are not being communicated properly or are not “owned” by individuals throughout the organization. In addition to revising the job description, more work will have to be done later to align employees with these goals and values.

Target Behaviors and Testing

After a thorough job analysis has been conducted and a job description has been written, a group of competencies or target behaviors are developed for use in assessing participants of the assessment center. These target behaviors should be critical to success within the organization at that specific position and be presented to test takers as knowledge skills and abilities required for the position. Postpromotion, a department should always revisit these target behaviors to assess if current members of the department are well-trained and prepared.

Departments need to create realistic scenarios that will measure the candidate’s ability to meet the target behaviors. Components that have proved successful, and will continue to be so, are scenario-based emergency ground operations, conflict resolution, public speaking, prioritization activities known as “in baskets,” interviews based on the candidate’s background and knowledge of the position, written communication, and peer review. Based on the job analysis, components of the test that best identify the target behaviors desired can be selected.

The test should be conducted in the most objective way possible to allow fairness to all candidates. Although each portion of the test might be subjective based on target behaviors and the assessors, the overall testing process should be well understood by all. Candidates should understand what competencies they are being tested on, how much weight is given to each component, when the test begins and ends, and when to expect feedback. The environment should be conducive to getting the best target behavior identified, and the assessors need to be well trained in the job description and the target behaviors desired for each component being assessed and have an unbiased opinion of all candidates.

Validity and Measurement

Today’s society can be very litigious. Whereas it is not good practice to be overly concerned about litigation, it is a good idea to ensure that best practices are used in a promotional process. For example, Robertson et al2 found that participants in an assessment center were much less likely to be dissatisfied with the findings of the center, regardless of their position in the findings, than other methods of determining advancement. In another study, Fletcher3 found that participants of an assessment center felt a greater commitment to the organization after the center was conducted. These findings and others show that using an assessment center can diminish a department’s chances of future litigation. Proper validation of the assessment center’s findings through mathematical models can make an assessment center airtight against legal action. A study conducted among U.S. police forces shows consistently that assessment centers are much less biased against gender and racial minorities.4

Employee Development

Assessment centers are great sources of information for organizations to use in constructing development plans for employees. According to Dr. Charles Woodruffe, assessment centers are of value to employees: “Participants receive high-quality feedback and the opportunity to discuss and construct a development plan.” (1, 46) He cautions that an assessment center for promotion and a developmental center for employee development should not be combined into one event, although, he says, “data from an assessment center can be used to construct development plans for specific employees regardless of whether they were promoted or not.” The follow-up for those promoted can assist in getting them started on the right foot in their new position; similarly, those who do not promote can improve in their current position and prepare for promotion later.

Big Dividend Summary

Conducting an assessment center provides a department with multiple opportunities. A proper job analysis will help determine job alignment with the job description and a fair compensation package and will also assist the department in meeting its mission and values. A good assessment center will provide clear expectations for candidates in terms of target behaviors and competencies and foster trust through transparency and process. Further, the assessment process and results will help the training division develop training in the areas identified as deficient.

Considering a third-party entity to conduct the process also has its benefits. Although asking for more money in financially difficult times is not usually at the top of the chief’s priority list, hiring a consultant can pay off. Consultants bring specific knowledge to the project more quickly than it would take internal employees to gain it. They can decrease the number of employees needed to assist with the project (reducing cost), and they bring a fresh perspective and different methodologies and processes and are not conflicted by internal politics.

Regardless of who conducts the process, organizations holding assessment centers should consider appropriate assessments for the job being tested. Consult the International Congress on Assessment Center Methods ( for information on requirements and best practices. A thorough and well-run assessment center can benefit the organization by finding the right people for the right job and providing information for long-term organizational development.


1. Woodruffe, Charles. Development and Assessment Centres: Identifying and Assessing Competence. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 2000. Print, 16.

2. Robertson I., Iles, P.A., Gratton L., and Sharpley D. (1991) “The impact of personnel selection and assessment methods on candidates,” Human Relations. 44:9, 963-982.

3. Fletcher C. (1989) “The impact of demographic changes on selection,” The Occupational Psychologist. 8:3-4.

4. Adler Z. (1990). “Hill Street Clues: The U.S. police record on promoting women,” Personnel Management. 22:8.

Additional References

Buckingham, Marcus, and Curt Coffman. First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. New York, N.Y.: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Print.

“Guidelines and Ethical Considerations for Assessment Center Operations,” International Journal of Selection and Assessment 17.3 (2009): 243-53. Print.

Thornton, George C. Assessment Centers in Human Resource Management. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1992. Print.

JERROD VANLANDINGHAM is an assistant chief with the Longmont (CO) Fire Department, has been in the fire service since 1992, has a master’s degree in business administration, and is a managing partner with Vanlandingham and Holmes Consulting, LLC.

MICAH HOLMES has been involved in emergency services since 2004, both as a firefighter and a paramedic. He has a master’s degree in organizational leadership and is the owner of Code3Apps, an app development company for emergency service providers. He is a managing partner with Vanlandingham and Holmes Consulting, LLC.

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