A Performance Standard for Promotions

A Performance Standard for Promotions

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Assessment centers aim to beat pencil-and-paper tests in measuring leadership.

Traditionally, personnel departments have relied on techniques such as multiplechoice and essay examinations, biographical questionnaires, and performance evaluations to determine a candidate’s suitability for promotion.

But over the past 10 to 15 years, personnel departments increasingly have relied on a new technique that’s very different from the traditional pencil-and-paper tests: the assessment center.

In fact, assessment centers have become so widespread that a 1986 study found that 43 percent of the fire departments surveyed used them as part of the process of making promotional decisions.

This growing popularity is due at least in part to the recognition that managerial positions require different knowledge and abilities than entry-level positions, and that the simulation exercises used in assessment centers may be a more valid and meaningful method of assessing those skills.

Even so, many issues about the use of assessment centers are unresolved. Candidates who have been denied promotions have challenged the technique in court, contending that in some cases it discriminated against minorities or didn’t accurately reflect the demands of the job. [See “Assessment Centers and the Courts” on page 54.] Questions remain about whether assessment centers can truly predict performance and how much training assessors need.

Assessment centers were designed to evaluate whether a candidate has the qualities necessary to succeed in a supervisory, managerial, or executive position. These behavioral dimensions, as they’re called—such as leadership, oral communication, and teamworkare measured through a series of exercises that simulate typical and important job tasks. The candidate’s performance is rated by a team of experts trained in these evaluations, and that score usually is combined with scores on other promotional techniques, such as essay exams or interviews, to yield an overall score for each candidate.

While it wasn’t until the mid1970s that the use of assessment centers in the civil service system began to increase dramatically, the technique is not a new one. Assessment centers were first used by the armed forces during World War II. The British army used the technique in selecting its officers, and the U.S. Office of Strategic Services used assessment centers to screen highly specialized military personnel.

In the late 1960s, assessment centers became a popular tool for making promotional decisions in private industry. IBM, General Electric, Exxon, AT&T, and other international corporations have used assessment centers extensively in making promotional decisions.

Now assessment center techniques are used to make promotional decisions in both fire and police departments. Their use has grown as the increased availability and lower costs of videotape technology have made it much easier for city and state personnel departments to administer assessment centers at these levels.

Job candidates are often asked to size up a fire situation.

The basic technique used to assess a candidate is the simulation exercise. These exercises can be written or oral, individual or group. Some of the most frequently used simulation exercises are:

  • In-basket exercise. This exercise generally gives the candidate a limited amount of time to sort through various documents that are likely to accumulate on the desk of a person in that position. These documents might include internal memos, letters from individuals outside the organization, telephone messages, schedules, and so on. The task of the candidate is to sort through the documents and take some action on each. For example, candidates may be rated on their ability to set priorities by acting on important matters first.

A properly designed in-basket exercise measures the candidate’s ability to delegate, analyze problems, organize, and plan. This exercise is one of the most popular, and it has been adapted for multiple-choice examinations, as well. In a multiple-choice exam, the candidate may get a stack of documents to review in order to answer some of the questions on the test.

  • Written problem. In this exercise, the candidate is generally given information and data to be analyzed within a limited time period to resolve some stated problem. The person is required to write a report about his or her proposed resolution of the problem.

One frequently used written problem requires candidates to make a size-up on the basis of a written description of a fire scene. In such a problem, the rating may be based on whether the candidate has listed and explained all of the considerations that should be taken into account in making a sizeup of that particular situation. For example, the candidate may be penalized for the incorrect positioning of initial hose lines, or for the absence of some precautionary measure, such as requesting additional assistance.

The written problem is used to measure the candidate’s ability to analyze problems and to communicate in writing.

  • Leaderless group discussion. In this exercise, a group of candidates is assigned a topic for discussion during a specified period. For example, candidates might be required to develop a proposal for a new sexual harassment policy. Because there’s no assigned leader in the discussion, the candidates decide how to structure their discussion.

The leaderless group discussion is designed to measure teamwork, leadership, oral communication, and decision-making. It has been shown to predict performance in jobs requiring verbal communication, verbal problem-solving, and acceptance by peers.

  • Assigned-role group discussion. Each candidate is assigned a position which he or she must support as the group discusses an unresolved organizational issue. The assigned positions are specifically designed to create conflict in the group. For example, for the position of chief of department, candidates might be assigned either to support or oppose mandatory drug testing. Candidates would then be required to argue in favor
  • of their assigned position.

The exercise is used to measure the candidate’s independence, ability to resolve differences, and interpersonal relations in a conflict.

The scoring of assessment center exercises differs markedly from the scoring of other promotional techniques. First, the proper use of assessment center exercises requires a group of assessors to evaluate each simulated exercise. This group usually consists of at least three experts from various fields. In a 1986 study, Samuel J. Yeager, an associate professor of urban studies at Wichita State University in Kansas, reported that the fire departments he surveyed used a variety of types of assessors, including technical experts from other fire departments (84.4 percent), personnel specialists (65.6 percent), community leaders (43.8 percent), fire department staff members (34.4 percent), and college professors (21.9 percent).

After the assessors are chosen, they’re trained to score the performance of candidates in each simulation exercise. The training is usually conducted by personnel specialists and can last anywhere from several hours to several weeks. While the training may differ depending on the specific exercise, in general, the assessors will be trained to observe and record certain types of behavior exhibited by the candidates. This can be done “live” or while reviewing videotapes of the candidates. For example, while watching a videotape of an assigned-role group discussion, the assessors will rate both the quantity and the quality of a candidate’s performance in a specific area, such as the ability to resolve differences. To do this, the assessors might count the number of times a candidate makes conciliatory statements or proposes a compromise.

After ratings are individually made by the assessors, the team discusses the performance of each candidate in each simulation exercise. The group then reaches an agreement on the rating of each candidate on each of the dimensions analyzed and determines the overall rating for each candidate.

Given the uniqueness of assessment center evaluations, candidates may be puzzled about how to prepare. One way to begin is to consult introductory business management textbooks.

Although fire departments are quasi-military in nature, they follow many standard managerial concepts used in private industry. Concepts such as delegation of work, leadership, motivation of subordinates, and performance evaluations, which are discussed in detail in most management textbooks, will be helpful to the assessment center candidate.

Knowing your departmental philosophy is excellent preparation.

In addition, there are some general guidelines that may assist candidates:

• To some extent, an assessment center evaluates characteristics you’ve been developing for your entire life. You can take advantage of this by anticipating the characteristics that might be measured and analyzing those characteristics in yourself.

First, think about the position for which you’re applying and about which characteristics you think are important for the job. You may also wish to study people now in the position you seek and their tasks.

Let’s say you do this and decide that leadership is important. You should then think about the leadership style you’ve developed over the years. Are you comfortable with your leadership style? How do you express it at work? How might you express it in an assessment center exercise? For example, if put into a leaderless group discussion, how might you convey your leadership abilities?

While you can only anticipate the assessment center exercises, knowing yourself better, and knowing how you want to express yourself, will help you to achieve your maximum performance during the assessment center exercises.

  • As with any type of examination, some of the assessment center exercises will require that you display your knowledge of administrative procedures. Therefore, it’s important that you study information such as department rules, regulations, and bulletins to update yourself on standard and current department procedures. Become familiar with all current policies in your department, and consider how these influence the position for which you are applying.
  • Since preparation for the assessment center requires that you study, memorize, and understand a substantial amount of written material, be sure to devote the necessary time to study this material adequately. Don’t try to cram all your studying into one night, but distribute your study periods over the course of several weeks. When
  • you’re studying, make sure you’re not disturbed and that you study with the intent to study; don’t just read casually. For more hints about studying and the nature of human memory, see “Studying for Promotional Exams,” Parts 1 and 2, Fire Engineering, February and March, 1987.
  • Try to anticipate current issues in your department that might be questions for the assessment center exercises. What problems exist? How might they best be resolved?

When considering solutions, adopt a long-term perspective while, of course, remaining aware of short-term effects. What should be the future goals of your fire department? What role will you play in them?

Also, when considering issues and solutions, be aware of broad and narrow perspectives. For example, how will changes in one fire department area affect other related areas? What are the related areas? How will the changes affect fire department personnel?

Practice writing your solutions to these problems. Also, practice giving an oral presentation of your solutions.

The more familiar you are with the responsibilities of the position for which you’re applying and with your own fire department “philosophy,” so to speak, the better prepared you will be to deal with any assessment center exercise.

  • Most assessment center exercises measure, at least to some degree, either oral or written communication. The following suggestions can be applied to both forms of communication.

Practice writing and speaking. Tape record your presentations. Have others assess your writing or speaking skills, and then make appropriate changes.

Organize your thoughts and then present them in a well-organized format. Make an outline of your thoughts whenever possible.

Be concise and to the point. Don’t delete important information, but also don’t include a lot of unrelated information in an attempt to impress assessors.

Say exactly what you mean. Sometimes we think we’re being clear when we’re not. Practice putting yourself in the position of the listener or reader.

  • Plan to work efficiently, without rushing. For example, if you’re given an in-basket exercise, you’ll need to organize the papers into piles you can deal with, rather than shuffle papers in an unorganized fashion.
  • Remember that most of the assessment center exercises will be either videotaped or monitored directly by assessors. Appearance, therefore, is very important.

Maintain a professional demeanor.

Don’t engage in inappropriate behaviors such as slouching, fidgeting, or gum chewing.

Relax and don’t be tense.

In summary, one of the most important suggestions is to be calm and be yourself. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Don’t try to portray the image you think the assessors will be looking for. Rather, be yourself and present your own thoughts in a clear, sincere, and well-organized manner.

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