Assessment Centers and the Courts

Assessment Centers and the Courts

The legal challenges to assessment centers have been somewhat different from the challenges typically made to more traditional promotion tests. They’ve also been fewer in number. Supporters of assessment centers might suggest that this is a result of their greater usefulness and validity, but critics might argue that, due to a number of unresolved issues, the conclusions about assessment centers should not yet be drawn.

Frequently, the challenges to assessment center exercises have been directed toward the rationale behind their use, the training of the assessors, and whether the exercises accurately reflect actual tasks performed in that job.

The following brief review of some of the court cases highlights the different types of issues raised by the use of assessment centers.

Bias by assessors

Berry, B., Stokes, E.C., and Laut, K.E., Plaintiffs v. The City of Omaha and Wervel, L.H. (U.S. District Court for Douglas County, Neb.; November, 1975) While the assessment center used by the City of Omaha to promote individuals to the position of deputy police chief was eventually upheld in this case, a major issue was the training of the assessors and the standards they used in evaluating the candidates. Specifically, the plaintiffs argued that each assessor used different definitions of successful performance. The importance of applying one standard set of criteria to all candidates was highlighted. The plaintiffs also suggested that some of the assessors knew some of the candidates and were therefore less than objective.

Qualities measured

Richie Davis v. Michigan Civil Service Commission. (Ingham County Circuit Court, June 16, 1978) An assessment center was used to measure the management skills of candidates for promotion to captain in the Michigan State Police. However, Michigan law stated that promotions should be based on a consideration of merit (length and quality of service), efficiency (effective performance of job tasks), and fitness (ability to fulfill physical and skill requirements). The promotion list was found to not be in compliance with that law because fitness was the only variable measured by the assessment center and no other promotional techniques had been constructed to measure merit and efficiency.

This case highlights the importance of developing a comprehensive promotional package to measure all the knowledge, skills, and abilities that are decided to be important on the basis of the job analysis. The validity of the assessment center was not ruled on directly; rather, the primary issue was the fact that a “systems approach” to making promotional decisions was not adopted.

Relevance to the job

James C. Edwards et al. v. City of Evanston et al. (Civil Action 74C2686, August 25, 1975) This case involved assessment center exercises used to promote candidates to the positions of police lieutenant and captain. The court ultimately threw out the exercises because the job analysis did not indicate a clear relationship between the exercises and the job itself.

This case highlights the importance of conducting a thorough job analysis and developing the exercises on the basis of documented job behaviors. The mere fact that the assessment center has proven effective for some promotions doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for all promotions.

Impact on minorities

Gregory C. Tillery v. Pacific Telephone Co. (U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, June 10, 1982) This case involved the use of an assessment center for promotion to the title of sales representative. The use of the assessment center was upheld even though it had an adverse impact on the promotion of minorities.

According to the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures (published in the Federal Register on August 25, 1978), adverse impact is defined as when the selection rate for any race, sex, or ethnic group is less than 80 percent of the selection rate for the majority group (generally white males).

However, if the organization can demonstrate that the assessment center exercises are the result of acceptable testing procedures, then the adverse impact might not prove that the department has discriminated.

In this case, the Pacific Telephone Co. was able to demonstrate that the characteristics being measured by the assessment center exercises were important elements of job behavior and that peformance on the assessment center exercises was predictive of and significantly correlated with actual job performance. Hence, the use of the assessment center was upheld by the court.

In a number of court cases, the assessment center has been ordered as a means to remedy past discrimination or as one component of an approved affirmative action plan. These cases include the Richmond Black Police Officers’ Association et al. v. The City of Richmond et al. (U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, September 22, 1975), and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, James D. Hodgson, Secretary of Labor, U.S. Department of Labor, and U.S. of America v. AT&T and Bell Companies (“Civil Action #73-149, January 18, 1973).

Future issues

Some of the issues still unresolved may serve as the basis for future legal challenges to the use of assessment centers.

First, a closer examination needs to be made of the rating errors that may occur due to racial or gender bias on the part of the assessors. One of the advantages of paperand-pencil tests is the guarantee of anonymity. The assessor has no knowledge of the candidate’s race or gender while rating test performance. This type of anonymity, of course, doesn’t exist with a number of assessment center exercises.

Second, even when the assessors exercise no bias, how frequently is the selection rate for women, blacks, and Hispanics significantly lower than that for white males? How does that frequency compare with that of more traditional promotion tests? If the selection rate is significantly lower for minorities and no assessor bias can be shown, this may indicate something wrong with the particular exercises being used.

Third, does performance on assessment center exercises accurately predict job performance? Some studies suggest that it predicts future salary and subsequent promotions in the organization. But because frequently neither of these variables is related to actual job performance, the evidence linking assessment center rating and job performance isn’t conclusive.

Finally, how competent are the assessors who are rating the candidates? Whether trained for several hours or several weeks, do the assessors truly understand the intricacies of the assessment process? While the assessors might agree on the ratings of a particular candidate, how do we know those ratings are accurate?

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