Developing an Assessment Center

Developing an Assessment Center

In some large cities, including New York City, members of the personnel department have been trained in developing assessment centers. But for most departments, the first step toward incorporating this technique into the promotion process is to hire an outside consultant.

The consultant works with the in-house personnel examiners to decide which positions lend themselves to assessment center exercises and then helps the department to set up the exercises.

The job analysis

The effective use of assessment center techniques relies on a thorough understanding of the particular job title and of the knowledge, skills, and abilities required for successful performance in that job. For the personnel examiner who isn’t thoroughly familiar with the job’s responsibilities, this information is learned by conducting a job analysis.

A job analysts requires direct and frequent interaction between those developing the promotional technique and those performing the job (the incumbents). Information about the job can be gathered through objective observation, interviews, and questionnaires which measure the frequency and importance of specific firefighting or administrative tasks.

If you’ve witnessed a nonuniformed individual riding in a fire truck and jotting down notes on a clipboard, chances are that the person is your local personnel examiner conducting a job analysis. Since the information that this process gathers from the incumbents forms the foundation for the promotional technique, it’s essential that incumbents cooperate with the personnel examiners. They’re there not to evaluate your individual performance, but to obtain as much information as possible about the job.

The job analysis will usually include more than one procedure for gathering information from incumbents, depending on the characteristics of the particular job and on how many incumbents are involved. For example, a managerial-level position such as captain may require extensive use of the interview technique, since administrative tasks can’t be observed, and a questionnaire, since there generally is a substantial number of incumbents.

The test plan

The information learned from the job analysis observations, interviews, and questionnaires is subjected to a variety of statistical analyses. The result of these analyses is a prioritized list of important and frequently performed tasks, related knowledge, skills, abilities, and behavior dimensions. The results are reviewed by a panel of personnel examiners and fire department members to decide which positions can be measured by tests and which types of examination techniques are appropriate.

These decisions are influenced by a variety of factors, including the type of exams given in the past; the success of those exams, including their effect on women and minority groups such as blacks and Hispanics; a department’s budgetary and time limitations; and past litigation.

Particularly in large metropolitan areas, it’s rare to use only one promotional technique to select individuals for upper-level positions. Therefore, the panel will decide on a group of techniques to measure the breadth of requirements for successful job performance.

For example, the panel may construct a test plan that includes a multiple-choice and essay examination to measure technical knowledge, such as specific firefighting techniques, equipment, and administrative procedures; and an assessment center to measure such qualities as oral communication, decision-making, teamwork, and leadership.

Choosing exercises

Once it’s been decided that certain characteristics can be best measured by assessment center simulation exercises, the specific exercises must be determined. They may be written or oral, individual or group-based.

The choice of exercises should be based on the behavioral dimension to be measured and how that characteristic is exhibited on the job. Let’s say a job analysis has been conducted for the position of battalion chief and it has been determined that communication skills are an important part of the job. In determining the specific exercises to use, the next step would be to look more closely at the battalion chief’s communication on the job. Is it primarily with individuals or with groups? With superiors or subordinates? Is oral communication or written communication used more frequently? How complex are the levels of communication? All of this information will be helpful in the choice of exercises for the assessment center.

After the specific exercises have been developed, the consultant or departmental personnel examiner will train assessors to rate candidates’ performance, and candidate selection can begin.

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