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Graduate assessment centres: Why, what and how?

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In the first of an exclusive three part series on graduate recruitment, consultant Mike Morrison reveals best practice in hiring graduates using assessment centres.


Why
So you have made the decision to recruit graduates. You know that if you place an advert you will get lots of replies, so how do you put systems in to ensure the individuals you offer posts to are right for you?

First things first – not all graduates are the same – some have work experience – some do not. This simple difference makes graduate recruitment much more difficult than for many other posts. In addition to this graduates are not the cheapest of new recruits.

In come recruitment and selection methods. Traditionally assessment centres have been run by larger organisations to recruit onto their graduate development programmes, but now more and more organisations are either revisiting assessment centres they have run for years or are starting out for the first time.

” Having a selection process which is perceived as difficult and challenging is as much a part of marketing and brand image as it is getting the right person.”


Assessment Centres have several advantages over an interview process on its own. They are more rounded and balanced – this is particularly important when recruiting people with little or no job skills. Assessment centres also allow a large number of factors to be measured for selection and the development of developmental actions plans for future use (but that’s another article).

Perception – having a selection process which is perceived as difficult and challenging is as much a part of marketing and brand image as it is getting the right person. If successful candidates believe they have beaten many others in a tough process this can help build their self-esteem (this can also have negative impacts too – it’s about managing expectations -so take care!)

What are you going to ask?
What are you looking for? What are the attitudes, skills and knowledge that are important for you and your organisation?

Taking time to identify these factors is a critical part of developing any assessment centre. Without it how can an organisation measure the effectiveness of its recruitment? How can you differentiate between candidate A and B? Which one is right for you (and are you right for them)?

” Many organisations fall into the trap of listing “dream” profiles; but what is important is to check that the individual can not only apply key skills to the workplace but that they will ‘fit’ into the culture of the organisation.”

Many organisations fall into the trap of listing “dream” profiles; but what is important is to check that the individual can not only apply key skills to the workplace but that they will ‘fit’ into the culture of the organisation. It is no point recruiting the person with the best ability test scores if they cannot work in a team, not is it appropriate to have a person who works well in a team into a role which is standalone.

How
Once the key factors have been identified, a range of activities need to be compiled to highlight these factors. Typical tools include:

  • Structured interview

  • Psychometric tests – level A – ability (common on graduate assessment centres)

  • Psychometric tests – level B – personality (unusual on graduate assessment centres)

  • Presentations

  • In-tray style exercises

  • Group problem solving exercises

Before selecting any assessment or measurement tool the success criteria must be fully understood. For example, when using ability tests you may not want or need only candidates that score 90 percentile or above. With the in-tray and problem solving exercises it is important to predetermine a scoring criteria. It is also helpful to identify if individual tests are go-no-go or if you are looking for diversity where you want a particular ‘score’ on one or another factor.

With ability tests be careful in the selection of tests. Graduates are known to go to between three and eight assessment centres within a short time window. If you are the first it is not an issue – if, however, you are the eighth and they have done your brand of test five times before, the scores you get will not be valid. Select a test supplier that is not one of the top three for tests to avoid this problem.

” Remember that while you are assessing the graduate, the graduate is assessing you. Make sure that the activities selected have face validity to the target audience and that they see the process as fair.”

Most assessment centres take place on just one day, usually for cost reasons. Many organisations run them over two or more days with social activities to see how the graduates perform outside of the formal assessment process.

During the assessment centre a number of facilitators and assessors are required. For consistency it is vital that all assessors are trained to ensure consistency in grading performance in the softer activities, for example problem solving activities.

Remember that while you are assessing the graduate, the graduate is assessing you. Make sure that the activities selected have face validity to the target audience and that they see the process as fair. Remember that it is also good practice to give all candidates feedback on their performance – this may be one-to-one on the day, as follow-up or as a standardised letter. While this is best practice many organisations do not do this – it’s an edge you can have over other employers.

Over time many organisations change their assessment centres activities without looking at the key factors for which the exercises were originally introduced. When making any changes to an established centre, go back to basics and check what the organisation needs from these individuals. In other words, if a redesign is necessary, do it.

What next
So you have your graduates in place, now is the time to put a development plan together to help to keep them!

Summary of key tips:
Why run them? Because:

  • a) Graduates that are appointed feel good because they have seen people they have beaten
  • b) It gives a more balanced view of candidates than just an interview
  • c) It enables a number of factors to be measures and explored
  • d) Many graduates have not had a job before and lack experience to demonstrate at interview alone
  • e) It’s about brand image – telling the world you only want the best
  • f) Identify what attitude, skills and knowledge you need to be successful as a graduate in your organisation. Invest time into this process, getting it wrong here can be very expensive later. Be clear on the ‘level’ you really need – not all companies can have the top 90 percentile performers – not all can keep them!
  • g) Identify the right processes to demonstrate the factors you know are important for success in your organisation.
  • h) Make sure that any ability tests you use are not from the top three publishers for graduate selection.
  • i) Ensure that all assessors are trained to assess consistently – have clear assessment guides and criteria
  • j) Remember the assessment centre should be run in such a way that it sells the company to the graduate as well as providing your assessment criteria
  • k) Give feedback to all candidates
  • * * *
    Mike Morrison is an organisational development specialist with over 15 years experience in development and assessment centre design and delivery. He can be contacted through www.rapidbi.co.uk

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