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Back to Archives | Back to August 2006 Contents 

Does the Benefit Outweigh the Cost? Using Assessment Centers in Selecting Middle Managers

By Frank Hughes, Ph.D., Associate Professor, School of Criminal Justice Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids, Michigan

ffectively identifying police officers capable of performing in various aspects of middle management is critical to any police agency. Middle managers are entrusted with the responsibility for carrying out the vision and mission that the police chief has established for the department. If the managers are not capable of carrying out this duty, the department will not flourish.

A comprehensive police personnel program must include a promotion program that creates an atmosphere of professionalism and fairness and sets the tone for a positive and exciting process for all members of the department. The chief of police should assume leadership in establishing the promotional program and maintain the authority over who is selected for promotion.

In selecting middle managers, police departments have relied on two techniques: the traditional selection method and the assessment center method. The objectives of both of these methods are to satisfy the mandates of civil service regulations and collective bargaining agreements. The objective of the chief executive is to identify potential using a method that differentiates among candidates with valid and reliable selection methodology.

Traditional Selection Methods
Traditional promotional techniques in police organizations often consist of a written examination, credit for seniority, and a score or overall rating based on the candidate's past performance on the job.1

Written examinations are often generic and reflect duties and responsibilities of a particular level in a police organization such a first line supervisor (typically a sergeant) or a mid-level command officer (a lieutenant or captain). A candidate's score on a written examination provides a way to evaluate whether a candidate knows the rules of the organization and the conceptual principles of policing for a given position in the agency. The information is a basic, necessary starting point for good supervision, but alone it does not sufficiently ensure success in police administration and leadership.

Credit for seniority has traditionally been used by law enforcement agencies as part of the overall promotional process. This practice certainly recognizes and rewards the contribution of long-time service to an organization and deserves inclusion in the overall ranking, but it is limited in that there is often little variation in years of service among prospective candidates. More importantly, length of service in a lower-level position is no guarantee a candidate has the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for higher-level positions. This is especially true in the area of conceptual skills that are critical for administrative positions in a law enforcement agency but less critical for entry-level and supervisory positions.

Use of past performance appraisal information to select the most qualified candidate for promotion is often another element of the traditional promotional technique. Performance appraisals are used for a variety of purposes, but the rating may not be an accurate reflection of actual work effectiveness.2 Supervisors give inaccurate ratings for a number of reasons. Perhaps a supervisor is reluctant to honestly evaluate the quantity and quality of a subordinate's work, for instance, because he doesn't wish to affect the subordinate's pay or face hostile reactions from the employee. As a result, lenient ratings may be given that do not differentiate among subordinates. Another problem with performance appraisals is that different supervisors have different standards for their ratings. More importantly, at their best, performance appraisals are evaluations of performance on the current job and not necessarily relevant to performance at a higher position in the organization.

The Assessment Center Method
Today assessment centers are used by many law enforcement agencies as a tool for both selection and promotion. Pressure from the federal government and the increased threat of judicial intervention has prompted law enforcement agencies to seek out more effective selection methods.3 Experience in the private sector has shown that assessment centers were useful for identifying behavioral dimensions difficult to assess with traditional selection measures discussed previously.

Assessment centers are considered the most valid and reliable methodology to rank order candidates using an objective technique that recognizes future potential. The primary tools used in assessment centers are simulations of the real duties and responsibilities facing law enforcement personnel. Trained observers, known as assessors, watch candidates perform tasks in the simulated environment and evaluate their performance. Observed performance is a predictor of performance on the job and an indication of the candidate's knowledge, skills, and abilities related to the job.

Because they simulate actual police jobs, assessment center exercises afford candidates the opportunity to demonstrate how well they can perform activities required for effectiveness in police work.4 The Cincinnati Police Department began using situational tests, a component of assessment centers, as part of the selection procedure in 1961. More recent survey data indicate that situational tests are used by 60 percent of city and state police departments, while approximately 25 percent of these agencies use assessment centers. The primary application of assessment centers in law enforcement has been for assessing officers for promotion and for gathering data on the developmental needs of individual officers. Assessment centers are also seeing increased use in the selection of entry-level police applicants.

Assessment Center Development
The first step in developing an assessment center is to conduct a thorough job analysis of the position for which the center will be used. Most police agencies should have a sound job analysis of target jobs, so the dimensions to be evaluated are already known.

Assessment centers are highly adaptable to all types of police positions and assignments. Assessment centers, for example, can be designed for juvenile officers, community service officers, detectives, dispatchers, and correction officers as well as for all ranks up to and including chief of police. If job analysis information is already available, it should be carefully evaluated for currency and relevance to the position before proceeding with identification of relevant dimensions of job performance. This step is critical to enhancing content validity of the assessment center process.

Job analysis should delineate clusters of activities that, when combined, comprise important aspects of the job being evaluated.5 These are called dimensions. In fact, one of the major advantages of assessment centers is that they can be custom designed to access dimensions considered the most crucial in a particular selection situation. For example, performance dimensions evaluated for the position of uniform lieutenant are counseling subordinates, group leadership, problem solving, oral communication, written communication, decisiveness, work organization and planning, and stress tolerance. The importance of individual performance dimensions will vary based on the knowledge, skills, and abilities required in the position being assessed. Each of the dimensions must be defined thoroughly, along with examples of behaviors illustrating good and poor performance.

Situational Tests
After a job analysis and identifying job performance dimensions, the next important step is the choice of situational tests. Mills et al. have proposed guidelines to be used in selecting situational tests.6 They recommend that the tests be standardized, be relevant to situations police officers might expect to face in the line of duty, have several alternative solutions, be complex enough to engage the candidate, and be stressful enough to be capable of eliciting a number of possible emotional responses. It is believed that if the exercise is realistic enough, candidates will handle the situation as if it was real rather than acting a part. It has also been recommended that, in the interest of reliability and validity, tests be selected so that the dimensions being assessed are covered by several different exercises.

Any number of situational tests can be used in an assessment center. But there is evidence that accuracy can be enhanced by using a large number and a wide variety of exercises.7 Although reliability can be increased by having multiple samples of the behavior of interest, this will typically have to be balanced against the additional expense and time involved. It is more important to have a variety of exercises that tap into a specific dimension than to have two or more exercises of the same type.

One of the oldest situational tests is the leaderless group discussion. Using this technique, candidates are given a task (such as developing a departmental budget for the patrol division) and instructed to use appropriate background information in making their final recommendation. Candidates are given a specific time and assessors present during the discussion rate the participants on various aspects of their participation. Role-plays that replicate on-the-street situations officers may have to face have also been used in assessment centers. For example, a candidate must handle a complaint from an irate citizen alleging they were verbally abused and mistreated during a traffic stop.

Another example is the counseling exercise. In this exercise, candidates for the position of uniform sergeant must conduct a counseling session with an employee who has failed to perform his or her duties according to departmental rules and regulations. Assessors are present during the counseling session and rate the candidates on such dimensions as oral communication, problem solving, and stress tolerance. Regardless of the type of situational test used in an assessment center, it must reflect what the candidates could experience on the job.

Assessors obviously play an important role in the process. It is, of course, essential that assessors receive appropriate training. It is recommended that assessors be thoroughly familiar with the dimensions that the exercises have been chosen to assess, have reviewed the content and procedures of each exercise, and have practiced performing ratings based on each of the exercises. Their knowledge of the dimensions and of the exercises themselves can come from personal experience, from rating videotaped performances of past candidates, or from rating other people who are role-playing as candidates. Trained assessors and situational tests that reflect a current job analysis of the position will greatly enhance the validity and reliability of the assessment center process.

Assessment Center Cost
A major disadvantage of using assessment centers to select the most qualified candidate involves cost. The cost is considerably more than traditional selection techniques due to the need for multiple assessors and role players, the limited number of candidates that can be assessed, and the time required to run a typical assessment center .A ratio of one assessor to every two candidates is typically recommended.8Training time, in addition to time spent conducting the assessment center itself and formulating ratings, can easily reach six days.

If a police agency uses in-house personnel as assessors, they will be away from their regular duties. If a police agency does not have the personnel to conduct an in house assessment center, they will require the services of an outside consultant.

When conducted in-house, the time involved in preparation, administration, and evaluation will generally exceed time expended in more traditional selection measures such as a written exam. When using an outside consultant, police agencies must ensure that a current job analysis is conducted and situational tests accurately reflect the knowledge, skills, and abilities of the job being assessed.

To consider expense as the sole factor in selecting the methodology for the police promotion process overlooks potential long-term saving. Promoting an individual to a position where they have not demonstrated the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities to effectively perform will have repercussions on the entire agency. This is especially true of middle management and administrative positions that provide leadership and direction for the rank-in-file.

Assessment Center Benefits
Properly designed and administered assessment centers are more reliable than traditional testing methods in evaluating supervisory, managerial, and administrative potential.9 Its success is amply demonstrated by the growing number of police agencies that have chosen it over, or in addition to, traditional testing measures. The situational tests used in the assessment center can be directly linked to the job for which candidates are being evaluated. The assessment center is highly adaptable to all types of positions and assignments common to most police agencies.

Assessment centers are easily defended if legally challenged. This assumes, of course, that the assessment center included a thorough job analysis of the position for which the candidates were being evaluated and that the proper guidelines were followed during its design and administration.

Assessment centers test what a person can do as well as what they know. What is important is the ability to apply formal education in a real-world law enforcement setting. A candidate might have extensive seniority and a high score on a written exam but be unable to make critical decisions under pressure or lack the leadership ability to get subordinates to accomplish departmental goals.

Assessment centers can be used for a multiple purposes. In addition to being helpful in making decisions about promotions and job assignments, they can also be used to identify the need for new or revised procedures as well as organizational and individual training deficiencies. Their versatility makes assessment centers an excellent and useful management tool.

Depending on how it is administered, assessment centers can play an important role by providing feedback to candidates about their strengths and weaknesses, thus allowing them important insight into their skills and abilities. Videotaped or written feedback from assessors, for example, can be very useful to candidates and prepare them for future advancement. It can help them perform better in future assessment centers. As a result, candidates receive a tangible benefit from their participation in the process.

Police administrators who use assessment centers must take hold of the process. They must become familiar with the published standards, guidelines, and relevant research. They must monitor their assessment centers and not rely on consultants or others to ensure compliance with the standards and guidelines. They must require properly conducted job analyses, validation analyses, relevant exercises, and feedback to and from the participants in assessment centers.

Too often, candidates who were not selected for promotion or a new assignment receive little or no feedback about how well they performed in the assessment. Deficiencies that were identified in the process and ways the candidate can improve must be addressed. Using assessment center information as a developmental tool for all candidates will not only enhance the quality of the process but will better prepare individual officers to occupy management positions in the future. Employee deficiencies identified through the assessment center process can become the basis for in-service training programs designed to enhance employee's knowledge, skills, and abilities at various levels in the organization.

Police agencies that do not include assessment centers in their selection process should become familiar with the research and consider incorporating it along with traditional selection techniques. The benefits previously discussed should at least be given consideration for promotions to middle management and administrative positions. Although cost is an important factor when conducting assessment centers, it should not be the only factor. The hidden costs of selecting the wrong people are potentially many times greater than the additional costs involved in implementing an assessment center program.

One of the many challenges facing law enforcement administrators in the 21st century is to identify qualified individuals for selection and promotion. Traditional methods such as written exams, credit for seniority, and a candidates past performance, still provide important information that should be part of the overall process. The assessment center provides yet another tool that administrators can use to differentiate between candidates by simulating real duties and responsibilities of a particular job and evaluating how well candidates perform in those scenarios. ■

1 George Thorton and David Morris, "The Application of Assessment Center Technology to the Evaluation of Personnel Records," Public Personnel Management 30 (2001): 55-66.
2 K. R. Murphy and J. N. Cleveland, Understanding Performance Appraisal (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 1995).
3 Joyce D. Ross, "Determination of the Predictive Validity of the Assessment Center Approach to Selecting Police Managers," Journal of Criminal Justice 8 (1980): 89-96.
4 U.S. Department of Justice, Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, Police Selection and Career Assessment, by Marvin D. Dunnette and Stephen J. Motowildo (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976).
5 Robert Gatewood and Hubert S. Field, Human Resource Selection, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Dryden, 1990).
6 Robert B. Mills, Robert J. McDevitt, and Sandra Tonkin, "Situational Tests in Metropolitan Police Recruit Selection," Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 57 (1966): 99-106.
7 Ronald G. Lynch, The Police Manager: Professional Leadership Skills, 3rd ed. (New York: Random House, 1986).
8 Gary F. Coulton and Hubert S. Field, "Using Assessment Centers in Selecting Entry-Level Police Officers: Extravagance or Justified Expense?" Public Personnel Management 24 (1995): 223-254.
9 Philip Lowry, "A Survey of the Assessment Center Process in the Public Sector," Public Personnel Management 25 (1996): 307-321.



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 8, August 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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