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How assessment centers work

One of the concerns in running an Assessment Center examination process is how to manage large numbers of candidates

My June article on career advancement, Strategies for answering situational questions, began a discussion on how to excel on promotional examinations that used an assessment center process. Since all my articles build on one another, I recommend you go back and review my June article briefly because it provides a comprehensive analysis of what an assessment center is, the “dimensions” assessors used to grade the various components of the examination process, and how the various “real-life” situational examination components are created.

One of the concerns in running an Assessment Center examination process is how to manage large numbers of candidates. It’s expensive and time consuming when compared to traditional testing. Each candidate goes through from four to eight individual or group exercises, with a minimum of two assessors evaluating each (except for the exercise known as the “in-basket,” in which there is usually only one). Since assessment centers often use “role players” as part of the exercises, more people are needed. The higher the rank the procedure is testing for (Lieutenant, Captain, Assistant Chief) the lower the number of candidates and the more manageable the testing process becomes.

It’s been my experience that test validity and reliability begin to slip when large numbers of candidates are involved and scoring mechanisms are more likely to become a subjective rather than an objective process. Many cities use a hurdle approach by administering a traditional written examination and only allow candidates who achieve an artificial cut-off score to proceed to the actual assessment enter process. This defeats the purpose of using an assessment center in the first place and the examination process is further tainted by using an “in-basket” exercise (test) for those who scored high enough on the written examination to proceed to the assessment center phase.

Why? Because the “in-basket” is another form of written examination (although it does test for other dimensions) and now the parts and weights of the various components of the testing process are invalid. This is especially true if the department is unionized and promotional examination parts and weights have been made a part of the union contract.

Where are Assessment Centers Held?

A location large enough to have different rooms for exercises, role players, test monitors, assessors, and candidates is required. It must also be free from day-to-day business interruptions. Often, an assessment center is held at a business closed for the weekend, a hotel that has individual conference rooms, local high schools or colleges, etc. Professional test consultants hired to administer assessment centers invest a great deal of time to ensure not only that the exam is job-related and fair, but also that candidates understand the process and how it works.

Usually, the job task analysis and related job dimensions are handed out to candidates, along with written material explaining the process and the procedures that will be used. Meetings are held with candidates to further explain the procedure and answer questions about the test. It’s important to the Chief of Police and your city to make sure that candidates for promotion perceive the test to be fair, appropriate, and valid.

As with traditional oral and written examinations, the date, time and location that you’re scheduled to take the assessment center examination is usually sent to you by the personnel department. Depending on the number of candidates and type of exercises, the test may last up to two full days. You’re told whether to appear in uniform or in civilian clothes, although the current trend is business attire. Upon arrival you’re given a written schedule which has the times and locations of your individual tests.

How to Prepare for the Assessment Center

This article deals primarily with the in-basket examination. However, future articles will cover the other types of exercises used most often in assessment centers along with tips on how to receive high scores. There is no substitute for practicing your test taking skills and a practice test follows:

The In-Basket Exercise

A police supervisor (sergeant and sometimes Lieutenant’s) or manager (Lieutenant and above) often deals with memorandums, written and oral complaints, investigative reports, internal documents, letters, and telephone calls in day-to-day work. In the in-basket exercise you and the other candidates (depending on the number, this is sometimes done in groups) are seated together in a room at desks or conference tables. The test monitor places a large manila envelope in front of each candidate, containing the “in-basket” (day-to-day paperwork) of a typical sergeant or lieutenant-for example-in your department. The directions for completing the questions are in writing, and the test monitor doesn’t answer any questions concerning taking the test. You’re told exactly when the test will begin (and end), the manila envelopes can be opened, and the written directions may be read individually by each candidate. When time is up, each candidate puts all the material back in the manila envelope and turns is in to the test monitor. All of the in-basket responses must be in writing.

STRESS! The problem is that you also have been given an individual schedule with specific times you are to be in other rooms taking other assessment center tests. A typical schedule might look something like this:

Candidate #1

8:00AM - 9:00AM In-Basket Exercise Room 1
9:00AM - 9:40AM Employee Conflict Examination Room 2
9:40AM - 10:00AM In-Basket Examination Room 1
10:00AM - 11:40AM Structured Interview Room 3
11:40AM - 12:00PM In-Basket Examination Room 1
12:00PM - 12:45PM Lunch
12:45PM - 1:15PM In-Basket Exercise Room 1
1:15PM - 1:55PM Leaderless Discussion Room 4
1:55PM - 2:30PM In-Basket Exercise Room 1

As you can see you have to manage your own time. This examination schedule provides candidate#1 with two hours and thirty-five minutes in which he/she can work on his/her in-basket. In the meantime, the candidate is moving from one test to another and then returning to work on the in-basket. This creates a tremendous amount of stress on candidates.

Tip: Finish the in-basket! Write something on every single item. If you do not there will not be anything for the assessor to grade on that particular item and you will lose points.

Here is a practice in-basket for the position of police sergeant. Follow the directions and give yourself one and one-half hours to finish and then put it in a sealed envelope. My next article will provide you with a methodology to self-score your in-basket so you can determine what areas to improve in.

You are a police sergeant working the 1500-2300 shift in the patrol division (Squad B) of the anywhere police department on Saturday, July 2nd. Your name is Sergeant Frank James. Lieutenant Albert Driscoll is off on a long term injury and Captain Alex Frost is attending the FBI Academy for the next two months. You are the acting patrol commander on Squad B.

Handle the in-basket exercise in accordance with the established procedure of your police department. Think of yourself as a Sergeant and act accordingly. You are required to respond to the in-basket in a manner in which you would handle them as a sergeant (acting patrol commander) in real life. Each response must be in writing and reflect actual behavior. For example, your response to an incoming telephone call must be written and should reflect how you would have handled the caller or situation.

Each of your responses should be written directly on the piece of correspondence you are addressing or, on a separate piece of paper clearly identifying the material or correspondence you’re responding to (for example, “Memo from Chief Pierce regarding Sampson complaint”). The action you take on all incoming telephone calls must also be written on a separate sheet of paper. Write the number of the phone call you’re dealing with (if one is given) or clearly identify the subject of the phone call (for example, “Call from Lieutenant Smith regarding a fatal accident”) before each written response.

The following information is provided as part of the testing process:

1. Patrol division staffing levels are normal.
2. The labor/management contract is the same as is used in your department,
3. There is a Sergeant and four officer detail assigned to a traffic detail to due to complaints relative to speeding on Hopmeadow road. .
4. There is a motorcycle detail consisting of four officers working the downtown area.
5. There is a tactical squad consisting of a sergeant and six officers throughout the city.
6. Detective division resources consist of a normal compliment for a Saturday evening shift in your department.

Anywhere was founded in 1827 growing out of an industrial metal and fishing seaport located in the Northern part of Anywhere. The city now has 475,000 people and is rapidly growing with a diverse population that is approximately 62% white, 26% black, 13% Hispanic. Anywhere has seen enormous growth in manufacturing, agriculture, insurance, and tourism. Many of these industries are major employers.
Anywhere has a mayor/city manager form of government. The city manager is appointed by the city council which consists of nine elected officials, including the mayor. The mayor has no real power other than being one of the nine council members. An election was recently held in the city, and six of the nine city council members are new. The mayor has served for six years and is in disfavor with the new city council.
Anywhere has a daily newspaper, the Anywhere Republican. There is heavy vehicular traffic caused by several major road renovation projects which are underway. This has created massive traffic jams requiring resources to be diverted from the police department on a daily basis and the expenditure of huge amounts of revenue.
The Anywhere police department has 383 sworn officers and 61 civilian employees. The Chief of Police, Franklin Pierce, has been with the department for the past twenty-two years. The department has one assistant, a deputy chief, and five captains. Chief Pierce operates with a participative management style. The police union is very powerful and Lieutenants, Sergeants, Detectives and officers are all unionized.


Complainant Name: ____Joseph Smith__________________________

Address: _____________42 Brown Street, Apt#11, Anywhere_________

Home Phone: __232-7193_____ Business Phone: __None______

Location of Incident: _______48 Brown Street________________

Complaint Against:
Name: _____Joseph Dunn_______ Rank: __Officer _______
Badge Number: ___173_____

Name: _____James Olden___________ Rank: __Officer_______
Badge Number: ___Unk.___


I was walking on my own street. The police stopped me for nothing. They beat me up and stole my money. They took my car and won’t tell me where.


Name: ____Janet Jones______ Phone: __232-8165
Address: ___530 Nelson Street__

Complaint Received by: __Sgt. Paul Adams___
Date: __9/18/_____

APD Form 72 (Revised)


TO: __________SERGEANT JAMES DATE: __7/1__

FROM: _____Lawrence Fleming, D/C, Patrol Div.______

SUBJECT: ____Officer Adam Russo_________________

Officer Russo approached me and related he had met with you to approve his summer vacation. Russo is less senior then several other officers who have been denied their request for vacation during the same time period. The union president discussed this matter with me. Please look into this matter before we end up with a union grievance.

Reply by 7/10


TO: _______Sergeant JAMES__________ DATE: 7/21

FROM: ____Lawrence Fleming, D/C, Patrol

SUBJECT: __Officer Paul Ritter_______

It has come to my attention that Officer Ritter has, on several occasions in the past month, worked two extra jobs plus his regularly assigned hours during a 24 hour period. This is in violation of our policy and procedure. Prepare a recommendation for me immediately.


Date of Incident: ____7/1_____ Case Number: __14657
Time of Occurrence: ___1325 hours___
Location: ___932 Main Street Street_____

1. This report prepared by : ___Sergeant Albert Jones
Under the supervision of: ___Sergeant JAMES

2. Synopsis of Incident: On the above date and time there was a fatal accident involving a police cruiser. Office John Smythe was involved in the pursuit of a motor vehicle and during said pursuit struck a pedestrian at the intersection of Mail and Lewis streets. Ms. Florence Adams, aged 26, of 43 Broad Street, was pronounced dead at the scene. The accident is being investigated by Officer Roland Biagio, our accident re-construction expert. A 2004 Honda Civic, registration number HO-1341 is wanted in connection with the incident.

3. Citizen complaints: YES: ______ NO: _X___If yes, explain.

4. Summary of findings/recommendations: None

5. Notifications made/time: Sergeant Rafeo: Communications Supervisor at 1342


Franklin Pierce, Chief of Police

Frank Samuels, Deputy Chief, Operations

Assistant Deputy Chief Frank Reynolds

Captain Neil Frost, Patrol Commander

Lieutenant Albert Driscoll, Front Desk

Sergeant Frank James,
Acting Patrol Commander

Sergeant Arthur Main Sergeant Paul Julius
Patrol Sergeant Patrol Sergeant
0700-1500 0800-1600
Patrol Units: 0700-1500 Patrol Unites: 0800-1600
Unit 1:Officer Jenkins Unit 2: Officer Little
Unit 3:Officer Bastione Unit 4: Officer Nardone
Unit 5:Officer Delaney Unit 6: Officer Spelling
Unit 7: Officer Newcomb Unit 8: Officer Faggaini
Unit 9: Officer Ashcroft Unit 10: Officer Zilenski
Unit 11: Officer Starling Unit 12: Officer Rodrigues
Unit 13: Officer Franco Unit 14: Officer Moriarty
Unit 15: Officer Sanches Unit 16: Officer Simpne
Unit 17: Officer Humphrey Unit 18: Officer Peirce

July 1, 20XX

The City of Anywhere
Anywhere Police Department
Attn: Sergeant Frank James
4126 South Main Street
Anywhere, AW

Dear Sergeant James:

I wanted to write and bring to your attention the outstanding job done by Officer Mike Peters, Badge # 166. On June 15, 19XX my car was stolen from the parking lot of Big Ben’s restaurant. Officer Peters responded within minutes of my call and about an hour later my car was found. I’m very grateful to Officer Peters and your department

Peter A. Drummond
560 Alpine Drive
Anywhere, ____

Report of Disciplinary Infraction

Complete in duplicate when report required by A.P.D. “Disciplinary Procedure”, Par. V. 1-3.
Section 1

Name of Employee: ____Janet SMITH____ Rank: ___Officer___

Division: ___Patrol___

Section 2

Infraction charged: Violation of F.H.P.D. Code of Conduct

1. Article: III Section: 3.09
2. Title of offense: Insubordination

Explain Infraction(s) in detail (list witness if any)

Officer Snowden approached me to lodge a complaint of sexual harassment against Officer Philips. I instructed her to submit a report and she refused.

Immediate corrective action taken, if any (if any infractions call for an oral reprimand and the reprimand have been issued, so state and attach a copy).

Date: 7/2 Submitted by: Sergeant Arthur Main

APD Form 76
Revised 12/xx


Bureau: ___Patrol Division___ Division: __Patrol___

Person requesting item: ___Officer Ronald Simone_____

Item Requested: __Watch_

Suggested Vendors:

Name: Smith & Sons
Address: 122 Naples Avenue, Anywhere
Telephone: 273-2818

Estimated Cost per unit: __________
Number: __________
Total: ________

Justification for request: The undersigned officer’s watch was lost during a foot chase. Request replacement under the provisions of the union contract.

Reviewed by Division Commander

Authorized by Bureau Commander
APD Form 98


Application for Attendance at
Training/Education Activity

1. Name: ___Sergeant Julius____ 2. Rank: __Sgt.__

3. Assignment: __Patrol___ Division: __Patrol___

4. Training/education activity requested: Attendance FBI Academy from October 8-18, 19XX

5. Reason for request: Upward Mobility.

6. Location of activity: __Washington, DC

7. Sponsor/conducted by: __FBI__

8. Cost (Include registration, tuition, travel, etc.: __4,000__

9. Applicants Signature: _______Julius
Date: ______9/19_____

10. Commanding Officer: App: _____DISP. _____Date: _______

11. Reason for disapproval: ______________

APD Form 41

In-Coming Telephone Call

Incident Command Examination

Sgt. James, this is Officer Stern in Communications. A “cell-phone call” was just received by a person identifying herself as “Mary Johnson” who stated she is a teacher at Anywhere High School. Apparently they have some sort of sports activity going on inside the school. She stated that a “student” had entered the school with “guns” and shot several kids and is “roaming the hallways” shooting people. The cell-phone then went dead.

How to you want me to handle this?

Be safe out there!!!!!!

Larry the Jet

Career expert teaches how to prepare for and excel on police promotion examinations.