Use of Assessment Centers: Exploring the Differences Between the US and UK

In our final blog of the month, we wrap up our examination of all things selection and assessment by looking at how these practices differ outside of our national borders. One of our newer consultants, Alexandra Flagg, returned to her grad school experiences in the UK to explore these differences for us.

Imagine this scenario:

You’re applying to a job online, and once you’ve completed your application, you receive an email inviting you to partake in the second step – an online test. You read through the instructions, and your anxiety builds as you begin to answer timed questions. Some items might be about grammar and language use, some may be short vignettes that require you to answer what you would do in a particular situation. When you finally reach the end, and your nails have been chewed down to the nub, you submit your final answer and get to a page that basically reads “Thank you – we’ll be in touch.”

And then – nothing. You’re not entirely sure what tests you just took, and you have no idea how well you did or if you answered any of the questions correctly. You may not hear back about the position for weeks or even months and eventually assume your application fell into the “resume black hole.”

Sound familiar? For many of us who have gone through the nightmare of application grinding, this something that has probably happened at least once, depending on the types of jobs for which you’re applying. What you have just experienced is an Assessment Center which, unlike what the name would suggest, is normally not a place at all.

Assessment Centers are combinations of multiple methods of objective selection techniques to determine suitability for a job. They can include such exercises as psychometric tests, situational judgement tests, ability or personality tests, even in-boxing exercises or case studies. Most of the time, they are administered online in the comfort of the applicant’s home. Occasionally, an applicant may be invited to participate in an in-person Assessment Center event with a large number of other applicants for group interviews and exercises or even role-play based assessments.

As an American attending graduate school in the United Kingdom, there were quite a few differences I identified between the US and my adopted country (bacon was a big one, but that’s a story for another day.) Academically, some of the biggest differences I had to wrap my head around were attitudes and practices regarding personnel selection and assessment. In the US, the above scenario is relatively common- most people will probably have that application experience at least once. In the UK, however, Assessment Centers are far more prevalent and are a huge part of any job hunt. Most job applicants will have a similar experience in that they will go through the process multiple times or for many different positions, regardless of career level. Assessment Centers and the use of psychometric tests as for selection are much, much more common in the UK than the US – even a quick Google Trends comparison indicates that at any time over the past five years, searches for “assessment center” or “assessment centre” were 2- to 5- times more likely to come from the United Kingdom. 

An even bigger difference? Whether online or in-person, UK applicants will normally receive immediate feedback on their test performance, either electronically or through an oral guide through the results. UK companies and consulting firms generally adopt standardized international/EU testing policies to provide guidance on assessment for the purpose of selection, and these policies require that “meaningful feedback” on an applicant’s results be provided within a reasonable timeframe. The APA, which governs the use of psychometric tests in the United States, does normally require feedback to be provided to test-takers – except in the case of assessments done for the purpose of employment selection. In those cases, the applicant is usually out of luck and in the dark about their performance. 

Additionally (and this might be shocking to most Americans) giving feedback on an applicant’s interview and application process is not only encouraged, but often expected, especially for applicants who have been rejected. In the US, a rejected applicant certainly has the right to request feedback or the reasoning behind the rejection, but a response to this request is most often a generic form letter – “we’ve decided to go in a different direction” or “we’ve moved on with applicants who more closely match what we’re looking for.” Even if the company doesn’t have a blanket policy against giving feedback of this nature, US-based recruiters and hiring managers are often very hesitant to have such a conversation due to the possible legal risks involved; one wrong word, one angry applicant, and the company could be exposed to a lawsuit. UK recruiters, however, while they may not take the time to give interview feedback to every unsuccessful applicant, it is certainly offered. Most rejection letters come with the statement “feedback is available upon request,” and applicants are often encouraged to do so.

I spoke with a European colleague based in London who is intimately familiar with the UK process – she is a human capital and leadership consultant with a Big 4 firm and has been in the position of taking part in Assessment Centers and job application processes as both an applicant and an administrator. She confirmed the popularity of Assessment Centers across job levels and spanning most industries, and she was surprised at the lack of feedback offered after an unsuccessful application. We spent some time discussing some of the differences in adoption and attitudes of selection and assessment between our countries and came up with a big reason why we think the US and UK are so different in these regards.

Regardless of Brexit talks, the UK is a member of the EU, which puts forth international guidelines and policies regarding employment laws, hiring practices and the use of psychometric assessments. With open borders, applicants to UK jobs could very well be from all over the EU, so international policies are a good idea to standardize practices. The US has some national regulations when it comes to employment law, but laws and practices can vary greatly state to state as well. Since providing feedback is not a national standard, state laws governing hiring practices differ, and the APA does not require feedback for psychometric tests, it’s no wonder feedback is not a standard practice in the US. And anecdotally speaking, the US is viewed as a more litigious society, with a strong emphasis on using the rule of law to settle disputes. This may be a stereotype, and actual data is murky, but it’s enough of a reputation that many domestic companies use it as an excuse against providing feedback.

There is no way to say which country “does it better” so to speak, and to make an assessment like that based only on one set of criteria would be short sighted. But in an increasingly global economy, with more and more international movement among the workforce, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the differences in what is considered best practices between countries. As we monitor the constant changes in markets, trends, even attitudes, we must be keenly aware of how our neighbors do things – one day, international policies will be the norm, and you may find yourself on the receiving end of more feedback than you ever expected!

References:

Tips From a Recruiter: How To Ask For Feedback After a Job Rejection. Levo League – https://www.brazen.com/blog/archive/job-search/tips-from-a-recruiter-how-to-ask-for-feedback-after-a-job-rejection/

Assessment & Selection Other Assessment Methods.https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/assessment-and-selection/other-assessment-methods/assessment-centers/
Read “new Directions in Assessing Performance Potential Of Individuals and Groups: Workshop Summary” At Nap.edu.https://www.nap.edu/read/18427/chapter/7#106
What Is an Assessment Centre?https://www.monster.co.uk/career-advice/article/what-is-an-assessment-centre

American Psychological Association. (2010). Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/ethics/code/principles.pdf.