Online Sidebar: Creating an Internal Assessment Center

By Adrienne Fox Aug 1, 2013
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For 15 years, Buddy Hall used a variety of assessments at Darden Restaurants Inc., which owns and operates Red Lobster, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille and four other restaurant groups. Two years ago, he decided to streamline the process by creating an in-house assessment center.

“We had different assessments through different vendors for different purposes,” says Hall, vice president of HR at Darden. “We needed an integrated assessment architecture for our critical jobs in operations and the restaurant support center. Most important, we wanted an assessment with good predictive value and validity.”

To create an internal assessment center, the 185,000-employee organization needed expert staff with time and resources to design, validate and implement the tools. It took 18 months for Hall and his team to conduct a job analysis that served as the foundation for the assessments. They used on-the-job observations, interviews, surveys and focus groups to gather the skills necessary for leadership, and they benchmarked those skills against existing retail restaurant assessments. The analysis produced a leadership competency model.

“We factored cost, duration, candidate experience and insights gleaned for selection and development,” Hall says. “At the lower end of cost and time, we created individual contributor assessments. At the higher end are the senior executive assessments, which are a battery of cognitive ability, personality, business simulation, structured interviews, videotapes and presentations.” The shelf life for the content is generally three to five years, he says, but some cosmetic updates can be made in the interim to reflect changes in the business or the industry.

At the director level and higher, assessments take 12 hours. Candidates experience a four-hour online simulation, then make a strategic presentation followed by a structured interview with a trained assessor. Candidates also complete online cognitive and personality tests as well as participate in career aspiration interviews. Darden conducts about 200 leadership assessments a year.

After a candidate completes the assessment, the HR team compares the results to the competency model for that level. “We look at the candidate’s results compared to the benchmarks of current employees,” Hall says. “We also draw insight from observable behaviors during the day and ask follow-up questions in the final interview.”

From time to time, Hall says he receives surprising results. “We try to understand the results either through probative interview questions or we investigate through past performance,” he says. “All of the pieces taken together are essential to make a better-informed decision in our hiring.”

How those pieces weigh in the final decision sometimes depends on whether the candidate is internal or external. “If I had an internal candidate with observed past performance against an external candidate with no observable data on past experience, I would give more weight of the assessment to the external candidate than I necessarily would for our internal candidate,” Hall says.

Two reports are generated—one for participants that contains skills mapping, observable behavior and development areas, and one for the HR department that includes raw data for workforce planning purposes.

Hall meets with the new leader to review the results. Together, they choose areas to focus on for development. For those hired from outside the organization, HR uses the report to inform the new hire’s onboarding.

On the organizational level, HR professionals look at aggregate data for strengths and weaknesses of the workforce. “These give us insights into development opportunities and succession planning,” Hall says.

The small sample size and short, two-year term of the new assessments haven’t provided enough data to draw hard returns on investment or other conclusions about predictability, according to Hall.

“When pursuing the possibility of creating a comprehensive assessment center, be very clear in what you are seeking to measure,” Hall advises. “Do the necessary due diligence on the vendor and the validity of the tool. Clearly communicate what the assessments are and what they are not, and how they should be used and how they shouldn’t be used, so as to benefit the individual and the organization. Recognize that assessments are one piece and are not the whole answer of who to hire or promote.”

Adrienne Fox is a contributing editor and former managing editor of HR Magazine.

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