Assessing Employee Potential with Personality Tests and Assessment Centers

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How to Evaluate Employee Potential with Skills Assessment Tests and Assessment Centers

The main aim of an assessment process should be to achieve the professional development of employees who will, in turn, contribute to the development of the organization as a whole. In this process, both assessors and their tools have to meet very demanding performance requirements. As for job candidates, they will have to be actively involved as partners in both a work contract and a "development goals contract" that will be set up with the aim of achieving a common goals.

By Liliane Held-Khawam, author of the book "Management through Professional Coaching: Learning to Cope with Complexity in a Globalized Economy"

Assessments of human potential and skills assessment (or "personality") tests (articles) have been the subject of many articles - and will certainly inspire many more to come. The great shock occurred several years ago, when employers started requiring more than the usual basic information on the professional training and work experience of their job candidates. It should nevertheless be outlined that these elements remain essential to the selection process. However, the information they deliver – mainly through the job candidate's resume and by conducting recruitment / selection interviews (guidelines) that ought to be mainly focused on the candidate’s main professional experiences – i.e. they would allow assessing the know-how required for the position.

However, each position also entails a series of requirements relating to the candidate’s behavioral skills. In order to better capture this more behavioral aspect of the candidate's personality, companies generally resort to assessment tools and consulting firms. They are getting more and more aware of the fact that their competitiveness is directly linked to the motivation of and emulation among employees, rather than to a strive for pure performance.

Generally speaking, the notion of human potential assessment refers to the recruitment / selection process (guidelines), i.e. to selection purposes. In this article, we will try to demonstrate that an assessment should first and foremost be aimed at developing the individual skills of employees, thus paving the way to developing the organization as a whole.

What does an assessment of professional skills consist in?

Each person can dedicate a given amount of energy to their professional life. They will display both strengths - which they will seek to highlight in their professional activity, as well as less developed skills - which they cannot simply ignore. Indeed, such weak points should be listed up, in order either to strengthen them, or simply to respect them by not using them too intensively. Indeed, we all recover while doing things we like and get worn out and stressed by activities that confront us to our limits.

An assessment process thus consists in trying to get acquainted with job candidates without judging them, without categorizing them and without getting into their private lives (except possibly when a candidate feels a need to talk about it). This is not an easy task and requires the assessor to display specific skills. The assessment process can also help some candidates gain a deeper knowledge of themselves.

How should such an assessment be conducted?

An assessment that takes place in the context of a recruitment process will entail several phases:

  1. an in-depth analysis of the application file (Curriculum Vitae with the mention of the candidate’s training, diploma, main professional experiences, hobbies, social and political activities…)
  2. a testing process based on one or several assessment "tools"
  3. an assessment interview that represents the heart of every assessment process. An interview should always be conducted in the course of a recruitment process, as it will allow to understand, explain and validate (or invalidate) the results provided by the diverse assessment tools. During this interview, it is the candidates themselves who will bring these results to life and allow for a relevant interpretation.
  4. The assessor will then make a synthesis based on:
  • the information given by the candidate (the assessment tool will have served as a support for dialogue)
  • the observations made by the assessor(s) (the hierarchical superiors are generally involved)
  • the job’s requirements

As a consequence, assessments that solely rely on testing tools, as efficient as the latter may be, cannot claim to fully reflect the individual’s professional potential. Such assessments can thus lead to hasty – and sometimes wrong – appreciations. In such cases, the assessor is transgressing an important rule of professional ethics. Actually, two situations should be avoided during an assessment:

  • the assessor adopts a purely technically-oriented attitude;
  • the candidate adopts a passive attitude, awaiting the assessment's results as a verdict or an oracle.

Every individual who goes through an assessment process should indeed be considered as partner in their own right. Indeed, it is the candidates who know themselves best, even if this knowledge is not very well-structured, and even if the person is not aware of it. Only through dialogue will assessors be able to bring them to express this knowledge of themselves. And indeed, this approach is just as profitable for candidates as it is for the people in charge of assessing them!

What requirements should the assessors meet?

For a long time, assessors used to be external to the company. They would also display a variable degree of professionalism. Today, many companies wish to perform their assessments in an autonomous way. In such cases, internal assessors are appointed by the company's Board in virtue of their experience in the areas of recruitment and/or career management, in particular. As for the selected assessment tool, the Board should also accept and/or test it themselves.

The main advantage of relying on internal assessors, in addition to a greater rapidity of implementation of assessment processes, lies in their knowledge of the company, of its structure and of the vacant positions. Moreover, such assessosr will be able to monitor the candidates and thus, to orient the interview towards the considered job's requirements while taking a multiplicity of parameters into account. They will be able to provide the candidate’s hierarchical superiors – who are generally also the final decision-makers – with the most objective assessment possible given the data avaible.

The main flaw of having one's own internal assessors lies in the fact that they may be required to dare communicate possibly unpleasant news (i.e. after the assessment). In any case, it is preferable that top managers be assessed by a mixed team (made up of both internal and external assessors).

Finally, an assessment should not end up with a "passed" or "failed" (and even less with a "competent" / "incompetent") verdict, but rather with an assessment of whether well-defined requirements are met. The assessment tool thus is – and must remain – just that: a tool that opens the way for discussion between the assessor and the candidate. The assessment tool should thus never be regarded as an end in itself.

What are the assessment tools available today?

There are lots of different assessment tools, the reliability of which can greatly differ. It is thus important to remember that the company's employer image depends on the quality of and care given to the assessment process. This is why assessment tools will first have to be tested on a group of managers. The company will then choose the tool that best suits its vision and its organizational culture.

The tool should however meet certain criteria:

  • a serious statistical validation (do the results actually measure – and with a sufficient degree of accuracy – what they are supposed to measure and can they predict future behaviors?) (these questions should be asked to the consultant)
  • an independence from any sectarian ideology, whether political or other.
  • a guarantee of the confidentiality of all the answers given by the candidate to the questions asked
  • a strictly confidential processing of the results that should be exclusively performed by competent and recognized professionals
  • a calibration that takes local specificities into account (some behavioral criteria significantly vary e.g. between  France and French-speaking Switzerland or between French-speaking and German-speaking Switzerland, …). Very few tools are adapted to regional particularities. The more companies will ask for such analyses, the more tools that meet these requirements there will be.
  • the tool should be thus built that it may lead to a dialogue
  • the tool should in no case be regarded as an end in itself, but only as a resource.

The assessment process and its follow-up

Decision-makers often think that an assessment will be sanctioned by a verdict of the "passed"/"failed" type. A relevant assessment process should however get into more details.

By the way, it should always be remembered that a perfect match between a position and an individual is not attainable. This is actually quite fortunate, as a perfect compatibility would not be stimulating and would present no opportunity for further development. A position should always bring something to the candidates and include a certain amount of new challenges, so that it may contribute to their personal and professional development.

The assessor will, first of all, have to focus on the identification of this gap by helping the candidate understand and accept it. The employees' direct supervisors should also get involved into this process, so as to back them in an efficient manner. They are the "coaches" who will help they subordinates meet their performance targets while supporting them in their personal and professional development.

When this gap points to a stronger potential than that which is needed for the position, a high risk of frustration and of loss of motivation ensues. This scenario is more dangerous than the previous one, as the person may be at risk of feeling useless and despised. This can, in turn, have a significant impact on the person's performance and even make them unable to effectively carry out activities they perfectly master. Therefore, such a situation is only sustainable if it is identified for what it is, accepted as such - and temporary!

In any case, the assessment should lead to an action plan with training proposals and development actions. This plan will be implemented and a monitoring process will have to be conducted by the employee's direct superior and  with the help of an HR manager. A new assessment may be performed at an ulterior date in order to precisely assess the progress made.

By definition, human potential fluctuates over time. It is up to us to correctly apprehend it, in order to direct it toward stimulating goals. This, however, is not always simple and may require a personal commitment that often turns out to require considerable energy. This phenomenon is accentuated by the fact that solutions are always unique and individualized, as they should exactly match the person’s needs. There is no typical development model.

Competency assessments thus represent a complex task. Nothing is black or white, every situation is special. Assessors indeed have to adjust to the uniqueness of the candidate in the most objective way possible given the job's and the company's requirements. Therefore, the assessor is in the best position to initiate a personal development process. This is a heavy responsibility that requires assessors to do a constant and significant amount of personal development themselves.


Human potential assessments will increasingly become an integral part of most senior HR officers' activities. Every candidate, whether an employee or an external candidate, can either accept to suffer from this situation or choose the option of partnership and dialogue, so as to actively contribute to their own development and to the development of the whole company. In this case, it will end up with a contract, whether under the form of an employment contract or of a development goals contract. It is thus useless to focus on performance. The increase in performance will directly ensue from the individual’s personal development. We will thus have set up a partnership with the aim of achieving a common goal with the concourse of both parties, namely the employer and the employee.

For the presentation of a complete Assessment Center process with sample exercises and role plays, please refer to the article "How to Design an Assessment / Development Center".

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