Individual Assessment

Although individual psychological assessment is one of the most widely offered services provided by practitioners in psychology, it takes on somewhat unique characteristics in the domain of industrial and organizational psychology. These unique characteristics occur for both the assessment measurements of the individual and the outcomes that are predicted from those measurements. From a measurement perspective, the emphasis is on assessing knowledge, skills, abilities, and personal characteristics (KSAPs) that are important to functioning in the work setting. These measurements are typically different from those, for example, that would be relevant in mental health or educational settings. With respect to out-comes, individual assessment in industrial and organizational settings is most frequently concerned with selection decision making, including predicting job success/performance and antecedents thereto, such as career development or perhaps organizational fit. In fewer circumstances, it has also been used for vocational guidance and outplacement. In short, individual psychological assessment can be defined as the measurement of one or more components of an individual’s KSAPs to make inferences about subsequent work-related behaviors and performance.

Other Assessment Processes

For the purpose of this discussion, the topic of individual assessment will exclude other measurement strategies that are frequently used to predict work performance, such as the preemployment interview, group testing, or assessment centers. Furthermore, the discussion is focused on the measurement of normal behavioral and psychological characteristics, as opposed to abnormal traits and behavior that might be considered in the assessment of candidates for safety-sensitive jobs (e.g., nuclear power plant operator, pilot, police officer). Finally, the individual psycho-logical assessment is typically focused on predicting future performance rather than measuring past or current performance.

It is also important to distinguish individual assessment from other forms of evaluation that occur in organizations. Two of the more frequently used processes are performance appraisal and multirater feedback surveys. Both processes are techniques for measuring observed behaviors of individuals at work, and often there is considerable structure underlying the evaluations. Although both individual psychological assessments and the two organizational evaluation processes can be designed to measure the same constructs (e.g., performance dimensions, competencies), the perspective of the assessor/evaluator differs. Consequently, it is this independent perspective and psychological understanding (frequently supported by measurements from psychological instrumentation) that differentiates the individual assessment and provides unique information in support of selection decision making. Moreover, individual assessment is often conducted to support selection decisions during the hiring process when the organization has not had the opportunity to observe the individual at work.

Origins of Individual Assessment

The origins of individual assessment have been traced to selecting individuals for government service in ancient Greece on the basis of both cognitive and physical abilities. In the United States, psychological assessment had its roots in the military with the screening of army recruits for maladjustment during World War I, and in applications by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II. Use of individual assessments in private industry derived mostly from the early assessment centers that were designed to predict the advancement potentials of managers at AT&T in the 1960s.

Individual Assessment Design and Implementation

A properly designed and implemented individual assessment follows the traditional model for the use of selection procedures as practiced in the field of industrial and organizational psychology. The design begins with a study of the job (position) of interest. The emphasis is on obtaining sufficient information about the underlying requirements (KSAPs/competencies), as well as the context (work environment), so that the assessor can determine what measurements (e.g., tests, simulations) will be administered and how the resulting information will be integrated to support the selection decision-making process. Once the assessment protocol has been administered, scored, and interpreted, the results must be reported. The organization, of course, will receive a report (verbal, written, or both). More uncertain (and sometimes controversial) is whether the assessee will receive feed-back. If so, will the feedback be verbal, written, or both, and under what circumstances? Ideally, if there is to be feedback, it should occur relatively soon after the assessment data have been gathered, and in some circumstances the feedback occurs immediately after the formal data collection process as a conclusion to the psychological interview.

As previously mentioned, the design of the assessment protocol is based on the underlying requirements or competencies for the position or job. The assessing psychologist will select the relevant tests (if any) to be administered, and often these will be both cognitive and personality measures. Additionally, interests are sometimes measured, and various types of simulations (e.g., role-play, in-basket) are often used. Most assessments include an interview with the assessing psychologist. The interview is often behaviorally focused and otherwise has several potential uses: (a) It can contribute to the interpretation of various test scores; (b) it can assess important requirements and competencies not measured by other assessment components; (c) it can provide background information so that the assessor is able to learn some things about the assessee beyond the set of test scores; and (d) it can be integrated with the feedback process and, when relevant, help resolve any conflicting information that may have come forth during the assessment process.

Interpretation of Individual Assessment Information

Given the results of a psychological test battery and an interview, the psychologist now makes a series of judgments regarding the fit between the assessee and the position/job requirements and context. Some believe the fit is really of a multidimensional nature: person-position; person-team; person-organization; and, for international assignments, person-culture. In all circumstances, the interpretation and integration of the assessment information is not a matter of examining one or more cutoff scores to determine who passes, but rather it is the making of inferences about future behavior in the work setting. Moreover, the psychologist recognizes that the data collected about the assessee are not perfect; the instruments do not have perfect psychometric properties; and the data (including the interview) are influenced by the self-presentation of the assessee.

Apart from concerns that may be raised about the quality and accuracy of the assessment data, the assessing psychologist is influenced by other matters. For example, what is the purpose of the assessment—to make a hiring decision? To consider an assessee for promotion? Or perhaps to give career direction? Also of importance is whether or not the psychologist has available useful or relevant normative data for each assessment component. Assuming the availability of normative data, when and how is it used?And how does the psychologist determine when to follow normative versus ipsative interpretations? There are no prescriptive answers to these questions, but every assessing psychologist has very likely encountered them.

Finally, the faking of assessment information is well documented, and many instruments (primarily personality tests) provide indexes of faking. Given that the faking indexes are high (or perhaps very low), how does the assessing psychologist incorporate this information into the interpretation of the data? Although there is no single answer to this question, it is a problem that must be addressed by assessors when interpreting test scores.

Integration of Individual Assessment Information

Although the research literature has generally found statistical combinations of assessment results to be more accurate than clinical judgment, the typical individual assessment relies on the psychologist’s integration of the relevant information. This integration, of course, includes melding data obtained from tests, simulations, and the assessment interview. It also should include knowledge about the psychometrics of the assessment results and the influences of various demographic characteristics (including culture, gender, ethnicity, and age) on the various predictors. The ideal would be that all assessment instrumentation would be free of any biases, but we know that is not the case.

Psychometrics

The psychometrics of individual psychological assessment is a particularly important yet confounded topic. The reliability and validity of the assessment process have not been studied very often, and published research has focused on one of two facets of the psychometric domain. Because of its complex nature, the measurement of reliability and validity of individual assessments have multiple components. The instruments themselves (e.g., tests, interview) have psychometric qualities, as do the interpretation of the assessment data and the final description or recommendation offered by the psychologist. Also, the overall assessment context (e.g., hiring, career counseling) and appropriate criteria (e.g., job performance, development success) have potentially unknown confounding influences on attempts to study the validity of the individual assessment processes.

Utility of Individual Assessment

Given a lack of comprehensive validity evidence, it is reasonable to ask why individual assessment continues to survive and even flourish. Perhaps the answer lies with utility. Again, there is little research on this topic, but what seems to prevail among assessment providers and users is the notion that assessment, although perhaps not perfect, makes an important contribution to organizations’ decision making. This may be even more accurate for selecting or promoting individuals to very critical or senior-level positions. Thus, anecdotal stories, proclamations, and similar types of information have prevailed, given the absence of research evidence to either support or refute the use of individual assessment.

Ethical Issues in Individual Assessment

Individual assessment can potentially create a variety of different types of ethical issues. These issues typically must be addressed by the assessing psychologist but also may be matters decided by the using organization. Confidentiality, informed consent, administration, and marketing are some of the major topics that can involve ethical concerns. Both the American Psychological Association and the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology publish materials relevant to the ethical practice of individual psychological assessment.

Legal Issues in Individual Assessment

At this time there are no legal decisions regarding individual assessment in organizational settings that directly bear on the application of the typical type of assessment procedures that have been described in this discussion. This is apparently the case even though the assessment process, like other employment practices, is under the purview of the various statutes regarding equal employment opportunity at both the federal and state levels. Accordingly, assessing psychologists should make every attempt possi-ble to ensure that the assessment process is in compliance with legal, ethical, and professional practice standards.

Summary

Individual psychological assessment is one of the most prevalent components of the practice of industrial and organizational psychology. It is intended to support organizational decision making by making predictions regarding an individual’s job success and performance, development, or organizational fit. Although there is a scarcity of research regarding the assessment process and associated outcomes, individual psychological assessment represents a blending of both art and science. It is especially challenging because it requires the assessing psychologist to interpret and integrate a variety of information about an individual and make predictions about his or her future behavior in a unique organizational setting.

References:

  1. Highhouse, S. (2002). Assessing the candidate as a whole: A historical and critical analysis of individual psychological assessment for personnel decision making. Personnel Psychology, 55, 363-396.
  2. Jeanneret, R., & Silzer, R. (Eds.). (1998). Individual psychological assessment: Predicting behavior in organizational settings. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  3. Prien, E. P., Schippmann, J. S., & Prien, K. O. (2003). Individual assessment as practiced in industry and consulting. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  4. Silzer, R. (Ed,). (2002). The 21stcenturyexecutive: Innovative practices for building leadership at the top. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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