What are Competencies?

Competencies are particular qualities that a company’s recruiters have decided are desirable for employees to possess.

During job interviews and assessments, competencies are used as benchmarks against which assessors can evaluate candidates.

Competencies are not skills, although they are similar. Skills are learned, while competencies are inherent qualities an individual possesses – combining skills, knowledge and ability.

what are competencies

Contents

  1. Where Did Competencies Come From?
  2. What Is the Difference Between Skills and Competencies?
  3. Different Types of Competency
  4. How Competencies Are used By Employers
  5. Final Thoughts
  6. Further Reading

Where Did Competencies Come From?

Employers have been using competencies to help recruit and manage their employees since the early 1970s, after psychologists found that traditional tests – such as academic aptitude and knowledge-based tests – did not accurately predict employment success.

In subsequent years, competency frameworks have become an increasingly accepted part of recruitment and contemporary HR practice, and now form part of most employers’ assessment procedures.

Today, many employers have a competency framework in place for their organisation or are planning to introduce one. A 2015 study by Deloitte showed that 89% of ‘best-in-class organizations’ (organisations where staff and management achieve highly) had core competencies defined for all roles, as opposed to 48% for all other companies.

Given all this, competencies are something that job applicants need to know about.

What Is the Difference Between Skills and Competencies?

The definition of ‘skills’ and ‘competencies’ is, on the face of it, very similar. They both relate to the ability to do something well.

However, there are inherent differences in the way these two terms are used by recruiters.

Skills are undoubtedly important when recruiting for a new position or assessing the capabilities of existing employees.

However, in isolation, they are not enough to adequately assess whether an individual will be successful in a role, or whether they will have a healthy talent lifecycle (how employees move through a company once hired).

That’s where competencies come in.

Here are some key differences between the two:

  • A skill is the ability to do something, while competencies are behaviours. You learn to clean a window just as you learn to perform open heart surgery. These are skills. Competencies specify how the individual carries out the skills they have.

    For example, 10 people might be skilled at computer programming, but perhaps only five will work in a way that is in line with company culture. This might be being respectful of management, working efficiently, having good time management and being an effective team member.

  • Skills are specific, while competencies are broad. A person can either perform open heart surgery and save someone’s life, or they can’t. In contrast, competencies tell us what success looks like; they combine ability and knowledge with the required skills.

    For example, a talented open heart surgeon who is rude to their team, gives relatives bad news in a nonchalant manner and hasn’t kept up with studying the latest developments in the industry, would not be considered to be succeeding in the role.

Specific, multi-layered competencies give employers and recruiters clear benchmarks for each element (skills, knowledge, ability) that can be used at interview, in tests and on-the-job performance, to define success or potential success in a role.

Different Types of Competency

One of the biggest challenges a company might face in recruitment is identifying employee competencies in the first place; it can often be difficult to put into words what employees need to possess to make them successful.

Competencies usually fall into three categories:

  1. Behavioural Competencies – an expression of the softer skills involved in an employee’s performance.

  2. Technical Competencies – usually concerned with the effective use of IT systems and computers, or any hard skills necessary for a job role.

  3. Leadership Competencies – an expression of the qualities that make a good leader, turned into measurable behaviours.

Given that skills aren’t the same as competencies, all employees at a firm might be expected to possess some of the same basic competencies to fulfil the basics of their roles, even if their expected skill sets are different. These are called ‘threshold competencies’.

Whether an office manager or a solicitor at a law firm, all employees should have a basic understanding of the industry, the company’s services and how the company operates. They should also be competent using a computer and communicating.

These threshold competencies would then be accompanied by further competencies that might be specifically tailored to the role.

Below is an example of a simplified competency framework that might be used at interview or during an appraisal.

Often there would be two or three competencies per subcategory. It is not uncommon for the competencies to be further broken down into different levels of achievement (level one might be that the individual meets standards, level two might be that they exceed standards and, at the top, level five might be that they set standards).

Category Subcategory Competency
Behavioural Teamwork Supports group decisions and puts group success ahead of own goals
Problem Solving Analyses problems by obtaining and organising relevant information
Customer Service Is approachable and willing to help others
Results Orientation Is results-driven and can identify steps to achieving goals
Communication Communicates ideas effectively
Technical Sales Is competent at using Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system
Marketing Is competent at using Hootsuite for social media queuing
Accounting Is competent at using SAGE
Leadership Motivation Motivates and inspires
Employee relations Acts with empathy and compassion
Diversity Embraces diversity

How Competencies Are Used by Employers

Modern employers generally view competency frameworks as an essential vehicle for:

  • Measuring a candidate’s potential future effectiveness at interview
  • Reviewing an employee’s capability, potential and performance

Employers use competencies in their recruitment process, in performance appraisals, success planning and more. They are key to helping a company recruit the right people and evaluate performance effectively.

They might also use them to assess their existing employees as part of an annual review or prior to a promotion. Adhering to key competencies will be important throughout your career.

Traditionally, companies only focused on knowledge and skills, believing that behaviours could be learned or changed through effective management.

However, in recent years much more attention has been given to the qualities sitting under the surface. The use of competencies in the recruitment process means employers can dig deeper to get a complete picture of the candidate, to ensure they get the very best person for the role.

Job Applications

In job applications, the person specification often features statements similar to those in the table above.

They inform the candidate what ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ traits look like in the eyes of the company recruiting for the position.

These are competencies, and sometimes – especially in small businesses – a candidate’s application will be enough in itself to adequately assess whether the individual possesses the competencies needed.

Interview

In larger businesses and in graduate recruitment, companies might ask competency-based questions at interview.

These questions require the candidate to use real examples to demonstrate how they fulfil the competency.

Below is an example of a competency-based question that might be used to assess a certain competency.

Competency assessed:

‘Supports group decisions and puts group success ahead of own goals’

Question:

“Tell me about a time you supported a decision others made, despite believing it was wrong.”

The recruiter is looking for a real example that indicates the candidate will be a positive, enthusiastic and supportive team member.

Without the use of competency-based questions, a company might struggle to get past the black-and-white of the candidate’s application. Competencies – especially behavioural competencies – demand more transparency at interview.

Final Thoughts

The use of competencies helps companies recruit individuals who will perform well and be a good fit with the firm. When used as the basis for the talent lifecycle, they can also be effective in maintaining consistency.

Skills can be learned, but in most cases, competencies are intrinsic to the individual’s personality. Setting core competencies can, therefore, spare a company the time and energy spent on trying to mould individuals who are incapable of change.

Instead, a company can recruit employees who demonstrate they meet key competencies that will ensure they are an asset to the company and will contribute to its success.

Further Reading

You may be interested in these other articles on WikiJob:

35 Core Competencies

Key Competencies

Competency Based Interviews

Competency Based Questions