Recruiting Using a Competency-Based Approach

What Is a Competency-Based Approach?

Using the language of those who earn their living selling and marketing competency-based solutions, a competency-based recruiting approach relies on using a series of assessment tools that identify not only the technical skills a candidate possesses, but his behavioral competencies as well.

A competency is often defined as "an underlying, deep, and enduring personal characteristic of an individual that predicts behavior in a wide variety of situations and results in effective or superior performance." The approach relies on building complex job profiles that look at the responsibilities and activities of the job and the competencies required to accomplish them.

The detailed process looks like this:

  1. Define organizational culture.
  2. Define essential job activities and responsibilities.
  3. Define technical competencies and skills required.
  4. Define behavioral competencies.
  5. Define competencies and behavioral indicators.

This approach is intended to take candidate assessment out of the realm of subjective evaluation and place it squarely under the realm of science, providing organizations with a consistent process and common language with which to assess talent.

If It Works, Why Do So Many Organizations Abandon Their Implementations?

Earlier, we mentioned that nearly every implementation has followed the exact same path. Those of you who have gone down the competency road probably guessed immediately what that path was, but for those of you who have yet to learn your lesson, that path includes internal evangelism, adoption, implementation, confusion, defense, defense, relative clarity, abandonment!

That's right, almost every major competency project we have witnessed has ended in failure, usually right around the three-year mark. For some large organizations the decision to abandon their approach came after investing millions of dollars in new tools, training, job assessment, and technology to power the new model. For one Fortune 500 organization, the 31-month price tag totaled more than $18.6 million.

So why, you may ask, do so many implementations fail? The answer to that is long and complicated, but the short of it is that most implementations are nothing more than extremely expensive processes that ensure maintenance of the status quo.

Four Primary Drivers of Failure

Prior to deciding to write this article, Master Burnett and I discussed what we have observed as well as what others in our position have observed. What became clear during the course of this discussion is that most implementations have the following three characteristics that drive failure.

Each of these is discussed briefly in the following paragraphs:

  • A process that does not re-evaluate how work is broken down into specific jobs to ensure that the bundling of activities is consistent with the available workforce
  • A job analysis process that is reliant upon observing incumbents to determine past success characteristics
  • A guiding perspective that considers time sensitive team dynamics such as leadership personality, economic conditions, new technologies, and geography irrelevant

Just Because Work Has Always Been Broken Down a Certain Way, That Doesn't Mean It's the Right Way!

One of the most irritating elements that we witness during the development and implementation of competencies is that no one ever asks if the way work is broken down into specific jobs is relevant, according to current labor market conditions. New technologies, as well as variations in the supply of labor that impact labor costs, should impact how work is delegated.

In the past, it may have made sense to hire a labor generalist that had enough depth in a variety of technical skills to carry out a bundle of activities, but that doesn't mean that approach will always be the right one.

For example, let's look at financial auditors. Historically, auditors were charged with identifying and procuring information needed, analyzing that information for breaks in patterns, documenting errors, and writing reports. The typical educational profile for an auditor emphasizes the financial analysis skills required, yet one of the job activities requires both personal and written communication skills. A competency profile developed against this traditional job would dictate that strong written communication skills are essential to success irrespective of the current labor market.

Financial analysis is an activity that can be accomplished much more quickly using specialists, which are in far greater supply if you remove the language component. Splitting this job could allow the actual analysis to be outsourced offshore, and the use of English-language specialists to document and write all reports — a combination which would increase quality, decrease cost, and increase volume. While redistributing work may not always be required, the question should at the very least get asked!

Historical Job Analysis

This element is perhaps the most comical. Every vendor of competency-based solutions states that job analysis is conducted against the position itself, not people. However, in reality, the process requires that you look at top performing incumbents to map their behavioral profiles. That's pretty much where the process stops.

Several assumptions are made, including:

  • That the top-performing incumbents previously hired possess the right skills and competencies possible. (What if you haven't hired the best talent to do the job?)
  • That because this profile has worked in the past, it will work in the future.
  • The present skills and behaviors that map to success are not influenced by team dynamics. (If dynamics were to change, would the top-performer profile change?)

The world is changing at a phenomenal pace, and how we accomplish work is changing just as quickly. Most competency-mapping methodologies rely on job analysis processes that are historically oriented and time consuming. On average it takes 90 days to complete a profile for a single job family. It's quite possible the job could have changed significantly in the time it takes just to create the profile!

Irrelevant dynamics

A friend recently started a diet plan that is managed by a bariatric physician — a diet doctor. At the consultation, the doctor placed her on a 1,200-calorie diet, the same diet he prescribes to everyone. He didn't ask anything about day-to-day activities, exercise routine, etc. Upon hearing this I told her the doctor was a quack and she should seek a second opinion. Since the doctor was a board-certified diet doctor, she opted instead to follow his advice. Weeks later, her hair was falling out, her thyroid was out of control, and she could not stand without getting dizzy — not a good combination for a massage therapist who runs six miles a day and works with free weights for an hour, four days a week!

What this doctor did is similar to what most competency projects do. He ignored the dynamics of the situation. On-the-job performance is impacted by a number of factors, including:

  • The relationship of an employee with his or her managers and peers
  • The economy
  • The work environment
  • Family events

To assume that a profile will be consistent across a job family is to assume that employees operate in a vacuum controlled environment; something we all know is not the case. I am sure every organization can find at least one example of a top-performing sales professional whose performance declined following the introduction of a new sales manager. Did that top performing sales professional's competency profile change, or did the dynamics change?


One should never say that'll never work, and that is not what we are saying here. Failure is a phenomenal educator, so if we learn from past mistakes, maybe we can craft a better solution in the future. Lots of organizations have tried competencies; lots of organizations have failed.

This article has outlined three possible causes of failure that, hopefully, those of you who are using or are considering using competencies will take into consideration. One additional element that could have been added is that most employers and managers perceive the systems developed using competencies to be no less subjective or more clear than previous systems, so don't rely on that as your sole defense.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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