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Make Better Hires with Competency Models

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​Hiring employees based on competency profiles can help prevent bad hires and turnover, experts agree.

"If you've ever made a bad hire, you know how damaging it is" to have someone in a role for which he or she is not suited, said Chris Lennon, chief product officer at Arcoro, an HR software firm in Calabasas, Calif. "Sometimes a bad hire results from a failure to properly identify the competencies required for a position. It can become impossible to find the right person for the job if you don't first identify what the ideal candidate needs to succeed."

Competency-based selection is a process of evaluating candidates' behavioral attributes—as well as their skills and knowledge—by using role-based models and structured interviews to determine their fit for a position.

"You can hire for technical competencies all day long, but, if your new hires do not align with the company's guiding principles and culture or the role's behavioral competencies, you're setting them up for failure," said Michael Goldberg, managing director of MMGoldberg & Associates, an HR and talent acquisition consulting firm based in Dallas.

"Competency models are not one-size-fits-all, and they are very dependent on the job in question," said Tara Gullans, industrial organizational psychologist at Caliper, an employee assessment and talent development company in Princeton, N.J. "Hiring managers need to consider the outcomes they are looking for in a certain position and then hire for competencies that will get them to that outcome."

Gullans added that competency-based selection benefits the organization in various ways. Competency models can be incorporated into job descriptions to attract the right candidates for open positions. Recruiters and hiring managers use them to evaluate candidates in the selection process. And they serve as an employee's baseline for development later on. But they also benefit the candidates themselves.  

"The models add clarity and expectations for a role," she said. "Candidates and new hires may want to know if there are certain aspects of the job where they will thrive and others they may need to work on to succeed."

Lennon added that defining competencies for new hires can help set goals, identify areas for professional development, make decisions about promotions and relocate employees in the case of an organizational restructuring.

"Ultimately, core competencies not only help hire the right people, but also ensure they are well-equipped to do their job and fulfill their career aspirations within your company," he said.

[SHRM members-only platform: SHRM Connect]

Creating New-Hire Competencies

Lennon said there are job-specific and organizational competencies to consider. To identify job-specific competencies, think about what is required to complete the duties of the job, including hard and soft skills, knowledge in the field, and behavioral attributes and work style.

"Determining position-specific competencies will include the input of not only the position's supervisor, but also other employees who work closely with the position," he said.

Gullans said not to forget to talk to high-performing incumbents in the role. "I want to hear from them what it is they do every day, what is important to them about their job, what makes them successful," she said.

"Keep in mind that you're looking at the job as it is today. People get caught up in future potential, which is important to consider, but you don't want to overload a new-hire model with future-seeking competencies."

Organizational competencies will be consistent across all roles in a company, Lennon said. They can be created by identifying norms and behaviors expected across the company.

"Many of the organizational competencies will relate to the company's brand and values," he said. "If your organization has codified its brand, values and culture, refer to these as a starting point to help you identify your organizational competencies."

That's the low-hanging fruit, Goldberg said. "Most organizations have guiding principles, mission and value statements, but 90 percent of them aren't asking candidates questions that align with those."

Experts agreed that HR and talent acquisition should work together in spearheading competency creation through interviews, focus groups and survey data collection.

"When creating a competency model, focus on the must-haves, while also noting the competencies that would be nice to have or that you are willing to spend time developing in your new hires," Gullans said. "In a sales role, a must-have would likely be the competency of influence and persuasion. A nice-to-have could be about their time management skills, which might be an area that you can help develop. If you're hiring for a leadership role, it's important for hires to have a big-picture view, make tough decisions and think strategically. A candidate may demonstrate high detail orientation and quality focus, but is this a key competency? Not likely."

She provided the following examples of role-based competencies:

  • Bank teller. People in the role work with customers to complete account transactions. What does that mean in terms of competencies? "There's a good amount of quality focus—they are working with people's money, typing in numbers," Gullans said. "Another competency is helpfulness, which captures the customer-facing aspect of their job. They must be friendly and able to take ownership of any issues that come up with customers. Following standard practices is important—they are not being asked to be creative as a teller but instead follow strict transaction rules."
  • Midlevel manager. Important competencies would include being able to drive results, communicate performance expectations, delegate responsibility and manage process, Gullans said. From that point you can add in industry-specific requirements.

Using Competencies to Guide Interviews

Once you've created competency models for the role and the organization, the next step is integrating the models into the candidate interview process. "Identifying core competencies provides the basis for structuring effective interviews," Lennon said.

Goldberg added that recruiters and hiring managers should not just be passively asking questions during interviews and assessments but also have a way of scoring candidates' answers. "Listen for what you know will work and what will not work."


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