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Competency Assessments Make Talent Management More Effective

Domain Expert: Jonathan Verdun, Competency Product Development Director,

Bottom Line


December 2008

The most productive organizations have the right people with the right competencies in the right jobs. This
ensures that employees are more satisfied, more productive, and more likely to contribute to the
organizations success.
Competencies, assessments, job-competency models, proficiency levels, types of competency assessment

A Clarification of Terms
There is much misunderstanding about what a competency is or is not. Different experts in the
field would likely give a variety of different definitions. In our approach, we define a competency
as a combination of knowledge, skill and ability demonstrated by the observable behavior of an
individual who is successful at a given task. To clarify further:
An ability is an inherent talent or capability to do something such as natural math ability.

A competency implies
both a degree of
knowledge about a
task and a developed
ability or skill to
accomplish the task.

A skill is an ability that has been strengthened through training, practice and experience.
A Personal attribute is a unique characteristic of an individual that helps to define their
natural persona such as honesty, integrity, professionalism, and courtesy.
In this issue of Insight, we provide an overview of the benefits and challenges of
competency assessments. We also share the approach to competency
assessment. There are numerous assessment methods and numerous purposes to which
assessments are applied. The approach is primarily targeted at assessing an

Productivity is
maximized when the
right employees with
the right
competencies are in
the right jobs.

employees fitness for a given role within an organization. This pragmatic approach has been
successfully applied in hundreds of public and private organizations over a span of more than
20 years.
The approach addresses knowledge, skills and abilities, (KSAs), but does not cover
personal attributes. Although personal attributes are important, especially for those employees
involved with customer interface, they are very difficult to assess in a fair and objective manner.

Practical Applications for Organizations

Competencies are useful to organizations as part of a competency assessment approach to
talent management. They offer many practical applications to assist with an organizations

A competency
assessment seeks to
discover employee
strengths and
weaknesses so that
the employee will be
enabled to improve
future performance.

When the specific competency requirements of a certain job are understood, companies can
recruit and hire the people who already have the right competencies and can hit the ground
running from day one. They can also assess the competencies of an employee versus those
position requirements to help determine the training needed for that individual.
Assessments enable organizations to identify aggregate competency gaps of a particular
department or the entire organization. Armed with this information, they can build and costjustify a training curriculum that will target and help eliminate the most critical competency

A performance
appraisal reviews the
past performance of
employees versus
their assigned
responsibilities and


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When the competency requirements of organizations jobs are understood, an employee along with his or her manager and HR
professional can focus that individuals development toward the next step on their career path.
Individual employees will not be able to fully meet the expectations of their job responsibilities if they are lacking in certain critical
competencies. An important part of performance management is enabling employees to be successful or moving them into a role
that is better suited to their competencies. Competency assessments directly contribute to this process.

Advantages for Employees

Competency assessments are not only helpful from an employers perspective, but from employees perspective as well. If
employees understand their competencies they can:
Seek out jobs that match or stretch their existing competencies.
Plan their careers along a path that is well suited to their capabilities.
Compare current competencies with those required in their next career step and seek the training that will leverage their
strengths and shore up their weakness so that they can progress to the next level.
This all matters because employees who are in jobs that closely match their competencies have a higher degree of satisfaction in
their work. Further, they are less likely to seek job opportunities outside the organization if there is a career path in place that is
suited to their competencies. And at the more senior levels in an organization, the most competent candidates can be identified
and groomed into the executive ranks through competency assessment.

The Competency Model

Before assessing the competencies of employees, organizations must first determine the competencies required in each job
within the enterprise. In other words, they need to build a competency model of the employees jobs.
The first step here is to look at the basic job description and the responsibilities required by the job. Once that is understood, the
competencies required to perform those responsibilities must be determined. So a competency model is basically a list of the
competencies that are required for a person to be successful in the job.
Different jobs require different degrees of proficiency in a given competency. Some jobs may only require a person to be
generally familiar with a topic while other jobs may require in-depth expertise in that same topic. In addition, a given job may
require different degrees of proficiency with the various competencies that the job requires.
Once the competencies and proficiency levels required by a job are determined, employees who are in those jobs or aspire to
move into those jobs in the future are assessed relative to the competencies for the appropriate proficiency level. On the following
page is an example of a job competency model for jobs commonly found within a human resources department. The job titles are
listed across the top, with competentices listed in the left hand column from top to bottom. The numbers represent the proficiently
level value required for each proficiency for each job with in this sample organization. So for example, the HR Manager job
requires a proficiency level of 4 in HR policies, but only a level 2 proficiency in the International Environment.

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HR Consultant

HR Manager

Recruiting Manager

Knowledge of Organization

Products and Services

Interpersonal Relationships


Problem Solving

Managing Organizational Change

Managing Workforce Diversity

HR: Trends and Direction

HR: Policies, Standards and Procedures

HR: Legal and Regulatory Environment

HR: International Environment

Employee Relations

Compensation Management

Benefit Programs

Staffing and Recruiting

HR Planning and Development

Organizational Development Issues and

Human Resources

Proficiency Levels
The proficiency levels referred to on the previous page can be approached from a number of different perspectives depending
upon how an organization chooses to use the terms. So while the perspective may change, the concept remains the same.
The important thing here is that all parts of the organization agree on and use the same set of terms consistently. Four proficiency
levels provide sufficient enough granularity without having to get too specific and the even number of levels forces organizations
to avoid gravitating toward a middle value to assure a more accurate assessment.
The following is a sample proficiency level chart which shows some of the different perspectives (assessment scales).

Scale Types

Level 1

Level 2

Level 3

Level 4


Basic Understanding

Working Experience

Extensive Experience

Subject Matter Depth

and Breadth

Practical (Hands-on)

Entry Level

Limited Experience

Extensive and
Diverse Application
and Experience

Recognized Thought










Guru or Master

Role types

Individual Contributor

Team Leader

Integrator or MultiTeam Leader



Base line


Very Good

Excellent or


Needs Development

Partially Developed

Well Developed

Fully Developed


Does Not Meet


Somewhat Meets

Fully Meets

Exceeds Expectations

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Fair and Consistent Assessments

To ensure fairness and consistency, it is necessary to start with a set of behaviorally based descriptions of the various degrees of
proficiency. This way you have established benchmarks against which all employees can be assessed. Below is an example
where we provide suggested statements that can be used to build typical behavior descriptors at each proficiency level.
Competency Definition

Level 1 Behaviors

Operational Functions
Knowledge of major functional processes and associated operating requirements; ability to
apply this knowledge appropriately to diverse situations.
Identifies the primary operational functions of the organization.
Can explain operational functions and
Understands the interdependence of
Understands the importance of each
Carries out assigned responsibilities that

Level 2 Behaviors

Seeks guidance when assigned goals

Works with awareness of
Is open to guidance
Seeks advice
Operates with understanding of key responsibilities of organizations major functions.

Level 3 Behaviors

Seeks efficiencies
Evaluates relevant
Maintains awareness of
Takes into consideration
Uses knowledge of organizations functions to
Consults with and advises all major functions.

Level 4 Behaviors

Compares organizations
Coaches others to consider
Educates others in
Monitors industry trends
Draws attention to the

By using behavioral statements like these:

Employees can self assess to determine their level of proficiency.
Peers of the employee can assess the employees level or proficiency.
Managers can asses the employees level of proficiency by comparing the employees demonstrated behaviors against he list
of typical behaviors.

Self, Manager and Peer Assessment

Three are several ways to conduct competency assessments and each carries with it some pros and cons.
Self assessment communicates trust and encourages accountability but there is the risk that assessments can be
inconsistent from person to person leading to less validity.
Manager assessments facilitate dialog between the employee and their supervisors and presents the opportunity for career
coaching. However, this process is time consuming and the manager may or may not have an accurate perception of an
individuals proficiency level in the various competencies.

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Peer assessment empowers peers and gives the process more credible validity. However, honest feedback can be
challenging and the time invested in the assessment process can take time away from the employees primary responsibilities.
There are several variations on this theme, including self-assessment with manager review and self assessment with peer
review. Each organization must choose the process that fits best within its culture. The key here is that regardless of the process
chosen, it must be applied consistently across the organization in order to be effective.

Post Assessment
Once a competency assessment is completed, decisions must be made about next steps. Some employees may possess
competencies that exceed those required for their current jobs, while others may have competencies that are better suited to a
different role in the organization.
It is also likely that many employees will need to develop a higher degree of proficiency in certain competencies. These
employees will become more productive if they receive the training they need to become fully proficient in the competencies their
job requires.
Competency assessments, when aggregated across the organization, may reveal that the enterprise lacks sufficient bench
strength. This would provide the justification required to either launch major training initiatives or recruit new staff members that
have the competencies that are currently lacking.

Is your organization ready for this?

Launching a competency assessment initiative cannot be taken lightly. It requires support, both verbal and financial, from
executive management. You must be prepared to articulate the business need and financial return on investment that is
anticipated. Executive management must agree to and must be prepared to explain how the assessment data will be used and
how employees will benefit. If your assessment initiative cannot be directly tied to business outcomes or if beneficial results can
not be proven with the first year or two, then the initiative will likely be short-lived.

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Dont give employees something else to worry about. In todays business environment it is more important than ever
that employees dont become threatened by the introduction of a new assessment program.

Competency assessments help both employers and employees. These programs are undertaken to help
employees not hinder them. At no point should the process be presented as a threat to job security. Understanding and
buy-in are critical to program success.

A competency assessment is not a performance appraisal. Employees must understand that compensation is not in
any way connected to the competency assessment.

Competency assessments benefit the organization because productivity is maximized when the right employees
with the right competencies are in the right jobs.



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