With the rapid pace of change facing most organisations, there is an increasing demand to select people who match the wider context of working within the organisation. Such as, fitting with the organisation's values, relationships with colleagues and customers, and the physical environment such as the technology the organisation uses. A competency-based approach is used to meet these changing needs.

What Are Competencies?

There are two main themes when defining competencies. These are:

  • Descriptions of work tasks or job outputs - a 'competence'
  • Descriptions of behaviours - a 'competency'

These have evolved from the work of researchers who linked into what made effective managers. One of these researchers, describes a competency as "an underlying characteristic of a person in that it may be a motive, a trait, a skill, an aspect of one's self-image or social role, or a body of knowledge which he or she uses."

In practice, many organisations include a mixture of tasks, job outputs and behaviours as descriptions of competence/competency. The organisation can also use the competency approach to incorporate its values into each competency.

Competency Frameworks

When developing a competency approach, most organisations develop a competency framework. This framework may consist of:

  • Competency 'clusters' - where a number of competencies are linked by a common theme such as interacting with other people.
  • The competency - the actual behaviour required.
  • Behavioural indicators - descriptions that indicate how an individual can demonstrate they meet the competency. There may be different levels of indicator for different levels of job that require the same competency.

When using competencies for recruitment and selection, it is for the organisation to consider the full range of competencies required. These include the basic requirements, to ensure that a candidate is selected who matches the competency requirements of the job.

During the recruitment and selection process, the organisation does not often have the benefit of having direct evidence of the individual's performance (unless the individual is an internal applicant). It is therefore necessary to focus on the person's previous experience, past performance and qualifications and training as evidence to demonstrate that the person meets the competency requirements and is suitable.

A competency-based approach can also help the individual to determine whether they match the competencies required to undertake the job, including the values of the organisation (if the organisation has included these as part of their competency approach).

Identifying Competencies for Recruitment Purposes

The principles of a job/role description and person specification still apply when using a competency-based approach. However, it is necessary to break the job tasks, outputs, skills and experience into competencies and behaviour indicators to indicate what will be required of the successful applicant in order for them to perform effectively within the job.

A competency approach provides greater clarity for the selector and candidate about what is required. For example, a person specification that states that 'flexibility' is required may mean different things to different people, whereas the use of a competency such as 'willingness' to perform tasks outside the normal range of duties' provides greater clarity about what is required.

By breaking the requirements of the job into a list of competencies, the authority can then determine the most appropriate method of assessing an individual against each competency. For example, competencies that focus on personal qualities and attributes may best be assessed through personality testing, whilst an assessment centre approach may best measure behaviours.

How can Competencies be Identified?

Traditionally, models such as the 5 or 7-point plan have been used as the framework to break down and identify what the authority requires of a successful candidate. When establishing appropriate competencies, it may still be helpful to break down the competency areas. The following may be a helpful model:

  • 'Natural' competencies - personality traits and characteristics.
  • 'Acquired' competencies - those that the individual has attained or developed such as qualifications and experience.
  • 'Adapting' competencies - how the individual has applied themselves during their career.

It is then necessary to identify the actual competencies. This can be achieved through a number of techniques such as focus groups, inventories and questionnaires, interviews, diaries and work logs and people based techniques such as observation, repertory grids and testing.

Focus Groups

These consist of a group of people at varying levels within the organisation who meet on a regular basis over a period of time. The group will look at a cross-representation of roles across the organisation. It is usual practice for one person to present the main purpose of each role, its key accountabilities, principal activities and performance indicators. Following this presentation the group will brainstorm the range of qualities needed to perform the role. Once all the roles have been brainstormed, the group will collate the qualities into clusters. Once the clusters have been identified, the group will develop a working title for each competency, together with the behavioural indicators of the competency in action in every day work.

This approach can provide greater acceptance of the competencies within the authority, as they tend to be in language that the authority understands. In-house people will also have a greater understanding of the roles, although it is important to ensure that the group reflects the range of roles across the authority. The main disadvantage with this approach is that it can require a significant time commitment from those involved.

Inventories and Questionnaires

This approach involves using an inventory (or questionnaire or checklist) to break down the job requirements into key tasks, which are then subdivided into day-to-day activities. The inventory information is obtained by talking to the jobholder and manager, as well as through observing the jobholder in action. Following the initial identification of activities, the jobholder is asked to give a score for elements such as the time taken to undertake the work, its complexity and the consequences of error. The greater the score, the greater the criticality of the tasks. Following this, each competency is rated to provide an indication of the importance of each competency.

This approach is helpful where jobs are well defined and predictable and it can be a cost-effective way of gauging the views of a large number of jobholders and managers. However, it is essential that adequate time and resources are provided to enable effective analysis of the inventory/questionnaire results. In most circumstances, use of a software package for the purpose is recommended.


This involves interviewing jobholders and/or managers in order to identify the specific events that form a critical part of the job. Interviewees are usually asked to describe particular experiences in their work and the interviewer will then probe to determine the actions taken and the outcome. From this, the interviewer can infer the competencies required, particularly when dealing with critical incidents. 

This approach tends to be most helpful in identifying competencies. These are critical when dealing with demanding situations, rather than the standard competencies, so determining the difference between average and superior performance. This approach is helpful as it focuses directly on the competencies required rather than analysing the work that then needs to be developed into appropriate competencies. It is essential, when implementing this approach, that the interviewer is experienced in a competency approach and has the necessary interview skills.

Diaries and Work Logs

This involves the jobholder maintaining a record over a period of time, from which the competencies can be deduced. This approach can take two forms. A diary approach requires that the jobholder log the activities they undertake at various times throughout the day. A log lists key criteria, perhaps in the form of competencies, and jobholders are asked to record each time during the day they employ that competency.

This approach ensures that the jobholders' views are directly taken into account and can be a cost-effective way of gaining information from a large number of jobholders.  However, the process of analysing the results and collating them into some sort of order can be time consuming.

Repertory Grid

This approach attempts to identify the competencies, which differentiate between poor, average and superior performance. The manager is interviewed and asked to place people in various categories of performance. The interviewer then prompts the manager to describe some of the examples of performance and then attempts to break these examples down to certain elements that can isolate and identify the behaviours that accompany performance at different levels.

This approach only takes into account the views of the manager and not the jobholder. It is also necessary to ensure confidentiality during the process. The process requires a suitably experienced and skilled interviewer and can be time consuming.


This approach involves the observation of jobholders undertaking their normal day-to-day activities. The observer will normally develop a record form that lists possible behaviour indicators and then records when these behaviours are displayed during the observation process, which might focus on a particular time period.

This approach enables the observer to see the work first hand, and prevents disruption to the manager or jobholder. However, the jobholder may have concerns about being observed for long periods of time and may need reassurance of the purpose of the exercise. Where a number of observers are used, it is imperative that all observers use the same approach.


Ability and psychometric tests are undertaken by a cross-section of jobholders. The results are correlated against levels of job performance in order to identify differentiating characteristics and key competencies.

This approach can provide differentiators between performance levels and also some benchmark data on the current workforce, which can then be used as a measure for future employees. However, it is essential that there is clear data about the differing performance levels in order to compare the test results against. This approach can also be very sensitive for jobholders and it is therefore important that the purpose of the approach is clarified with those involved.

Should You Use a Competency-Based Approach?

When considering whether or not to develop a competency-based approach to recruitment it is important to identify the level of resources required to assess the requirements of each job and which competencies best fit those requirements. The range of methods described above illustrate how resource intensive this approach can be. However, this step is crucial to ensure that the competencies identified accurately reflect the job's requirements. Accurate identification of the competencies also provides a basis for use of the competencies in future employment (see below).

Selecting Against Competency Requirements

Once a job's requirements have been determined and candidates have expressed interest in the job, the organisation needs to determine who to shortlist and ultimately appoint.

As with any selection process, different competencies may be identified best through different selection methods and therefore using a range of selection methods may be the most beneficial way to design a selection process.

See further information on the use of selection methods. However, the following may be helpful when considering the use of selection methods as part of a competency-based approach.

Application Forms and CVs

The application form or CV should provide evidence of the candidate's acquired and adapting competencies (i.e. their knowledge, experience and how they have applied their talents to different circumstances or situations). The screening process should identify the competencies against those set out in the person specification.

In order to help identify competencies within the application form, it is helpful if the form requires the candidate to give examples and provides a 'free text' box within which the candidate can detail their response. This approach can also enable the candidate to consider more fully how suitable they are for the job.


Ability tests may be best suited to measuring acquired competencies, whilst personality tests may be more suitable for measuring natural or adapting competencies. It is essential to consider what competencies are to be assessed and whether testing is the best approach. When using tests as with other selection methods, it is necessary to consider the relevance of the test and ensure that the test does not unfairly discriminate against certain groups. This can be minimised by ensuring that the decision to use a test is only taken following careful consideration of the competency requirements of the job (taken from the person specification).


A structured interview that probes past behaviours is most beneficial when using a competency-based approach. This style of interview will seek responses to questions about previous history and experience. The questions and potentially suitable answers should be determined around the competencies set out in the person specification and should focus on the natural and adapting competencies.

Assessment Centres

This method brings together various methods such as interviews and tests and may therefore help to ensure that natural, acquired and adapting competencies are measured during the same process.


When using references as part of a competency-based approach, it may be beneficial to provide referees with a pro forma which requires responses linked to key competencies. A reference may seek information on natural, acquired or adapting competencies. However in order for the information received to be useful, it may be beneficial to seek specific examples rather than a yes/no or good/bad response.


As with any selection process, it is useful to use scoring for each selection method. These may be weighted in terms of the importance of each method in identifying competencies and the importance of the competencies themselves. In terms of scoring against each selection method, a simple scoring method such as that set out below may be beneficial. However, when using any method of scoring it is essential that those undertaking the selection process have a clear understanding about how the process works and that there is a degree of uniformity across the authority.

Evaluating the Success of a Competency-Based Graduate Recruitment Approach

It is important to evaluate the success of the recruitment and selection process and the use of competencies during the process. This can ensure that the process is meeting the needs of the organisation, by selecting the right person best suited to the job, and that the process is complying with equal opportunities requirements.

Measures such as: turnover rates, performance of the individual within the job, and speed of promotion of the individual, may be helpful in determining how successful the recruitment and selection process has been.