May 27, 2018

Jobseekers: Sign In | Sign Up Recruiters
  InFocus Newsletter Newsletter archives

Share this article:
Bookmark and Share

Understanding Competencies: The Key to Professional Success

If youíve been around the recruiting or human resources world for more than 15 minutes, youíve probably heard the term "competencies" many times. And as often as weíve heard about them, everyone seems to have a different definition. Today I hope to clear away some of the clutter and describe competencies in simple, usable terms and explain why they are critical to your professional success.

First, letís get to a primary definition. Competencies are the basic functional and behavioral requirements to successfully perform on the job (whether that job is a full-time or temp/contract assignment). Functional requirements are the "technical" needs, the things that are specific to that job or profession. For example, a functional competency for a Retail Manager might be knowledge of inventory distribution systems, while a functional competency for a Restaurant Manager might be knowledge of local food safety and handling regulations.

The behavioral requirements may be called the "soft skills" that make a person successful in their role. Behavioral requirements are more universal, and similar behavioral requirements can be found in many different types of jobs. There can also be unique and specific behavioral needs in similar jobs.

Letís look at the Retail Manager and the Restaurant Manager again. A behavioral requirement for both jobs might be organization skills. Both managers handle staff scheduling and maintain sales records. They both have a need for high-level customer service skills and problem-solving abilities. One behavioral distinction is the Restaurant Managerís greater need for a sense of urgency or immediacy -- food service is usually faster paced than merchandise display.

Competencies are the skills, traits, and characteristics that hiring managers identify in the best performers. These players demonstrate competencies on the job more consistently and at a higher level than their average co-workers. Competencies are what people do that can be seen, heard, or documented by their colleagues and clients. Does a call center operator answer the telephone within two rings or five? Did the insurance representative sell four policies this week or seven? Both are clear and measurable examples of competencies displayed and results achieved.

But how did they achieve those results? When the call center operator answered within two rings, did he answer with enthusiasm and make the caller feel well served? Did he effectively answer the callerís question, solve her problem or process her order? Meeting one competency standard is not necessarily enough to ensure effective performance. The effective call center operator will display several competencies working together at the same time:

  1. Answer the phone within two rings - Competencies may include Sense of Urgency and Meeting Standards
  2. Answer callerís questions - Competencies may include Customer Service and Problem Solving
  3. Process orders - Competencies may include Selling, Attention to Detail, and Functional Knowledge

The top-level call center operator will take it a step further and use those same basic competencies at a higher level.

  1. Answer the phone within two rings - while displaying enthusiasm and care for the customerís needs
  2. Answer callerís questions - offer suggestions and ideas beyond whatís strictly necessary and ask questions to ensure understanding of the problem
  3. Process orders - make recommendations for products or services that may enhance performance or provide better results to the customer

Recruiters and hiring managers can work together most effectively when they share a common language for describing the competencies needed to fill a particular job. The best place to start in creating that language is with a well-written job description that clearly defines the positionís responsibilities and expected results.

When you review the job description, you may find that it has not been categorized in competency terms. You can do that very quickly by checking each item against the "Functional" or "Behavioral" measure. Letís visit our Retail Manager one more time. On her job description, you might find a line that says "Ensure timely merchandise flow and stocking." The key question to ask is, "What would someone need to know/be/do in order to achieve that result?"

  1. Merchandise ordering (to get it into the flow to begin with) - a Functional competency
  2. Distribution processing (how to get it from the warehouse or vendor to the store) - a Functional competency
  3. Merchandise display (where to put it and how to arrange it in the store) - a Functional competency
  4. Communication (with warehouse, home office, store staff to give or get information) - a Behavioral competency
  5. Delegation (Do you really think a manager will do all of that by herself?) - a Behavioral competency
  6. Problem solving (when the merchandise doesnít arrive as expected or doesnít fit where it was planned to go) - a Behavioral competency
  7. Staff scheduling (ensuring both service coverage and operational coverage to accomplish goal in a timely manner)- a Functional competency

If a job description doesnít exist, itís important to develop a list of functional and behavioral competencies by asking two fundamental questions:

  1. What are the key things the person in this role must accomplish to be successful?
  2. What would someone need to know/be/do in order to achieve that result?

Most recruiters and HR managers begin screening candidates against the functional competencies for the job. These are "the price of admission." If your candidate doesnít meet the functional or technical requirements of the role, the behavioral ones usually wonít matter. Most hiring managers will tell you, and most research shows, that the more successful candidates (and the best performing employees) are those who consistently demonstrate a high level of both functional and behavioral competency. Identifying and analyzing these requirements early in the selection process is the key to finding the best match of candidate to job.

- Paula Roy

Paula Roy ( is the Vice President of Learning and Development of StaffingU, a global provider of training, coaching, and consulting services for staffing and recruiting professionals. For information on StaffingU's programs and services, including TeleClasses (live telephone-based classes), Virtual StaffingU (web-based courses), individual and group coaching, on-site training and speaking, and management consulting visit or call 866-SU-WORKS (789-6757). Paula Roy is a recognized expert in behavioral interviewing and in developing comprehensive selection strategies. Using a comprehensive project management system, Paula has developed the productivity and effectiveness of sales teams, project teams, and executives. She earned her degree in communication and management and has completed extensive study and research in adult learning theory and methodology.