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How to avoid the top 10 mistakes of competency profiling

Screening & Selection

How to avoid the top 10 mistakes of competency profiling

Competency profiles provide an objective way of measuring the behaviours essential for effective performance. Here’s how to avoid making these 10 mistakes in the profiling process.

By Jaintheran Naidoo

The use of objective assessment data greatly enhances all aspects of the talent management value chain. Assessments for selection are well known and accepted, but they are also very effectively applied in other contexts, including onboarding, development, performance management, succession planning and organisational development.

However, assessments are only useful if we know what we are looking for. Competency profiles form the backbone of talent management by providing a set of quantifiable criteria against which we can measure:

  • Job role fit
  • Strengths and limitations
  • Demonstrated behaviour
  • Performance
  • Readiness for succession.

In fact, the value of assessments is largely dependent on the quality of the competency profile.

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Best practices for creating a competency profile

At HFMtalentindex, we work with organisations to build competency profiles based on our comprehensive competency library. Here are some of the most common profiling mistakes we observe, and how we overcome them.

1: Outdated job descriptions

Sound familiar? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. This is by far the most common difficulty we observe. Unfortunately, job descriptions (and other job-related documents) often become relevant only when the role needs to be filled. The job descriptions used to recruit the last incumbent is dusted off and put to service again. However, since then the role may have evolved along with the organisation, industry, and world of work.

Compiling a competency profile based on the requirements within an outdated job description means that you may be identifying candidates who would have been suitable a few years ago. While it is difficult to provide exact guidelines on their shelf-life, reviewing job descriptions should be a regular event on the talent management calendar. Any job description that has not been reviewed in the last two years should be viewed with scepticism.

2: Copy and paste competency requirements

When job descriptions are compiled or reviewed, the competencies listed are often not refreshed. In fact, we sometimes see competency requirements being copied and pasted directly from other (sometimes unrelated) job descriptions. Competency profiles cannot be treated in a one-size fits all fashion at the level of role fit. If a job is worth doing and being recruited for, then it is worth being profiled as accurately as possible.

3: No evidence for selected competencies

Often competencies are identified without supporting evidence in the job description. These may be based on the line manager’s intuition, knowledge of the organisation and role, and other similar undocumented criteria. Inclusion of such input may be valuable but poses a risk in terms of consistency and defensibility. If such criteria and competencies are critical to the role, then they should be included in an updated job description. An example we see often is the inclusion of Stress Resistance as a critical competency, without any evidence in the job description that the work environment is pressurised and stressful.

4: Are they really competencies?

Key examples of this point are “Leadership” and “Emotional Intelligence”. These are just two examples of constructs that are sometimes incorrectly labelled as competencies. Considering that competencies are the set of knowledge, skills and abilities/attributes required to perform tasks, “Leadership” and “Emotional Intelligence” are too broad to be measured in the same way as competencies. We should rather ask, what does the incumbent need to do that requires “Leadership” or "Emotional Intelligence”? This will allow the identification of more specific competencies that are the building blocks of these constructs. For example, “must be able to interact with different types of people” points to the competency of Adaptability.

5: Too many competencies selected

Selection of competencies is based on the inherent requirements of the job as determined by the goals, KPAs and tasks. Selecting many competencies therefore implies that there are many goals, KPAs and tasks. It is unrealistic to expect a single individual to achieve such a large number of goals. We have found that a profile of between six to eight competencies works best for selection and development. A greater number of competencies may indicate that the role has been poorly defined.

Furthermore, the greater the number of competencies, the more likely the overall competency fit will approach average, thereby adversely impacting the predictive validity of the profile.

6: Role fit, organisational fit, motivational fit

Thus far we have talked about competency profiles reflecting the requirements of the role. However, we have also seen organisations successfully include broader-level competencies in their profiles . This is especially relevant when the organisation has a well-articulated culture, and they want to ensure that new hires are a suitable fit. The overall number of competencies would still ideally need to be kept to between six to eight. Of these, perhaps three could apply to the organisational culture/ values and the remaining to the role. For example, a safety critical organisation could include safety-related competencies in all roles to build a pervasive culture of safety.

For interventions that are implemented across departments, job families/levels or similar, it may also be appropriate to utilise a single profile. This enables comparison of individuals against a set of common criteria, e.g., focusing on general leadership potential for succession planning.

7: Not involving all the key stakeholders

Talent management processes are sometimes mistakenly considered the responsibility of the HR practitioner. While HR may champion these processes, responsibility is shared with all participating stakeholders. As a result, competency profiling is sometimes left solely to HR. While this may often expedite the process, critical input is lost. We recommend that a profiling panel be nominated. At a minimum, this should include the hiring manager, a current incumbent, and an HR professional, together with peers, subordinates and internal clients if relevant. In other words, a 360-type approach. Inclusion of all these perspectives contributes to ensuring that the role is accurately and completely described.

8: Restricting to a category or trying to include all categories

Well-constructed competency libraries consist of different categories of competencies. However, it is not necessary for all of these categories to be represented in each competency profile. The selection of competencies depends on the requirements of the role, therefore a profile of a very operational role may not contain any conceptual type competencies.

9: Consideration of possible competing competencies

Once the profile has been made, it is important to consider how the competencies relate to each other to avoid including competencies that entail potentially conflicting behaviours. As an example, the competency Result-oriented involves being both competitive and self-disciplined. There may also be an element of cautiousness when creating plans to achieve goals. The competency Flexibility however relies on the opposite approach: being impulsive and taking action, despite there being no plan in place. Inclusion of both these competencies would therefore not be recommended, as the candidate is very unlikely to have high potential for both.

10: Not validating competency profiles

Utilising the judgement of a profiling panel and the available job information is without a doubt a very efficient method to arrive at a competency profile. However, regular review may not be sufficient to ensure long-term validity. Consider incorporating a quantitative approach into your method through the use of a profiling tool or research. Most quantitative methods can be combined with your accustomed qualitative method. Such an approach may be especially relevant for roles that are very new and therefore not well known/ documented in the organisation.

Online competency library and profiling tool

HFMtalentindex offers an online competency library and profiling app that allows you to build competency profiles online. You can immediately download the outcomes of your profile in a PDF.


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