Human Resources

Introduction to Competency-Based Hiring

Core competencies have been applied to other aspects of management and have become a key strategy in the hiring process. Program directors and human resources managers can use this resource in establishing personnel policies for selecting and hiring new staff. This article explores competency-based hiring and how organizations can best use this technique in the hiring process.

Over the past few years, there has been a lot of talk about utilizing core competencies in the hiring process. You may be wondering what exactly core competencies are and how they can help your organization make better hires.

The term core competency was originally introduced in 1990 by the Harvard Business Review to describe the management concept of corporations possessing specialized expertise in a specific area. Corporations quickly adopted the concept of core competencies to communicate what they did "best" and to leverage the competitive advantages of their brands.

Since then, core competencies have been applied to other aspects of management and have become a key strategy in the hiring process. This article explores competency-based hiring and how nonprofit organizations can best use this technique in the hiring process.

What Is Competency-Based Hiring?

An individual's core competencies are determined by two groups of factors: (1) skills, knowledge, and technical qualifications and (2) behavioral characteristics, personality attributes, and individual aptitudes. Although traditional hiring has focused primarily on evaluating a candidate's skills and technical qualifications, a competency-based approach includes an analysis of a candidate's behavioral characteristics as well. Competency-based hiring is grounded in the identification of core competencies required for success and the subsequent evaluation of each candidate's demonstration of those competencies in their past experiences.

From a hiring perspective, there are two different kinds of core competencies: position-specific and organizational. The following is a brief overview of each type.

Position-specific competencies refer to the abilities and behavioral characteristics required for success in a specific role. These characteristics may include attributes of an individual's work style as well as personal qualities such as being analytical, resourceful, flexible, or creative.

Organizational competencies refer to the qualities and attributes that characterize success across an entire organization. These competencies include fit with the organization's management style, risk tolerance, work pace and volume, employee demographics, and physical environment. Organizational competencies play a major role in determining what type of people will "fit" in an organization, regardless of their specific roles. For example, a bureaucratic, autonomous manager may not succeed in a management role at a highly entrepreneurial nonprofit where all decisions are made by consensus.

Sample Core Competencies

  Development Director, Tutoring Organization Program Associate, Youth-Outreach Organization
Position-Specific Competencies

Develop and maintain effective relationships

Use innovation and creativity to create opportunities

Motivate participants through ongoing support and dedication

Demonstrate awareness of the community and ability to translate needs into services

Organizational Competencies

Focus on demonstrable results in every aspect of work

Be entrepreneurial, take action, show initiative

Value every person, regardless of circumstance and past experience

Demonstrate personal self-awareness and be reflective

Core Competencies in Action

The first step in adopting a competency-based hiring model is to determine both the organizational and position-specific competencies required for a given position. To figure out organizational competencies, we recommend convening a focus group or implementing a carefully crafted survey to identify the top three to five characteristics and traits that typically make someone successful within the organization. Be sure to include all key stakeholders, including management, staff, board members, funders, and other constituents as appropriate. In order to determine position-specific competencies, you will want to employ a similar process, focusing on those who know the position best. Depending on your organization, it may also be helpful to define department-specific competencies, particularly for highly specialized departments such as finance or development.

After you have determined the competencies for a given position, you can use this information to inform all subsequent stages of your recruitment and hiring process. For example, your job description should focus on the core competencies successful candidates will demonstrate, not just academic or technical qualifications. In terms of recruitment, a focus on core competencies will lead to a broader candidate pool because you will be seeking professionals who possess the desired competencies required for a position but may come from less traditional backgrounds. To learn more about developing your search strategy and recruitment plan, select this link.

Using core competencies to drive the screening and interviewing phases of the hiring process will provide more relevant information upon which to base hiring decisions than matching candidates against a list of requirements or assessing whether the hiring manager "likes" the candidate. We recommend using behavioral interviewing, which refers to asking questions that require candidates to describe past experiences in which they were able to demonstrate specific competencies. Based in the premise that "past behavior predicts future behavior," research and experience have found behavioral interviewing to be a more effective way of gauging how each candidate has performed in certain types of situations and therefore how successful each may be in a certain role. To learn more about behavioral interviewing, select this link.

Hiring and Beyond

Adopting a competency-based hiring model requires an investment of time and effort up front, but that investment is well worth the effort because it enables you to make more appropriate and sophisticated hiring decisions. After the hire is made, core competencies continue to be useful in setting goals and positioning new hires for success, identifying areas for professional development, and making appropriate decisions about future promotions and raises. These factors lead to increased employee engagement and retention, two hallmarks of successful organizations.