Performance Management

What Are Job Competencies and Why Do They Matter?

June 17, 2020
June 23, 2022
Andy Przystanski
Lattice Team

“What does success look like?” Without context, that question is just too vague to answer.

That’s where job competencies come in. Simply put, a job competency is a skill or quality that an employee needs to have in order to succeed in their role. Managers use them to give feedback, have development conversations, and delegate tasks — and interviewers use them to assess job-fit.

Job competencies play an important role through the employee lifecycle, making them a top priority for HR and recruiting teams early on. If you’re just getting started with competencies, here’s everything you need to know.

Writing Job Competencies

Julie Jensen, Principal at Moxie HR Strategies, has spent over 20 years helping organizations get started with job competencies. As a first step, she recommends breaking your job competencies into two categories: company-wide and role-specific, with employees not being assigned more than five of each.

Company-wide competencies should be set by senior or executive leadership, with HR’s guidance. By definition, they’re broader in scope — meaning they could be applied to anyone regardless of their role. Jensen advised that HR teams look to their company values for inspiration.

“These competencies should mirror the company's values and the behaviors one would expect to see when an employee embodies that value. For example, if an organization has a value around providing excellent customer service, internally or externally, what does it look like when an employee is a role model of customer service?” Jensen said. Examples of other company-wide competencies include integrity, teamwork, and adaptability.

Meanwhile, role-specific competencies are — you guessed it — narrower in scope. They should be drafted in partnership with the people who are most familiar with the specifics of the job. “Role-specific competencies help define the technical or knowledge skills a group of professionals should have...These should be created by technical leaders who understand the nuances of a job and should be able to articulate the skills that are a requirement for success,” she said. Examples of role-specific competencies might include project management, analytical thinking, and writing.   

It's important to note that these are all skills or qualities, not responsibilities. While competencies are useful in assessing candidates and employees, they are distinct from more detailed job descriptions.

Assessing Performance and Job-Fit

While employee performance should be evaluated using both qualitative and quantitative criteria, managers shouldn’t rely on gut feel. Job competencies provide you with the ground rules you’ll need to review a job candidate or employee. For the latter, they’re also a powerful tool for steering development conversations.

“By identifying core competencies in a job description, we ultimately know what behavioral interviewing questions we need to ask to determine if someone is competent in those areas...When it is time for performance development conversations, the manager can also measure their direct reports' performance towards their position-specific competencies,” said Eric Mochnacz, HR Consultant at Red Clover. Job competencies give structure to interviews and performance conversations, as inexperienced managers can use them as a “cheat sheet” to remind them of what topics to cover. Performance against goals and OKRs provide additional context in assessing how strong an employee’s competencies are.

Even so, general phrases like “communication” or “teamwork” don’t always lend themselves to effective conversations. Jensen advised coupling every competency with an explanation, examples, or even sample questions. “Clearly defining and describing each level of competency is helpful for managers and employees to fully understand what it is that's being asked of them. It also helps take much of the subjectivity away when definitions contain tangible examples,” Jensen said.

Career Growth and Other Use Cases

Job competencies also help managers develop talent. “Assessing our team’s key competencies is really important in ensuring that both our business and each individual team member gets to grow with us and thrive,” said Mark Webster, co-founder of Authority Hacker. If an employee wants to learn a new skill, they can be assigned a new competency that falls outside of their current scope. Partnering with their manager, the employee can then start to draft goals corresponding to that new skill.

“We use [competencies] to put a bespoke plan in place and ensure that everyone develops their skillsets fully in a way that can properly be measured rather than something we just decide on a gut feeling,” Webster said. When it comes time to make the case for a promotion or shift in responsibilities, the individual can point to fulfilling their new competency’s requirements.

But that’s not all competencies can help with — managers can also use them to delegate and assign work suited to employees’ strengths or skills they're looking to improve on.

“When managers keep a finger on the pulse of employee competencies, they can manage and direct their teams much more effectively by picking the right people for different roles and tasks, and pairing the right combinations of workers for collaborative roles,” said John Moss, CEO of English Blinds. Similarly, competencies and past performance scores can help incoming managers better orient themselves and understand who excels at what. 

Revisiting Job Competencies

As company priorities shift, so do responsibilities. Make it a habit to regularly review job competencies. This should be an exercise that managers and direct reports go through at least twice a year.

“Managers should monitor and assess the competencies of their team on an ongoing basis, rather than only reflecting upon them in the run-up to performance reviews. If competencies are only considered occasionally, it’s easy to reflect only on the current state of play, or a significant or notable past incident or issue that remained memorable but that may not be representative,” Moss said.

Managers should seek reports’ input when reviewing or updating job competencies. On larger teams, managers can lose sight of day-to-day responsibilities and potentially mismatch (or overlook) competencies that are central to that specific employee. Further complicating things, employees sharing the same title may have vastly different responsibilities.

“Employees should always be able to share their views on which competencies they are benchmarked by and what their thoughts are on their performance. Yes, ultimately it’s up to the manager and company to define which competencies are appropriate...But remember that some roles have additional or niche competencies that aren't required of others,” he said.

Job competencies help guide conversations about performance and growth. But on their own, they aren’t enough to develop a healthy feedback culture. Giving feedback — be it to your reports, peers, or manager, is one of the hardest skills to master and is often easier to avoid than develop.

In Getting Feedback Culture Right at Your Company, we’ll walk you through the value of feedback and how to get the rest of your company on board. Download the free ebook by clicking here.