Every so often I get asked to recommend a hiring tool that meets some very simple criteria:
- Incorporates existing company competencies
- Fixes a chronic performance problem
- Is inexpensive
- Is easy to use
In this article, we’ll focus on the criteria related to competencies. Sorry folks, this criteria should be stored in the same place as the perpetual motion machine, the car that gets 100 mpg, the cure for balding and big hips, and the diet that makes every woman look like George Clooney and every man like Catherine Zeta-Jones (sorry, got that backwards!). That is, it’s only in our dreams. On the surface it sounds so simple. Why not use competencies that already exist? After all, the organization spent considerable time and effort developing a competency model; executives bought in to it emotionally and financially; the model is widely distributed throughout the entire organization; and employees are earnestly trying to use it. So what’s wrong? Simple. An existing competency model will probably self-destruct within three to five years. Why? Because home-grown competency models are seldom more than a missal from executives outlining what employees are expected to do; they’re not scientifically identified competencies that define job requirements and business necessity. In trying to be all things to all people, a generic competency list actually becomes confusing and useless. Then what? Instead of seamlessly integrating hiring, training, and performance management, it confuses them. Thought Leadership and the Intent of Competencies Achieving consistently high employee performance is a simple process: 1) know exactly what skills the job requires; 2) be sure each applicant (or jobholder) has matching skills; and 3) give the jobholder clear direction and feedback. In theory, it works like a three-legged performance stool. In practice, employees describe it more like a one-legged stool without the seat. What happens when an organization has no effective competency list?
- Screeners are not able to effectively screen-out applicants who anticipate “canned” questions and prepare “textbook” responses. The operating mantra for screeners: “Questions! Questions! Where can I find better questions?”
- Employed managers and employees either tend to do today what they did yesterday or spontaneously react to random events (i.e., the “whack a mole” style). As a result, the employee discovers what he or she was supposed to do last year, but only during this year’s performance review. Too late! The operating mantra for managers and employees: “Lead! Follow! Get out of the way! We’ll tell you what later!”
- HR tends to stand on the sidelines holding placards that say, “Sign up here for workshops your manager will probably never support!” Workshops become short, on-the-job vacations measured by the quality of food and “smile sheets” at the end. The operating mantra for HR: “We may not be respected by management, but we’re very good at it!”
- Meanwhile, senior managers sit around the boardroom table, first complaining that the company won’t go the right direction, then resorting to budget-based amputations that lead to short-term financial gains. The mantra for senior managers: “Motivate or amputate!”
Some Real-World Competency Examples Here are a few competencies posted on the Web by a state civil service department. Read them carefully:
- Values diversity in hiring choices, assignments, teams, and interactions.
- Uses efficient and cost-effective approaches to integrate technology into the workplace and improve program effectiveness.
- Sees most of the forces, events, entities, and people that are affecting (or are being affected by) the situation at hand.
- Weighs the costs, benefits, risks, and chances for success, in making a decision.
Yes, they all sound nice. And, yes, I’m sure that many people in that state have a politically vested interest in them (for now, anyway). But let’s tease them apart to see which one is likely to survive. Competency 1: “Values diversity in hiring choices, assignments, teams, and interactions.”
Article Continues Below
Guide: Practical Tips for Remote Hiring
- Can a “value” be taught or managed?
- How can we know whether or not someone “values” a hiring choice or team assignment? What does valuing an interaction mean?
- Can a manager direct a subordinate to “value” something he or she might be opposed to?
- Can a trainer change a person’s value system using a workshop?
- What does “diversity” mean? Diversity of people? Skills? Backgrounds?
- How can this be fairly and accurately evaluated? Manager: “You didn’t value diversity!” Employee: “Did so!”
Competency 2: “Uses efficient and cost-effective approaches to integrate technology into the workplace and improve program effectiveness.”
- Does “efficient” have a universally accepted definition between subordinate and manager?
- What does “integrating technology” mean and how is it measured?
- How is “program effectiveness” evaluated?
- Does the employee have the appropriate authority?
Competency 3: “Sees most of the forces, events, entities, and people that are affecting (or are being affected by) the situation at hand.”
- What “forces at hand”? Economic, political, financial, social, environmental?
- What is an “entity” or an “event”?
- How could anyone ever identify whether this was done or not without subjectively evaluating the results?
Competency 4: “Weighs the costs, benefits, risks, and chances for success, in making a decision.” Bingo! This is the only competency that will probably survive, because it can be used to define specific decisions for each jobholder (management), can be used to evaluate applicants in a reasonable period of time (hiring), and can be used by the training department to develop programs (development). Furthermore, it can be backed with documentation illustrating costs, benefits, risks, and chances for success. Subjectivity is minimized and personal accountability is maximized while meeting all three HR objectives. Conclusion Home-grown competency lists almost always look better on paper than they do in practice. That’s why a professional can seldom do much with an existing list without first carefully working through the list, tweaking and tuning each competency where possible. Anything else will just waste time and money by raising management, recruiting or training confusion. Where does than leave senior managers who think they have finally discovered the “golden key” to success or developers who think they have finally earned executive respect? That depends on how they handle the next step. In the next article, we’ll focus on fixing chronic performance problems.