One-Size-Fits-All Competency Lists?

Every so often I write about the benefits of doing a job analysis to discover critical job competencies. No sooner are the electrons dry than I hear from one or more folks who politely point out that a job analysis is no longer necessary. They explain that a consortium of people have already banded together to build a common list of competencies; some trade group or a government project already did the work. The implication is that I’m pushing some unnecessary egghead agenda. Is this true? I’ll let the reader decide. Competencies: Is the Name Enough? The purpose of competencies is to define requirements of the job. This may be to improve hiring quality, clarify expectations between manager and jobholder, or build a training curriculum. But the name is not important ó it is the application and representative job activities that define it. Take for example, problem solving ability. This is a popular competency that applies to most jobs. Almost everyone knows problem solving is important, but the name is only the start. Smart people need to know how problem solving differs for an engineer, an auditor, a salesperson, or a clerk. How about an engineer who designs bridges? Roadways? Sewers? How about an engineer who designs bridges in the desert? Mountains? Coastlines? It is helpful to know that problem solving is required for the job. But it is even more important to realize how problem solving is applied on the specific job. It takes more than a diploma and a competency to produce a capable employee. Competencies: Equally Important? Sometimes I hear about people averaging together competency ratings to get one overall pass/fail rating. Averaging may seems like a good idea at the time, but not all competencies are created equal. For example, is the competency of problem solving more, equally, or less important than the competency of written communication? You’re starting to catch on if you answered that it depends on the kind of written communication involved. Writing official standards which other people might follow, for example, could be highly critical; writing memos and emails may be less important. Can these subtleties be captured in a great big list of generic job competencies? Are Jobs With the Same Title Identical? We mentioned earlier that jobs with the same titles may or may not be the same. In almost every organization I work with, I hear the same mantra, “Our jobs are different.” In many cases they are right. The jobs have entirely different cultural expectations. I once worked with a public utility, for example, where, because of the long-static nature of the industry, people were highly risk-averse. On the other hand, I also worked with a utility faced with plenty of competition, where a person with the same job title would have to be more entrepreneurial. Organizations that use content validity (i.e., the content of the test resembles the content of the job) are expected to rank-order competencies so the most important ones rise to the top of the list. This usually changes from company to company ó and sometimes from department to department. Are Managers’ Expectations Alike? I once worked for a manager who thought I walked on water (he was very insightful and perceptive). Unfortunately, the poor guy got caught in a corporate reorganization and was terminated. His replacement was a first-class… (you fill in the blank). The replacement bragged consistently about his accomplishments, had stolen confidential documents from his last employer, never called department meetings to discuss plans and goals, and became furious when asked for guidance. In the eyes of this manager I could do nothing right. Did the job competencies change? How would these differences be accounted for in a generic competency list? Does Everyone Share the Same Business Plan? There is a false belief that your competition knows more than you do. I suppose this is easy to believe, but as someone who travels from one company to the next, you would be surprised how many big-name organizations you would NOT want to emulate. Some, for example believe in cutting the bottom 10% of their workforce each year regardless of performance; others cannot decide on how many fatal accidents per year they will accept. Some believe it’s a good idea for people to compete with each other for internal resources; others think isolating recruiting from HR is a good idea. Some believe interviews are not tests; others have separate, and totally incompatible, competency lists depending on department. I could go on, but the bottom line is your competitor probably knows a whole lot less than you think. Want some free advice? Be your own best-practice organization. Adverse Impact, Anyone? There is a budding social activist on every street corner looking for a “just cause” (i.e., one that will advance his/her personal ambitions at someone else’s expense). The Uniform Guidelines (the only best-practice model I could recommend) says before you use someone else’s competencies or validation work, you should verify that your own job is highly similar (i.e., do a job analysis). This is not a silly idea the government invented to make our lives more complicated. It means someone thought common sense had to be legislated; that is, organizations should be certain “what they want” is “what they get.” Since big organizations should be monitoring adverse impact anyway, and since ignorance of the law is a sorry excuse for unfair hiring practices, no organization should be so confused it needs to reference an outside standard to define its internal workings. Conclusion Think of external competency guides in the same terms as the self-help advice you read about in magazines. They can serve as guides, a source of ideas, or an incentive to action. But using them as a substitute for best practices is a sure sign of worst practices.

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