Recruiting Using a Competency-Based Approach

article by Dr. John Sullivan & Master Burnett

As advisors to a number of leading organizations, it is safe to say that we have seen multiple implementations of nearly every recruiting model and tool available not just in the United States, but abroad as well. That scope of access lends one an insane ability to look at an organization, its characteristics and people, and within seconds assess the probability of success or failure at adopting a new tool or model. For more than nine years, we have observed as organization after organization implemented competency profiling relative to training and development, recruitment, retention, and workforce planning efforts (including succession planning). Early adopters included the throng of U.S.-based industrial giants, most of whom employed hundreds of organizational psychologists. Since then, competency profiling has been deployed in nearly every type of organization, from small high-technology start-ups, to federal, state, and local governments. What has been amazing is that nearly every implementation has followed the exact same path.

What Is a Competency-Based Approach?

Using the language of those who earn their living selling and marketing competency-based solutions, a competency-based recruiting approach relies on using a series of assessment tools that identify not only the technical skills a candidate possesses, but his behavioral competencies as well. A competency is often defined as “an underlying, deep, and enduring personal characteristic of an individual that predicts behavior in a wide variety of situations and results in effective or superior performance.” The approach relies on building complex job profiles that look at the responsibilities and activities of the job and the competencies required to accomplish them. The detailed process looks like this:

  1. Define organizational culture
  2. Define essential job activities and responsibilities.
  3. Define technical competencies and skills required.
  4. Define behavioral competencies.
  5. Define competencies and behavioral indicators.

This approach is intended to take candidate assessment out of the realm of subjective evaluation and place it squarely under the realm of science, providing organizations with a consistent process and common language with which to assess talent.

If It Works, Why Do So Many Organizations Abandon Their Implementations?

Earlier, we mentioned that nearly every implementation has followed the exact same path. Those of you who have gone down the competency road probably guessed immediately what that path was, but for those of you who have yet to learn your lesson, that path includes internal evangelism, adoption, implementation, confusion, defense, defense, relative clarity, abandonment! That’s right, almost every major competency project we have witnessed has ended in failure, usually right around the three-year mark. For some large organizations the decision to abandon their approach came after investing millions of dollars in new tools, training, job assessment, and technology to power the new model. For one Fortune 500 organization, the 31-month price tag totaled more than $18.6 million. So why, you may ask, do so many implementations fail? The answer to that is long and complicated, but the short of it is that most implementations are nothing more than extremely expensive processes that ensure maintenance of the status quo.

Four Primary Drivers of Failure

Prior to deciding to write this article, Master Burnett and I discussed what we have observed as well as what others in our position have observed. What became clear during the course of this discussion is that most implementations have the following three characteristics that drive failure. Each of these is discussed briefly in the following paragraphs:

  • A process that does not re-evaluate how work is broken down into specific jobs to ensure that the bundling of activities is consistent with the available workforce
  • A job analysis process that is reliant upon observing incumbents to determine past success characteristics
  • A guiding perspective that considers time sensitive team dynamics such as leadership personality, economic conditions, new technologies, and geography irrelevant

Just Because Work Has Always Been Broken Down a Certain Way, That Doesn’t Mean It’s the Right Way!

One of the most irritating elements that we witness during the development and implementation of competencies is that no one ever asks if the way work is broken down into specific jobs is relevant, according to current labor market conditions. New technologies, as well as variations in the supply of labor that impact labor costs, should impact how work is delegated. In the past, it may have made sense to hire a labor generalist that had enough depth in a variety of technical skills to carry out a bundle of activities, but that doesn’t mean that approach will always be the right one. For example, let’s look at financial auditors. Historically, auditors were charged with identifying and procuring information needed, analyzing that information for breaks in patterns, documenting errors, and writing reports. The typical educational profile for an auditor emphasizes the financial analysis skills required, yet one of the job activities requires both personal and written communication skills. A competency profile developed against this traditional job would dictate that strong written communication skills are essential to success irrespective of the current labor market. Financial analysis is an activity that can be accomplished much more quickly using specialists, which are in far greater supply if you remove the language component. Splitting this job could allow the actual analysis to be outsourced offshore, and the use of English-language specialists to document and write all reports ó a combination which would increase quality, decrease cost, and increase volume. While redistributing work may not always be required, the question should at the very least get asked!

Historical Job Analysis

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This element is perhaps the most comical. Every vendor of competency-based solutions states that job analysis is conducted against the position itself, not people. However, in reality, the process requires that you look at top performing incumbents to map their behavioral profiles. That’s pretty much where the process stops. Several assumptions are made, including:

  • That the top-performing incumbents previously hired possess the right skills and competencies possible. (What if you haven’t hired the best talent to do the job?)
  • That because this profile has worked in the past, it will work in the future.
  • The present skills and behaviors that map to success are not influenced by team dynamics. (If dynamics were to change, would the top-performer profile change?)

The world is changing at a phenomenal pace, and how we accomplish work is changing just as quickly. Most competency-mapping methodologies rely on job analysis processes that are historically oriented and time consuming. On average it takes 90 days to complete a profile for a single job family. It’s quite possible the job could have changed significantly in the time it takes just to create the profile!

Irrelevant dynamics

A friend recently started a diet plan that is managed by a bariatric physician ó a diet doctor. At the consultation, the doctor placed her on a 1,200-calorie diet, the same diet he prescribes to everyone. He didn’t ask anything about day-to-day activities, exercise routine, etc. Upon hearing this I told her the doctor was a quack and she should seek a second opinion. Since the doctor was a board-certified diet doctor, she opted instead to follow his advice. Weeks later, her hair was falling out, her thyroid was out of control, and she could not stand without getting dizzy — not a good combination for a massage therapist who runs six miles a day and works with free weights for an hour, four days a week! What this doctor did is similar to what most competency projects do. He ignored the dynamics of the situation. On-the-job performance is impacted by a number of factors, including:

  • The relationship of an employee with his or her managers and peers
  • The economy
  • The work environment
  • Family events

To assume that a profile will be consistent across a job family is to assume that employees operate in a vacuum controlled environment; something we all know is not the case. I am sure every organization can find at least one example of a top-performing sales professional whose performance declined following the introduction of a new sales manager. Did that top performing sales professional’s competency profile change, or did the dynamics change?


One should never say that’ll never work, and that is not what we are saying here. Failure is a phenomenal educator, so if we learn from past mistakes, maybe we can craft a better solution in the future. Lots of organizations have tried competencies; lots of organizations have failed. This article has outlined three possible causes of failure that, hopefully, those of you who are using or are considering using competencies will take into consideration. One additional element that could have been added is that most employers and managers perceive the systems developed using competencies to be no less subjective or more clear than previous systems, so don’t rely on that as your sole defense.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



14 Comments on “Recruiting Using a Competency-Based Approach

  1. This is George Orwell all over again – Watch out Folks Big Daddy is watching you..At home and At work, at Play.

    Question why not just Clone your best, and leave the rest? Aw wait scientists are actually thinking about that Want to clone your best workers? Cloning Pioneer Uses Employees Eggs

    Soon we will have to watch our Gene Pools if we want to work in any company..

    Be yourself, be different, have a life? – what an interesting Concept, sorry ? Fageddaboutit – too novel of an idea..

  2. From Dr. Sullivan, whose articles normally represent a flourescent light among the soft reading lights, so to speak, this article was not as distingushable as usual for it’s illuminating qualities.

    There is even a bit of contradiction perceived by this reader, where Dr. Sullivan gives the example that the financial analyst competency may not need to include language or communication competency as a core competency, thereby broadening the potential candidate pool.

    Then, later, he indicates that skills do not operate within a vaccum, referencing a situation where someone’s performance suffers, no matter their core competencies, after having to work with a new manager.

    I do agree that there are many ways to determine how talent readily available in the marketplace can be embraced by companies, while preserving the quality needed to perform the functions of the company well. Competency interviewing may not always ensure perfect results, but I’m not sure the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater, especially in the absence of, as per this article at least, a major alternative method.

    Article series 2 forthcoming, Dr. Sullivan?

    Oh, and Karen, I’m unsure what your observances were on this article with your tongue-in-cheek reply and reference toward gene pool tampering? I hardly think Dr. Sullivan was inferring that the only answer to finding worthy talent was to clone it? If your perceptions of the article evoke even joking references to Orwellian prophecies, doesn’t the ‘EEO machine’ fall into that category?

  3. I hardly know where to begin.

    Who would have thought that the 6000 members of the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, the 235 graduate schools of major universities, and the Department of Labor were wrong-headed when they thought it was a good idea to do job analysis, validate tests, and attempt to move hiring decisions away from the subjectivity of interviews?

    What could they have been thinking?

    If companies don’t believe applicant competency is important to job performance, then can anyone please explain why recruiters have jobs?

  4. Deborah,
    Yes indeed tongue and cheek – With Respect can you explain your question regarding the EEO? I don’t understand.

    Another Tongue and Cheek Response to the other Dr. – re testing – I do so wonder how many companies so managed to Become what they are prior to the Era of testing –

    Actually as I said earlier – personally I think that the Employment/Work Environment was better many decades before.

    Today companies have gotten So Hocus Pocus – Voodoo Metrics Focused that they have forgotten the Human Factor of Employment – The People that are there, who are working for them

    The Retirement gold Watch, hmm – today if you find anyone who believes that they will be employed long enough at the same company – to enjoy the fruits of their labor I will be shocked. Employees don’t believe in loyalty to their companies, and the same goes for Companies creating an environment to promote company loyalty.

    Employment today is Not about Enjoying your job, having fun, be excited.. Today it is about How do I keep my job, do anything even if it is against my grain to ‘fit in’ to a culture that doesn’t allow me to express me.. My Personal Self.

    Gee this does remind me the Great Depression Era.. Narcissitic, everyone for themselves, self centered..

    It’s a big squeeze – What can I get from you and how much more – Oh, you are dried up? See Ya.. Nexxxxxt?!!!

    History does repeat itself, and this too will change again.. The patterns of Personal Touch will once again be implemented back into the workforce. The only question is When.

    It will start with looking at the How we train, retain, and Maintain our current employees, make them greater, better, rather than findways to replace!

    It is starting already – Companies are starting to implement a more work friendly environment – education is becoming a focus, and we are seeing even small companies provide education, better work friendly environments..

    Retention and Prevention will Be the new Mantra.

    No more of this War for Talent and New Hire Metrics

    Retention and prevention – what a great concept, don’t you think?

  5. The article reflects what I have also seen -or heard of- at several occasions: an ambitious project, well-funded, well-defined, with executive sponsorship that unfortunately end-up being cancelled without any results (which is actually the reason why it is cancelled).

    Dr Sullivan seems to be very cautious to put the blame on the implementation rather than on the concept itself.

    Rather than a review, I would like to ask this question: Is competency-based recruiting still relevant in a world where job definitions are changing at such a fast pace, and are increasingly adapted to the talent who is being hired?

  6. This is a very telling and insightful article about why predictive modeling in the HR space tends to go off-track and ultimately become discarded.

    However, I would strongly argue that companies shouldn?t abandon the predictive modeling idea (or using competencies or behavior to determine future likelihood of success). It is a valid approach – although it may need more refinement.

    Just consider the consumer world. Companies like and others rely on predictive modeling software to identify behavior that indicates propensity to buy as well as propensity to churn (or separate from the company). And, predictive modeling has become a key component of their up-sell and retention strategy.

    However, after doing predictive modeling for many years (primarily for consumer goods companies), I have learned that predictive modeling is both an art and a science. Companies need to understand that concept ? ahead of time.

    Here?s why: Predictive modeling is based on defined data sets. That means that only behavior quantified by the data will be analyzed. Outside factors that can influence behavior will not be considered.

    Just think about churn (or ?separation?) in the mobile phone industry. One of the drivers of subscriber churn is a new job. A subscriber often leaves his current phone provide because his new employer has a contract with a different mobile phone provider or the employer is located in an area not serviced by the subscriber?s current provider.

    No amount of data can predict this type of churn because mobile phone companies don?t have insight into whether 1) Subscribers are looking for a job 2) Subscribers are looking outside the mobile phone company?s coverage area and 3) Subscribers are interviewing with employers that have contracts with other providers.

    So, while predictive models are good, they can?t possibly predict everything. Outside factors also influence behavior ? and that can?t be overstated.

    So, it?s critical that when predictive modeling systems (or competency-based systems) get sold into the organization, the proper expectations are set.

    At the same time, organizations must understand that behavior, as well as outside influences, change over time.

    In the consumer world, new competitors enter the marketplace and the company ?experience? evolves (ideally for the better). Thus, data sets must evolve as well. Just looking at a snapshot of behavioral data from three years ago won?t predict current buy or churn behavior. Dr. Sullivan points this out nicely.

    Even so, I think there are real opportunities for predictive modeling in the recruiting space. However, companies should understand that they are not going to find a panacea. Nor are they going to find an easy solution. But with the proper expectations, commitment, data analytics and management support, I believe predictive modeling can help companies identify and recruit talent with the most effective competencies for its ever-changing workplace.

  7. Thank all of you for the postings on this topic and for the e-mails that came in offline.

    Romuald, you are right that we attribute the blame to implementation. To Dr. William’s point, a great deal of research and validation studies have been conducted on this topic that point that it could be successfull. This article was not intended to challenge the concept, but rather the framing of competency projects.

    More often than not they fail. It’s a fact, not an opinion. Despite spending insane amounts of money, most organizations oversimplify the insanely complex task of mapping the environmental variables surrounding employee performance. Mapping them over a six month period of time and then assuming that they do not change is nuts.

    We live in a society that is changing by leaps and bounds each day. Relying on methodologies that assume a slower pace of change or consistency isn’t wise.

    If competency profiles could be developed and adjusted on the fly, maybe they world work, but the plain truth of the matter is that they are not working now!

  8. There are many reasons why companies fail using competencies, I’ll list a few:

    1) Homegrown: not all things that sound like competencies are measureable. Sometimes what ‘passes’ for a competency is actually a job clarification or description of performance. In this case competency-based systems fail becasue they initially sound good, but time proves them immeasurable.

    2) Lack of buy-in: only about 20% of managers have demonstrated skills for management. Most were rewarded for past performance as a job-holder. As such, they tend to hold two incompatible beliefs: 1) they are a great judge of people; and 2) they are not responsible for the incompetent people they hire.

    3) No consistent language of performance: It seems like every trainer and HR practitioner has their own definitions for competencies. For example, consider the number of different definitions of ‘Leadership’. Setting and evaluating performance is most often a confusing, conflicting Tower of Babel.

    4) One-size-fits-does-not-fit-all: Few competencies, with the exception of teamwork and initiative, ‘cut across’ all jobs in an organization. The solution is to work from a ‘family core’ perspective.

    5) Performance is not fully understood: Bad performers often provide more information about critical competencies than good performers. A trustworthy job analysis examines top performers, bottom performers, managers, and visionary managers. That is, a professional JA considers both today’s requrements and future requirements.

    6) Irrelevant Dynamics: Bad management or poor working conditions can always undermine job performance. Inept organizations deserve to fail. However, anyone claiming consistent success turning incompetent people into competent ones should change their meds. Good management encourages competency…it does not transform incompetency.

    7) Jobs change: That is what HR is supposed to be responsible for. Why are they not on top of it?

    8) ‘Could’ be successful? Sorry, competency-based hiring has been around slightly more than three thousand years…it is hardly a new concept. Companies who use it find it doubles personal productivity and halves turnover. Why? It screens out blatantly unqualified applicants based on proven techniques and methodologies BEFORE the job does.

    9) Our field needs to wake up and smell the coffee, realizing that: 1) interviews have a long history of inaccuracy; 2) a professionally done job analysis is the most effective way to understand job requirements; 3) absolutely everything is about job competency; and, 4) management will NEVER respect professionals who do not adopt professional standards.

  9. I’m impressed….you’ve obviously put a lot of thought into this. Retention and prevention…pretty catchy…isn’t it? And unfortunately it is already the mantra that too many of us in the recruiting world have become accustomed to

  10. Shawndell,
    thanks for your response – yep, I have put a lot of thought in this – and personally I would prefer to recruit for a company who has instilled a synergy with their employees and instilled within their Corporate Culture an employee valued environment.

    Recently Companies have been promoting the Same Cookie Cutter Approach for Employment issues – focusing on HOW do we Attract more and better new employees?

    They seemed to have stopped asking Hey, what is wrong here – what are we doing wrong, why aren’t we keeping employees? No more is the focus on Maintaining the Current workforce

    I know of companies having 300 internal recruiters for 3000 Employees.. hmm.. something is wrong with that picture? .. Lot’s of turnover wouldn’t you say.. not to mention a high overhead..

    Wowzie, what are they doing to make sure their employees don’t want to leave? How about implementing structure within the company to keep people on board.. What about Internal Promotions? Education and Training?

    This not the type of company I can feel comfortable being the Ambassador of ? why would I want to present Passive Candidates who are currently employed in a more Stable Environment to put them in a company who has no interest in them as a person and their only concerns will be ?what have you done for me lately?. If I wouldn?t feel comfortable working there, why would I want to consider placing someone in that type of environment?

  11. Jennifer made very good comments on predictive modeling.
    There are few things that I would like to add on these comments:

    In my experience predictive models are either constructed from a bottom-up or top-down perspectives

    The bottom-up approach is based on statistics which implies several things:
    (1) you need to have enough volume of data to have statistics
    (2) you need to acknowledge that you are dealing with averages, which results in accepting to have some individuals that will/won’t go through while they shouldn’t/should (talent or lack of off the chart)

    The top-down approach goes with an expert modeling the job requirements, which again implies several things
    (1) the job is understood enough so that it can be modeled
    (2) the job is stable enough in its responsibilities and requirements so that it can be modeled

    To summarize, IMHO:
    – Modeling work well with high-volume, stable, well-understood jobs.
    Another characteristic is that these jobs are often not strategic in the sense that one bad hiring wouldn’t affect significantly the business.
    – For jobs where responsibilies and requirements are a moving target, or where you cannot afford to let go a talentuous individual, or where you cannot afford to hire the wrong individual, predictive modeling has been of little help in my experience.

  12. Dr. William’s raises very many good points. If only:
    –All managers were quality managers skilled in managing
    –Human beings were as consistent in processing language as machines
    –Organizations had the bandwidth to maintain an array of competencies
    –Working environments didn’t change so frequently
    yadda, yadda, yadda.

    In a perfect world like an academically constructed validation study, I?m sure the instruments would work, but time and time again organizations have entrusted the vendors and paid them millions only to find that the world isn’t perfectly controlled.

    I have seen some success relative to high volume limited scope roles, but for the vast majority of professional roles, implementation after implementation proves useless.

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