Why Competency-based Selection Should Be in Your Toolkit

Competency-based selection (also known as behavioral selection) is a well-known selection method about which many books have been written, and many training courses delivered. Despite this, in my conversations with other in-house recruitment teams, it has surprised me how few companies apply the technique as part of their recruitment methodology.

I therefore thought that it might be helpful if I provided an overview of the concepts and logic behind this system. Whether or not you choose to actually apply the process, I certainly think it should be given consideration first.

Key Advantages of Competency-based Selection

  • Improved objectivity, leading to truer talent acquisition
  • Consistency in hiring decisions
  • Legal protection for the employer
  • Improved consensus on hires across multiple stakeholders

How it Works
The intention of a competency-based assessment is to move hiring decisions away from the classic intuition-led process (i.e. away from: “I feel that this person would be a great hire”). Instead, the system brings in a certain amount of objectivity, replacing much of the subjectivity of traditional assessments. Candidates are not primarily assessed or rated based upon their aspirations, opinions, or similar. Rather, the underlying premise is that we can anticipate how a candidate will behave in a role in the future through an assessment of their behavior in the past.

In competency-based interviews, questions are asked that require reference to specific events (e.g. “When was the last time you were overwhelmed by your workload?”). Candidates are discouraged from giving general answers and asked to focus on specific incidents. By examining how a candidate has actually approached real situations in the past, we can judge more accurately how they will act again in similar circumstances.

I state above that this is a “certain” amount of objectivity, rather than total objectivity, because no selection system can be expected to entirely remove opinion. However, what competency-based selection does is provide substantial justification for recruitment decisions. By drawing upon multiple sources and contributors, and aggregating the data drawn from these interviews, the outcome ceases to be an individual manager’s choice and instead becomes a consensus. This means that new hires will have the buy-in of all stakeholders, improving prospects for their successful induction into the company. It also results (through keeping the structured interview notes from each interviewer) in a substantial body of evidence to justify hiring decisions, protecting employers from litigation.

Setting the Target
In order to be able to make a judgment on a candidate’s capability, we need to have a frame of reference to set them against. This is something that is individual to every business, as no two organizations have the same expectations. Candidates need to be assessed against defined personality traits (competencies) appropriate to the role in question. Typically these competencies will be drawn from a large global framework, in combinations that are different for each business area (as different departments will need different profiles).

Competencies tend to measure behaviors such as Adaptability, Working under pressure, Customer management, and so on. A candidate’s interview performance against each competency is related to “Key Actions” and other criteria that the employer has defined as belonging to the trait in question.

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Rating the Candidate
By asking a series of specific questions (at Red Hat we provide interviewers with the questions they need in a formal interview guide, customized for each business area) and rating the capability that the candidate has demonstrated in their answers against the chosen competencies, the interviewer has all that they need to move into the process of decision-making.

All interviewers gather together (virtually, where required) to discuss their findings. The different scores that they have each given to the candidate are compared and discussed, enabling agreement of an overall score for the candidate against each competency. It is these competency scores that are then used to decide whether to pursue a candidate further or not.

In the process of discussing their findings, there will be differences of opinion between interviewers. That is where the interviewer’s notes are essential, as all decisions on scoring need to be justified by findings from the interview. I’ve found that an interviewer knowing that they will have to justify their score encourages a high-level of self-discipline in producing these notes. Thus there is no room left for hunches and loosely-explained opinions, which as I stated at the start is one of the intentions and benefits of a competency-based system.

We’ve seen why a competency-based selection system can benefit businesses in a number of directions. By having a consistent and objective process in place, employers are not only being transparent and fair to candidates, but they are also greatly reducing corporate risk from litigation associated with decisions that can be challenged as unfair or discriminatory.

Perhaps most importantly, introducing this objectivity helps ensure that organizations are truly hiring the best talent, which is ultimately our goal as recruiters.

Tim Marston is the Senior EMEA Recruiter for Red Hat, Inc., an NYSE-listed software company. He is responsible for Red Hat's recruitment activities across the EMEA region, and is particularly passionate about selection process. Prior to this, he spent several years as a recruitment consultant, establishing the first dedicated recruitment service for agile software development teams.


7 Comments on “Why Competency-based Selection Should Be in Your Toolkit

  1. In this article, it sounds like competency-based selection is an option to traditional hiring. It really is not. Consider this: People need specific competencies to do a specific job, right? And, any old competency will NOT do…recruiters need to find people with specific competencies for specific jobs.

    Once a recruiter knows what competencies fit the job, he or she has to test (aka interview) each applicant to determine whether the applicant has them. Behavioral interviewing is just one testing technique (i.e., BI is based on the theory if XYZ competency is required for the future job, a successful applicant should probably be able to tell stories about its successful application in past jobs).

    So, I ask…if you are not interviewing (i.e., verbally testing) the applicant in the hopes of determining specific competencies for a specific job, then what exactly is the purpose of the interview?

  2. Hi Wendell, you are quite right. I don’t see competency-based selection as an option, and I see BI as an essential part of that (other testing methods have value too, but I see BI as key).

    I’ve seen that many organisations (surprisingly) do not apply a consistent structure like this (BI-based or not), partly due to a lack of awareness/understanding on their part. That’s why I thought a broad introduction might prove useful to individuals who want to introduce objectivity to their hiring, but are unsure how to go about doing it.

  3. My congratulations on writing a clear, compelling article that sums up the practical benefits of competency-based selection. As one of the early researchers and authors (Behavior Description Interviewing: New, Accurate, Cost Effective— Prentice Hall, 1987) on the topic, it is great to see practitioners who “get it”.

    Since then, two developments may interest you and ERE readers. First, we can now quantify the financial benefits that accrue from competency-based selection, even when it forms part of a multiple step hiring process. In multi-unit retail at the store manager level (where there are P&L statements attached to each performer), the average annual performance savings per hire (the increase in store profit attributable to making competency-based hiring decisions) ranges from $18K for a national convenience store chain to $22K for a coffee store chain to $30K for a chain of tire stores. And these results were audited for the first two instances. We have developed Talent Curve simulation software to detail the proportions of: Stars, Achievers, Keepers, Problems, and Mistakes (the Talent Curve) that a given existing hiring process makes, and how that will be improved after implementing competency-based hiring. Then the well established Utility Equation transforms the talent curves into the performance value per hire.

    The second development concerns closing the gap between the promise of behavioral interviewing seen in the research and the reality once it gets practiced in the field. In research, most everyone asks the recommended behavioral questions, probes to re-direct candidates back on track when they stray, and takes good notes. When the doors close out in the field, I noticed in hundreds of closely observed behavioral interviews that if candidates responded with behavioral answers to the first two behavioral questions asked, the rest of the interview went smoothly and the interviewer had a solid set of performance examples to rate. If candidates managed to slip away from the first one or two behavioral questions asked, they learned from that experience that they did not need to answer the tough questions with precise answers. They could slip away, providing an opinion or a generality instead of a clear performance example. In the field, interviewers often don’t take notes or take notes that are illegible even to themselves more than a hour after the interview.

    Getting the interview started online shrinks the gap. An automated online coach ALWAYS goes for specific, detailed, behavioral answers. It scans initial answer drafts for phrases that suggest a non-behavioral answer, giving the candidate a chance to reveal the behavioral detail needed to evaluate the candidate’s performance. Beyond coaching candidates to stay cleanly on the behavioral track and capturing detailed, legible notes to each question, an online behavioral interview has two other major positives. First, with the benefit of conducting 150,000 online interviews over the past 5 years, we have learned how to coax the specific answer details, a bit at a time, from candidates who would be intimidated by a simple question followed by a blank text box. Second, our online interview collects automated confirmations from credible third parties with no labor cost on the part of the employer. So this online alternative to starting competency-based interviews not only improves behavioral interviewing to make best practices more common in the field, it collects third party confirmation of the candidate’s performance claims.

    It would be great if other readers to Timothy’s article and this comment added further enhancements to competency-based selection that they have come across.

  4. Tim,

    Thank you for an excellent primer on the subject of BI/competency interviews. As others have implied in their comments, there really is little point in interviewing if one does not interview for competencies matching the job description.

    However, I somewhat disagree somewhat with your conclusions regarding the advantages of multiple interviewers, i.e. “the outcome ceases to be an individual manager’s choice and instead becomes a consensus”. While that is true in a perfect world, or maybe even in one where all interviewers are incredibly adept and skilled in the processes involved, in the real world it is not nearly as reliable as one might think. Too often, the multiple interviewer process, especially when it involves larger groups (5+), becomes a way of shifting blame for bad hires, and diminishing the responsibility for the hiring decision, and ultimately the success of the hire, from the individual manager to the group. The “group” has far less to do with the development of the person hired than does the manager, yet the manager’s responsibility for the hire is spread across the group.

    The process of involving larger numbers of people in the interview process creates a responsibility shift, and can reduce the “buy-in” of the individual manager for the new hire’s success. I understand that your group must take very specific interview notes, and use those to justify scores and recommendations, and do applaud your attention to detail. However, if an interviewer really “likes” a candidate, it is a no-brainer to come up with valid comments from the interview to support the score or recommendation. Likewise for negative recommendations.

    The greater the number of interviewers, the far greater the likelihood that personality differences, gamesmanship, politics, and prejudice in many possible forms will come into play. Again, specific comments and behaviors from the interview notes are not that difficult to come up with.

    If one is going to use multiple interviewers, I recommend that it never exceed four participants, and that those participants be chosen very carefully. In addition to the position manager, the group should include that person’s manager/director, an HR individual of at least supervisor standing, and a technical person, if that is appropriate. The position manager should also get 50% of the weight of the decision in their recommendation. That enforces that person’s level of responsibility, and increases their buy-in to making the hire a success. It is essential that the person who is going to be responsible for developing the skills of the new hire have the greatest influence in the decision. Otherwise, the group is laying the groundwork for apathy in the development of the candidate.

    Worst case group hiring scenario??? Inviting peer-level, or subordinate-level, employees to interview the candidate. No amount of oversight is going to be able to sort out the potential personality and prejudicial issues that come to bear in that process.

  5. Regarding multiple interviewers: Dr Mike Campion (probably the foremost expert in BI) has shown that hirng decions tend to improve when multiple interviewers are involved providing they task the time to integrate and defend their data with each other. When this happens personal interviewer bias tends to decrease and candidate skills become more clear..

    One last comment…every hiring decision is a gut decision..the only option we have is whether our gut is fully informed or not. Accurate job data and accurate candidate data leads to a “full” gut.

  6. Another advantage of conducting a properly structured competency based behavioural interv is that it keeps the focus of the interview away from illegal hiring criteria eg age, gender, ethnic origin, disability, etc.

    Using competency based questions is the best way to protect yourself against claim, from unsuccessful candidates, that the questions in the interview, no matter how innocently asked, were designed to illegally exclude them.

  7. I am working with a client to implement a structured BI process. They currently do interviewing in a panel format — three on one. Can any of you experts out there comment on the pros and cons of group interviews.
    Thank you.

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