Competencies: How to Respond
Competencies are the latest US inspired HR fashion. They are
already used by many employers with UNISON members in Scotland
including local authorities, health trusts, and utilities. Competencies
(sometimes called competences) are used for a variety of HR purposes
- Recruitment and selection
- Performance appraisal
- Training needs and personal development
- Pay and grading structures
In this briefing we look at what competencies are and how they
are applied together with advice for branches.
What are Competencies?
Whilst there are many different definitions, essentially a competency
is a description of the knowledge, skills and behaviours required
to effectively perform a job. Typically they define characteristics
of a person which results in different levels of performance.
For example under the heading 'decision making' the 1st
level might be "delivers effective solutions to issues in
own area of work". The 2nd level might be "adapts
and applies new approaches to different situations". These
behavioural competencies typically include headings covering,
teamwork, communicating, planning etc. However, they can include
descriptions of tasks and outputs as well. In other cases standards
can be described using qualification levels such as SVQs. Organisations
often draw all the competencies together into a 'competency framework'.
Unlike job evaluation that looks at the demands of the job
and performance appraisal that looks at how the individual
performs - competencies can look at the requirements of the job
and how the individual performs.
Benefits of a Competency Framework
Employers are turning to competencies because they bring structure
to a range of HR processes. They can:
- enable better staff selection decisions
- clarify what is expected of staff
- offer an objective method of reviewing performance
- identify training needs
- provide the basis for grading and pay progression
- reinforce corporate objectives
- ensure consistent management across an organisation
Not all employers are convinced of these benefits.
Competency frameworks can be hugely complex and time consuming.
They take a long time to develop and can quickly become outdated.
Issues for UNISON
Like performance appraisal there is nothing inherently wrong
with competencies. The problems arise out of the processes used
to develop competencies, their design and their implementation.
Further problems arise when they are used as a reward mechanism.
In theory competencies should be more objective, transparent and
consistent than performance related pay. However, in practice
they are open to many of the same failings of PRP (mainly due
to unfair and inconsistent manager assessment) and open to legal
challenge on equal pay grounds. Ironically a major employer concern
is pay drift, which might explain the limited trade union opposition
in organisations which use competence based pay.
A key UNISON concern is discrimination through the design of
individual assessment and their application, particularly in
pay and grading. The design of competencies based on the subjective
views of an existing mainly male workforce simply reinforces bias.
This is because men and women value different attributes and have
different work styles. When used in pay and grading, competencies
that favour one gender undermine equal pay principles. These problems
can be minimised through equal opportunities training, balanced
design teams, extensive consultation and the use of techniques
based on analysing future job requirements to reduce cloning.
Monitoring the results and regularly reviewing the system is essential.
Action by Branches
When faced with a proposal to introduce competencies consider
- Clarify management objectives for competencies
- Early involvement in the design process
- Establish a realistic time scale and facilities for negotiators
- Ensure negotiators are trained in the development of competency
- Communicate regularly with members
- Design stage to include all sections of the workforce
- Training for staff and managers
- Ensure the competencies are accurate and reflect the grade
for the job
- Negotiate safeguards, procedures and documentation
- An unambiguous management commitment to staff development
- Implement on a pilot basis and evaluate before wider implementation
- Regular monitoring including a breakdown of outcomes by grade,
department and gender
Don't even consider using competencies for pay and grading until
you are satisfied that you have a robust competency framework
and a system that is being applied fairly
The introduction of competencies has the usual mix of threats
and opportunities for UNISON members.
Early involvement, training, effective safeguards and consistent
monitoring can maximise the opportunities and minimise the threats.