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About the P&I Team Briefings Home | Responses | PFI Index | Policy Guide
Competencies: How to Respond - No 35 MAY 2002


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 including:

  • 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 They take a long time to develop and can quickly become outdated.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 competencies,

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 the following:

  • 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 frameworks
  • 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.

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