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Chances are good that you’ve heard the term “competency” tossed around in the context of job descriptions and performance reviews. But if you aren’t exactly sure what a competency is, how to define a competency, and what competencies look like in action, you certainly aren’t alone.

While competencies might seem like another way us HR folks over-complicate things, they’re actually an incredibly useful tool in creating clarity. Well-defined competency frameworks help promote transparency and consistency by providing clear definitions and concrete examples of successful job performance.

To help de-mystify the topic of competencies, we’ve put together a quick list of FAQs:

What is a competency?

Though the term “competency” is often used interchangeably with the term “skill”, a competency encompasses more than a skill. In a nutshell, a competency is the knowledge, skills, abilities and other requirements that you need to perform well in a job. Where skills are specific, a competency might include a skill, but can be looked at as more of an overarching “category” that an individual must be able to do well in order to succeed in a position, including behaviours. The list of key competencies will vary depending on the organization and role, since the combination of competencies required for success is unique in every position.

How do you define a competency?

To define a competency effectively, it is useful to provide both a definition for the competency (the what) as well as listing the observable behaviours exhibited when that competency is performed well looks like (the how).

For example, if the competency you’re looking to define is “Communication”, the competency definition statement might be: Uses a range of communication methods to appropriately and effectively exchange and share information with a variety of audiences in a manner that helps them understand and retain the message.  

What does a competency look like in action?

By itself, a one or two sentence competency definition statement doesn’t provide enough information to give the full picture of what that means in action. Listing observable behaviours helps to illustrate what that competency actually looks like in your organization. For example, observable behaviours listed under the definition for “Communication” might include:

  • Communicates respectfully and in an appropriate tone and manner
  • Practices attentive and active listening
  • Writes clearly in a variety of formats, adhering to accepted grammar and syntax conventions
  • Uses appropriate nonverbal communication when interacting with others
  • Asks clear questions to clarify others’ viewpoints and solicit information
  • Communicates clearly using a variety of platforms including phone, Skype, or other telecommunications tools
  • Conveys complex concepts in a logical sequence and at an appropriate level for the audience
  • Communicates effectively with individuals from a variety of cultural backgrounds

Why recreate the wheel – can I simply copy and paste a list of key competencies I find on the internet?

When it comes to competencies, it’s important to hone in on what truly contributes to success in your organization. That means that the definitions and observable behaviours for each competency need to be tailored to you – after all, effective communication may look very different for a construction worker than it does for an accountant, so it’s essential to define competencies within the broader context of your business.

Your Engaged HR Assignment: If you haven’t identified and defined the core competencies needed for success in your workplace yet, commit to working towards this for your next performance review cycle. Take five minutes today and build in some accountability by adding competencies to your next leadership team meeting agenda!

If defining competencies keeps getting pushed to the backburner or you’d rather leave the heavy lifting to someone else, it might be time to call in the pros – we’re always here to support in building out your competency framework!

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