HR Roundtable: What’s the Difference Between Skills and Competencies?

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Oct 18, 2011

After the rush of the Ohio HR Conference, October’s monthly HR Roundtable in Cincinnati decided to tackle the topic of “Business/HR Competencies.”

It proved to be a very intriguing subject because the attendees started out a bit stumped with the approach because it seems to be a topic everyone talks about having, but it’s not really defined.

Here are the questions they chewed on to get started:

  1. What’s the difference between a “skill” and a “competency?”
  2. Why aren’t companies “competency” based?
  3. What competencies are needed regardless of industry?

Even though the topic started slowly, it picked up and jumped ahead!.Here are the great answers that were shared.

The difference between a “skill” and a “competency?”

  • It depends. Great answer to start this topic because it shows how much organizations haven’t defined a differentiation between these two items. In fact, some “skills” may be “competencies” in another organization. It’s not a black and white item that HR can make fit in all places for all things.
  • Skills are  …  Something you know and learn, and something “tangible.” These two answers were generally agreed upon as trying to get some structure around this question. You can make the argument that skills are the “nuts and bolts” of what a person does in their roles within an organization.
  • Competencies are  … (Watch this great HR-speak . . .) Competencies are the effective application of skills. Eek! It was great to see the group truly stretch a little with this question because so much around what a competency is gets thrown around too casually. We decided to continue on to see what the next questions would bring and see if light would come from the confusion.

Why aren’t companies “competency” based?

  • It’s too hard! This is so honest it’s scary. It’s also reflective of many HR efforts in companies today because many HR departments want a “one size fits all” approach to their systems.
  • Skills are easier to define. As mentioned before, you can take skills and you either have them or you don’t. Competencies are broader and up for interpretation. Therefore, they make things gray – and we don’t like things to be gray!
  • The market doesn’t speak to competency based environments. This is incredibly true !! When you look at job openings and recruitment efforts, they speak to skills and experience desired, but few identify competencies they’d like to see candidates bring which would add value to their company. Think of the opportunity HR has in changing this approach!
  • We think that competencies are for performance reviews. This approach is too late. If a person is measured against competencies once they join a company to measure their performance, you missed the chance to do the same prior to them coming on board. That seems backwards doesn’t it? If competencies are developed and designed for your review systems, then take the step to pull them to the very front of the process for candidate selection and recruiting efforts.

What competencies are needed regardless of industry?

  • Intentional communication. Now, before you jump on the “communication is skill” bandwagon, take a different look. If employees were more forthright and intentional in their communication efforts, wouldn’t that be a broader approach? Too much of today’s communication is hidden and guarded. Being intentional is a competency that could change the look of most company cultures.
  • Integrity. This is so fun to list in a society that is growing so cynical. People still want people to be honest. To know that an employee exudes genuine integrity is priceless and needed in today’s challenging workplace environments.
  • Character. Wow, how broad is this one? Similar to integrity, people want to work with others that are genuine. There’s no magic to this. Being genuine may be desired, but is it valued? That may be the subject of another discussion down the road. It’s true that strong character shows drive, initiative, and engagement. How character is defined in the workplace is up to the workplace involved.
  • Emotional intelligence. Granted, emotional intelligence is needed in all organizations. The difficulty is that it is an area that is still too broad and open to vast interpretation. Another way to look at it is to make it even more “human.” We want employees who show the ability to be empathetic, adaptable, and open to meeting people where “they are.” To get employees who show an “others focused” competency vs. the overwhelming “self-focused” reality that we struggle with would be refreshing.

In the end, this topic still had room to grow and be discussed further. That isn’t always true with other topics that have been discussed at the HR Roundtable. It should be noted that we have some sort of definition, so let me leave you with this:

“Competencies are characteristics and strengths that are valued by a company for its employees to be able to perform and excel.”

Now, you need to define what that means for your company!