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

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?”

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  • 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!

Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP, is the Executive Director of Human Resources for LaRosa's, Inc., a regional pizzeria restaurant chain in the Greater Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio area with 16 locations and over 1,200 team members. Steve has been an HR professional for more than 30 years in the manufacturing, consumer products, and professional services industries. He facilitates a monthly HR Roundtable in Cincinnati and runs an Internet message board for HR pros that reaches 7,800 plus people weekly. Steve joined the SHRM Board of Directors in January 2016. You can contact him at, or on Twitter (@sbrownehr). You can also read more on his personal blog, Everyday People.



15 Comments on “HR Roundtable: What’s the Difference Between Skills and Competencies?

  1. I am slightly shocked by this post.  The difference between skills and competencies is not a murky area nor one where multiple views and opinions have a place.  To suggest otherwise is like saying what’s the difference between velocity and acceleration and imagining that multiple opinion are valid and that we don’t know the difference. Competencies and skills are distinct and clearly defined;HR people need to know this. I had presumed the understanding of these basics was more widespread.

    Competencies are very, very key and the reason they are is that they are far stronger predictors of performance than are skills.  Far stronger. Companies that don’t measure competencies, that don’t know what competencies are required for performance in jobs – a knowable, measurable requirement, not an opinion – are missing the single most important thing they should do.  I suggest that anyone confused on this topic quickly get some basic learning. 

    1. Paul – Being shocked is good sometimes !!  I agree with what you are saying, but the reality of ambiguity in HR when it comes to how competencies and skills are defined in companies is prevalent.  I appreciate your comment because you are dead on.  Your input may help others clear up the ambiguity.  Thanks !! – Steve

      1. I just came across the discussion and it has added immense value to my understanding of the entire thing – both competency and skill – by the way I am not an HR person but it helps at times to understand few things on which you are evaluated. I have been working with various organizations and as someone pointed out yes there is ambiguity and at the same time some are very clear. I guess its all about measurement of ones value addition to the organization – I some times feel we are complicating too much by creating attributes and then creating measurement for them in different parameters – I have been a consultant and in one such project I observed a small organization – just 40 employees having a huge turnover and some of the best clients which are with them for over a decade – the owner (no CEO/MD etc) was measuring his employees (who he treats as a part of the family – an important factor or attribute which probably few HR and big corporate can consider -) purely on how they were interacting with their clients – when there was an issue or a challenge the owner or the receptionist (he did not have a personal assistant) would pitch in!

        So yes companies should and probably are not measuring – but they need to have an outcome clearly defined from an individual before they decided to measure any of the two parameters – else it is merely an exercise – sometimes at the expense of the employee!

  2. I am in agreement with Paul.  I have been a advocate and teacher of the competency-based organization for many years.  It is not rocket science – it is a people observation practice.  Maybe that is the difficulty.  Skills typically produce a measurable entity – a product or service.  Competencies are the “how” a person gets things done – the behavioral practices.  But that means to be effectively measured and tracked, the person has to be observed and given either positive or developmental feedback on their demonstration of the desired competency

    For example. I can conduct X number of workshops on the areas I of which I am an SME (the quota part of my skills measurement).  However, if said workshops are 100% lecture and I do not connect with my audience in a way that engages them and encourages them to take action (Bueller… Bueller…) then, while I may have met the “expectations” part of my job, I have not demonstrated the competencies required to do it effectively (Oral Communication, Formal Presentation, Facilitation of Learning, Coaching, Emotional Intelligence, etc.).

    Those who measure on skills alone are missing a very large chunk of the performance puzzle.

    1. John – Thanks for the comment !!  The more we get out to the HR and business community on this topic, the more clarity we bring.  Appreciate you taking the time to jump in !!

      1. I completely agree with the author of the article. Even after going through the article and discussion, I could not understand what is competency and skill. I have attended a training session on competency mapping. I asked the same question to the faculty. He said Competeny is like a price tag to the shirt and ran away. I could not insist further. What Paul says is excellently and strongly worded – he is saying it is like multiple opinions on difference between velocity and acceleration is not acceptable. Fine. But he never explained the difference. If he can let all of us know what is skill and competency needed for a Computer Operator/Typist.

    2. To me it is pretty simple – skill is the ability, competency is the application.  I want skill first, competency second, both if I am looking for a candidate.

  3. First, the picture associated with my comment is not me.  In fact, I have no idea who it is.  But I can’t figure out how to change it.  Not sure if that is a lack of competency or skill on my part. 

    I’ve worked with hundreds of companies and there is a lot of confusion between competencies and skills within and outside of HR.  So I thought this was a good discussion.  The main problem is probably that the word “competency” is very poorly defined.  Here’s the definition we typically use.   It seems to work pretty darn well, but I’m sure others will say we’re defining “competency” wrong!

    “Competencies are defined as generalized clusters of job relevant behaviors that do not solely rely on specific technical knowledge and experience.  They are often contrasted with technical skills that may also influence job success.  From a psychological perspective, competencies focus on behaviors that are influenced primarily by a person’s natural motives, interests, and abilities rather than their specific knowledge of technical facts and information.   To put it another way, your past education, training, and experience determine your knowledge & skills, but competencies reflect how you actually use your knowledge & skills to get things done.  Skills qualify you to have a job in the first place.  Competencies tend to influence how effectively you actually perform in the job.  Or as one person, put it, “people are hired for skills but promoted or fired because of competencies”.

    We describe people as “being more or less effective” at competencies, but “having or not having” skills.  One way to test if you are talking about a competency versus a skill is by considering if someone would ever say “I don’t know how to do that”.  People may admit to being less competent at certain competencies, but it is unlikely for someone to say they simply do not have the knowledge or experience a competency requires.  If people readily admit to being unable to do something than it is probably a skill, not a competency.   For example, you can imagine someone saying “I don’t know how to use Excel” (a skill), but it is hard to imagine someone saying “I don’t know how to Build Relationships” (a competency).

    The distinction between skills and competencies is important because the methods used to develop competencies are much different from the methods used to develop skills.  Competencies are primarily developed through providing people with job experiences that increase their self-awareness and self-management with regard to behaviors related to the competency.  Skills are usually developed through providing people with more formal training, instruction and education.

  4. Some time ago I worked for a global business that developed a three dimensional global competence model.  Note the use of “competence” rather than “competency” which caused some consternation among HR folks in the business.  Some people had strong views about how they differed, others just said they were interchangeable. I cannot believe how much time we spend in HR on navel-gazing issues like this!

    After a lot of hard work with different functional disciplines in the business we ended up with three dimensions:
    – Technical / Functional Competences (i.e. ability to apply functional skills related to your discipline
    – Business Knowledge Competences (i.e. ability to understand how our business operated – business context knowledge)
    – Behavioral Competences (i.e. ability to use the “soft skills” such as attention to detail, relationship building etc.

    In each function we discovered that most jobs could be defined by an average of three to four  core competence in each of the three dimensions. It wasn’t a perfect model but it helped us rapidly build a competence gap analysis for current situation vs. strategic intent.

    Having had the opportunity to work with many organizations since then the other point I would make is that competence models often get stuck at a conceptual level and just become another chore for employees and managers to handle during performance and personal development reviews. Don’t let this happen!  If competencies are to be useful then the use of them needs to be grounded in the reality of how can employees best help organizations (and themselves) to succeed. 

  5. We don’t need to invent, any of us, our favorite definitions of competencies.  Expert psychologists have done that. We simply need to learn and use the power of competencies.  The widespread failing of many companies is to trust skill over competency when the research shows, conclusively and comprehensively that competencies are much more important, powerful predictors of performance than are skills. Competencies are known, measurable things, not what we think they should be. This is science – not perfect science but then there are no perfect sciences.  It’s not opinion.

  6. These two phrases have been used interchangeably for a long time, it’s the same argument that’s used in differentiating talents and strengths.  I wouldn’t place a great deal of concern in differentiating either, it’s not worth the energy.
    What competencies are needed regardless of industry?Integrity and character aren’t competencies and shouldn’t be categorized that way.  We come to organizations with our personal values and our character is already been defined and molded based on the environment in which we grew.

  7. An interesting and important debate and one where having a
    well-defined determination of both of these nouns is critical for successful
    businesses. I think that sometimes folks get a little too hung up on the terms.
     Skills are often seen as an ability
    through knowledge and more often practice to do something well. Competencies on
    the other hand are generally accepted as a set of behaviors or actions needed
    to successfully perform within a particular context (e.g. a job). The
    definition of the competency is organization specific and will generally have a
    set of proficiency indicators associated with them to be applied at the
    experience level of the particular job being defined. So whether you call it a
    skill or a competency the important thing is it must be observable and

    Competencies can be “core” or those essential for all
    employees to possess, “functional” in that they are applicable to particular
    group say finance and “technical” applicable to a particular job. A proper
    competency profile will have all of these areas covered in defining the
    requirements for the job. A job profile might include both the skills needed
    for the job often expressed in terms of experience (e.g  5 years at a managerial level) and the
    competencies needed often these are the soft skills  required to be successful (e.g. client focus
    or decisiveness).

    It used to be true that using a competency based approach in
    companies was too hard to manage over time as requirements changed due to
    technology or functional evolution and may be still, if one starts from a clean
    sheet of paper and there are no software tools that can amend and adapt the
    competencies over time as requirements change. But there tools available to
    make that task of implementing a competency based management a lot easier and
    much less expensive than in the past. Sorry, shameless pitch time! Check out
    i-SkillSuite® which is a great tool to help manage and implement competencies.

    Competencies can be used in performance management as was
    suggested, but they are also essential for selection, succession, training and
    learning, even compensation. Competencies are seen by the analysts at Aberdeen
    and Bersin as critical to the successful management of modern companies. So it
    would seem from that point of view to have the best chance to be a successful all
    organizations should be competency based.

  8. There is enough research on this field mainly pioneered by Dr. David McClelland. I suggest two books. ‘Competence at Work’ by and Lyle Spencer and Signe Spencer. ‘The Competent Manager by Richard Boytzis.” These research based books will give tremendous amount of clarity on this topic. 

  9. I look at competency as how skills are employed on the job.  The “how” must reflect the company’s values, norms and culture.  As an example, a person may have learned principles of leadership but rarely employs those skills congruently with the culture, values and norms of the organization.  We all have seen employees who have great skills but tend to leave a trail of wounded employees in the wake of their work. 

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