On Our Minds

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Core competencies rubric
A tool for reducing bias—and increasing success—in the hiring process

by Alice Gibbs (she/her/hers)

Now more than ever, hiring managers feel a strong desire to diversify their teams, and yet many fail to stop and think about what it truly means to value differences during the interview process. Does it mean preferencing the candidate with the closest ties to your network? Nope. Does it mean falling into a more natural rapport with the candidate who attended the same college as you? Still no. These types of “like-me” biases fly in direct conflict with what it means to value differences, and they lead to inequitable hiring practices. Yet, we see them happen time and time again, even from hiring managers who explicitly espouse the importance of diversity.

So, what can hiring managers do to combat their bad habits and biases (we all have them after all)? How can one be better at dismissing stylistic preferences and gut feelings (which often work in service to those who feel the most familiar) in favor of more objective, evidence-based hiring criteria? Well, there are many things, but rule #1 is to define and strictly adhere to competency-based interviewing.

At On-Ramps, we call use a “core competency” methodology; others may call it a candidate “assessment rubric” or “scorecard.” Semantics aside, the common purpose is to establish clearly defined, objective criteria against which all candidate assessment takes place and to use that criteria as the north star for checking biases and evaluating all candidates. When done with fidelity and discipline, competency-based interviewing helps sideline the individual personal preferences of hiring managers and interview teams by giving them a shared methodology for checking each others’ assessments and assumptions.

Creating core competencies

Establishing the core competencies needed for a particular role is about getting really clear on the absolute must-haves. The job description is a marketing tool and a wish list—everything you’d love the person filling the position to have and do. The core competencies distill the job description down to what’s fundamental for success in the role.

At On-Ramps, we limit these to four items in order to keep the evaluation focused, manageable, and effective. Too many core competencies, and you’re unrealistically limiting the pool of candidates who would qualify. Too few, and you don’t have enough substance to evaluate against. 

We also save one of the four for alignment with the organization’s mission and values, because—especially in the nonprofit sector—a person can have all the technical skills in the world, but if they're not coming in deeply committed to the mission and operating in a way that's in line with the core values, then it's not going to work. Additionally, being explicit around what it truly means to operate in alignment with one’s values helps avoid that dreaded (and often vague) feedback that someone just “isn’t a fit.”

As for the remaining three core competencies, these can be whatever the hiring team decides. But underlying them must be well-defined descriptions and concrete, real-world examples that move beyond generic jargon and define how they show up in the specific role and context (e.g., what does it really mean to be an effective people manager in this particular role? What specific management skills/attributes are most important? etc.). Getting hyper-specific with the competency definition and making the implicit explicit ensures that all interviewers are clear and aligned on what is (and isn’t) critical for success.

Using the core competencies in the hiring process

In addition to forcing the hiring manager and their interview teams to think deeply about what’s essential to the role, the core competencies also serve as the foundation against which all interview questions are built. In fact, by establishing consistent, competency-based interview questions across all stages of an interview process, interviewers ensure they are gathering the right type of data and asking the same questions of all the candidates. This level of focused and disciplined interviewing is key to building an equitable hiring process.

But the core competencies become a real leveler when they are used to guide all discussions and evaluations of the candidates. 

Here’s how it works: Each interviewer asks themselves, "I'm hearing this thing, and I'm having this thought. How does it tie back to the core competencies? Is this competency-based feedback that I'm coming with, or is it a style/preference/familiarity thing that actually is not necessarily tied to somebody's ability to be successful in this role?” (Judging style is bias-based and not an objective reason around why someone is or isn't right for the role.) 

Let’s take a look at some real-world examples. 

A candidate who identifies as a woman of color meets with a hiring committee composed mostly of white men. Upon debriefing the interview, several members of the committee ding the candidate as presenting as “too buttoned up” and conclude this may prevent her from “fitting in” within their more relaxed culture. In this example, it’s important to interrogate a couple things: First, is being “relaxed” in an interview setting equitably afforded to all candidates—especially when aspects of someone's identity differs from that of the interviewers? Second, were there objective behaviors and responses during the interview that truly map back to the “mission and values alignment” core competency? Or, is the candidate’s perceived formality merely a matter of style and circumstance without any direct bearing on her ability to do the job?

Here’s another one: At the end of the interview, a candidate asks, “What is your vision for the role?” This is a turn-off for the hiring manager, who interprets this question as the candidate not having the ability to set up their own vision. But this is not a competency-based piece of assessment data. The candidate could have asked the question in a spirit of just understanding the hiring manager’s perspective, and it is not actually indicative of her inability to think strategically. At this moment, the hiring manager’s antenna may have been raised, but rather than leaping to a conclusion they are better served to test this suspicion with follow-up, competency-based strategic thinking questions, which will elicit more objective data surrounding the candidate’s actual ability to set vision and think strategically. 

By structuring the interviews directly in service to the core competencies, the hiring teams are getting deeper and deeper and more and more examples across those specific competencies with every interview round. By the end, everyone on the team has reasonable data—unbiased data—to support their thinking. 

Of course for this to work, interviewers have to be self-aware and intellectually and emotionally honest.

Key takeaways

  • Relying on a structured, skills-based evaluation of all candidates, rather than instincts or feelings, helps bring equity—and thus diversity—to the hiring process.
  • Defining a limited, discrete number of core competencies for a role helps the hiring team home in on candidates that will be successful in the position.
  • Being intentional and specific about what each core competency means is important to building alignment within the hiring team and being able to evaluate every candidate fairly and accurately.
  • Hiring teams must be disciplined about limiting their evaluations to the core competencies, and be honest with themselves when they go off track.