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Competencies - Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are competencies?
What is a competency model?
What are key behaviors?
What is the NIH proficiency scale and what are its levels?
How do I assess my proficiency level of any particular competency?
What is the next step after I assess my level on the NIH proficiency scale?
What is the NIH Proficiency Map?
How were the Proficiency Maps developed?
What does it mean if I do not meet the target proficiency level?
How can employees increase their proficiency levels?
What is the Competency Training Map?
What if there is not enough funding for training? What are other development activities?
How have competencies been used by other organizations?
Why is NIH developing competencies?
Why are competencies important to ICs?
Why are competencies useful to supervisors?
Why are competencies useful to employees?
How do NIH and HHS competencies relate to each other?
What competency based tools has NIH developed?
What are the guidelines for using the competency behavioral-based interview guides?
How can NIH supervisors and employees use competencies at the present time?
How can NIH employees use competencies to develop their career?
What if there are other competencies that are relevant for my job but are not included in the models?
What competency models has NIH developed?
How were NIH competency models developed?
What is the relationship between performance and competencies?
What is an Individual Development Plan (IDP) and how does it relate to competencies, performance, and promotions?
What are NIH plans for implementing competencies?

  1. What are competencies?
    At NIH, competencies are defined as the combination of knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors that contribute to individual and organizational performance. Knowledge is information developed or learned through experience, study or investigation. Skill is the result of repeatedly applying knowledge or ability. Ability is an innate potential to perform mental and physical actions or tasks. Behavior is the observable reaction of an individual to a certain situation.The target proficiency level for each competency will vary based on an individual’s position and the organization’s needs.
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  2. What is a competency model?
    A competency model is a collection of competencies - often organized into categories or clusters - considered pertinent to an organization and a particular function within an organization (e.g. occupational series, position, etc). Individual competencies are usually defined and supported by key behaviors. Models may be general and apply to all employees, while other models may apply to specific occupations or positions. At NIH the Core competency model relates to all NIH employees, in administrative positions. The Leadership and Management competency model is relevant for all administrative positions with supervisory and/or managerial responsibilities. Occupation specific competency models are for all employees within a specific occupational series as suggested competencies. Not every competency in the occupation specific model may be relevant to an individual’s position.
    At NIH all competencies include a definition and key behaviors along with a proficiency scale.
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  3. What are key behaviors?
    The key behaviors are observable or measurable actions that demonstrate an employee possesses a particular competency. The key behaviors are examples, they are not an all inclusive list of the multitude of ways that an individual may express a competency, they should be used to add clarity and examples of the observable behavior. For instance, a key behavior for the Administrative Officer financial management competency is “establishes and maintains realistic budgets.”
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  4. What is the NIH proficiency scale and what are its levels?
    The NIH proficiency scale describes an individual’s level of proficiency in a particular competency. It describes the degree to which an employee possesses a competency and is the same for all competencies. The scale ranges from proficiency levels 1-5:
    • NA-Not Applicable
    • 1-Fundamental Awareness (basic knowledge)
    • 2-Novice (limited experience)
    • 3-Intermediate (practical application)
    • 4-Advanced (applied theory)
    • 5-Expert (recognized authority)

    Each level in the proficiency scale has a detailed description to help identify an employee’s level of proficiency.
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  5. How do I assess my proficiency level of any particular competency?
    First read the definition of the competency and the key behaviors that describe how employees may demonstrate that competency. Then review the proficiency scale and familiarize yourself with the different levels. You will want to consider they ways that you have recently demonstrated that competency and select the most applicable proficiency level. It is suggested to also record your thoughts in the comments section while completing your assessment.
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  6. What is the next step after I assess my level on the NIH proficiency scale?
    After you assess your level on the NIH proficiency scale, your supervisor should also assess your level. Then, you and your supervisor should discuss the assessments and establish an action plan or IDP that documents the steps you should take to continue to develop your proficiency level.
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  7. What is the NIH Proficiency Map?
    The NIH Proficiency Maps link GS grade levels to target proficiency levels for each competency in the occupational and leadership and management models. These maps serve as a guide to understanding the expected proficiency level of top performers at each grade level.
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  8. How were the Proficiency Maps developed?
    The maps for the occupation-specific competency models were developed by focus groups that consisted of top performers in their occupational areas. The maps were then reviewed and confirmed by an NIH HR Classification Specialist. The maps for the administrative leadership and management models were developed by a focus group of the NIH leaders and reviewed and confirmed by the HR Branch Chiefs and an HR Classification Specialist.
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  9. What does it mean if I do not meet the target proficiency level?
    If you do not meet a specific target proficiency level, it may indicate that you should focus your development efforts on this particular competency. However, there are also other factors that will affect your development efforts, such as organizational priorities, team needs, etc. Therefore, you should obtain guidance from your supervisor to discuss the highest priority competencies for development.
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  10. How can employees increase their proficiency levels?
    This can be done in many ways. For example, employees may take formal training to help build their proficiency levels. Employees may participate in developmental assignments on the job or on a detail to another job, read articles and books, participate in activities of a professional organization, take e-learning courses, be coached, be mentored, etc.
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  11. What is the Competency Training Map?
    The NIH Training Center has identified and mapped training courses to competencies at various proficiency levels. The Competency Training Map aids employees in researching training courses that will help them reach their target proficiency level for a given competency. However, taking a class does not guarantee that employees will attain the desired proficiency level. It is the ability to perform tasks/activities related to their job responsibilities that demonstrates the level of proficiency attained. Training can only aid employees in developing competencies. There is not a specified number of classes that an individual needs to take in order to meet a competency proficiency level.
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  12. What if there is not enough funding for training? What are other development activities?
    Training is only one option out of several development activities for an employee. Other activities that can help employees develop their level of proficiency in a competency include, but are not limited to:
    • reading/studying
    • being coached/mentored
    • shadowing
    • participating in a committee/group
    • developing SOPs
    • completing special project(s)
    • leading special project(s)
    • conducting/presenting at seminars
    • leading training sessions
    • leading or chairing a committee/group
    • volunteering as a mediator
    • coaching/mentoring

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  13. How have competencies been used by other organizations?
    For many years, competencies have been used effectively in both the private and public sectors. They play a key role in organizational development and improvement by articulating the capabilities required for individual and organizational performance. Competencies serve as a solid foundation for human capital areas such as recruitment and hiring of talent, job assessment, employee development and training, performance management, career planning, and succession planning. Depending on the organization’s choice, it can choose to apply competencies to all of these human capital areas or some of them. Competencies may be incorporated into position descriptions, interview guides, hiring criteria and methods, assessment processes, individual development plans (IDPs), performance management processes, and employee development opportunities, e.g. training.
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  14. Why is NIH developing competencies?
    NIH is investing in competencies to improve: 1. recruitment and hiring; 2. career development of NIH employees; and 3. strategic organizational planning. One goal is to develop vacancy announcements that more clearly state the competencies that NIH expects employees to possess. Competency development is also essential to developing behavioral-based interview guides, which in turn will allow hiring officials to better select talent from a pool of job candidates. Overall, the use of competencies will result in better recruitment of talent that will improve the quality of the NIH workforce. Developing competency based tools will also support the career development of NIH employees. Assessment tools highlight the areas in which employees are most proficient and areas in which they can focus developmental activities. The competency training maps help employees choose training that will help them develop. Finally, managers and supervisors who understand the competency gaps within their organizations will be able to strategically address these gaps.
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  15. Why are competencies important to ICs?
    ICs can systematically identify their competency gaps in occupational areas. In turn, this can lead to more focused hiring decisions and succession planning, better strategic assignment (alignment) of tasks and functions; and cost-effective training that is tailored for employees who have common needs.
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  16. Why are competencies useful to supervisors?
    Competencies help supervisors to better:
    • screen prospective employees during the hiring process, which results in better hiring decisions
    • discuss with employees their strengths, areas for growth, training, and developmental activities
    • distribute work more efficiently by using the knowledge of employees’ proficiency levels.
    • acquire training and development opportunities systematically and efficiently, e.g., develop training partnerships between organizations, bringing tailored training to employees, etc.
    • determine what type of skill sets are needed in the future, which helps support succession planning.

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  17. Why are competencies useful to employees?
    Competencies help employees to:
    • understand the competencies expected in their job, the key behaviors they should demonstrate, and the steps needed to increase their proficiency levels
    • discuss with their supervisors the employee’s strengths, areas for growth, and suggested training, and developmental activities
    • focus on specific training and development opportunities that will help them grow and strive for excellence
    • understand the competencies they would be expected to have to move into a new job, particularly for employees who are interested in becoming supervisors and managers or in changing careers

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  18. How do NIH and HHS competencies relate to each other?
    HHS competency models were reviewed during the development process of NIH competency models. The two models are compatible. Although there are differences in some of the names of the competencies and key behaviors, the NIH competencies incorporate the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) described in the HHS competencies.
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  19. What competency based tools has NIH developed?
    NIH has developed training maps, individual development plans (IDPs), interview guides, proficiency maps, and draft vacancy announcements. Two different assessment tools are available: One through the Learning Management System and another can be found on the competencies website http://hr.od.nih.gov/competencies/default.htm.
    The LMS offers options of both a self and supervisory assessment, it has training classes linked to each of the competencies in the system with recommended training opportunities, and it also maintains a history of the assessments.
    The online tool is completely anonymous, it is designed to collect data for a self assessment only. The user would print off their assessment information and bring it with them to discuss development with their supervisor. Once an assessment in this system is submitted it cannot be retrieved.
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  20. What are the guidelines for using the competency behavioral-based interview guides?
    The use of the behavioral-based interview guides is optional. The interview guide serves as a tool that supervisors can use to understand if and how interviewees have demonstrated key behaviors associated with particular competencies. The premise behind this technique is that a good predictor of future performance is how someone performed in the past in a similar situation.
    Most interview guides include a number of questions related to each competency. Interviewers may choose questions they think are appropriate for the candidate, job or organization. Additionally, interviewers should determine if the interview guide is more appropriate for mid level to high level positions versus entry level position as entry level candidates may have limited work related experience upon which to reference. If the competency behavioral-based interview guides are used for entry level candidates, candidates may be encouraged to draw upon non-work related experiences (e.g., school, community involvement) to answer questions.
    The NIH Training Center offers a course, Behavioral Based Interviewing #5803,which teaches the techniques involved in conducting this type of interview.
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  21. How can NIH supervisors and employees use competencies at the present time?
    NIH supervisors and employees can review the competency models and proficiency maps to identify competencies that employees may want to develop. Then, employees and supervisors can develop a plan for increasing competency levels. The training maps may be helpful in selecting appropriate training, although it is also suggested that the employee’s plan include other activities, e.g., assignments and projects, mentoring, coaching, etc.
    Supervisors may also find the questions in the interview guides helpful in assessing the proficiency levels of job applicants.
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  22. How can NIH employees use competencies to develop their career?
    Employees can review the competency models and use the proficiency maps to determine developmental opportunities. It is recommended that employees discuss with their supervisors the plan for increasing their proficiency levels. This plan could include activities such as performing special projects and assignments, training, shadowing, etc. In addition, employees who would like to change careers can review the competency models for other occupations to understand which competencies they need to develop.
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  23. What if there are other competencies that are relevant for my job but are not included in the models?
    The NIH occupational models describe the global competencies required for all employees in a specific occupation. The occupational models do not describe every competency relevant to a job. If there are other competencies important to your specific job/role, you should discuss them with your supervisor and determine the best approach for incorporating them into your overall career development plan.
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  24. What competency models has NIH developed?
    NIH has developed competency models in three different areas: core, administrative leadership and management, and occupation-specific areas. The Core competencies represent the sets of knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors that apply to all NIH employees. The Leadership & Management competencies apply to all employees with supervisory responsibilities in administrative occupations. Occupation-specific competencies apply to all employees within a specific administrative occupational area. Currently, NIH has developed competencies for 12 occupational series in the administrative areas. These jobs series include:
    • Accounting
    • Administrative Officer
    • Budget Analysis
    • Contracting
    • EEO Specialist
    • EEO Assistants
    • General Administration
    • Grants Management
    • Human Resources
    • Information Technology
    • Program/Management Analysis
    • Public Affairs

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  25. How were NIH competency models developed?
    NIH employees developed the competency models. The Core and Leadership and Management models were developed by a group of AO and EO leaders, using models of other organizations as a starting point. Focus groups of top performers in each of the occupational areas developed the occupational models. Some ICs also have developed additional core and leadership competencies and even different or additional administrative occupational competencies.
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  26. What is the relationship between performance and competencies?
    The relationship between competencies and performance is indirect. As employees increase their proficiency levels, their performance outputs would generally be expected to improve. Organizations whose employees have high proficiency levels are organizations that would be expected to have superior organizational performance. However, this is not always the case. An individual may possess the required knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors but may be performing at a lower level than expected due to various factors, e.g., personal problems, lack of focus, job dissatisfaction, negative reaction to organizational change, lack of organizational resources, etc.
    Employees are rated on performance in relation to how well they have accomplished the tasks set out in their performance plans. Performance plans establish specific tasks and expectations for various positions and employee grade levels and this is the basis for performance evaluation.
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  27. What is an Individual Development Plan (IDP) and how does it relate to competencies, performance, and promotions?
    An Individual Development Plan (IDP) outlines career goals within the context of organizational objectives. It is a developmental "action" plan to move employees from where they are to where they would like to be or need to be. It provides systematic steps to improve performance and build on strengths related to one’s current job, and to meet one’s career goals. The goals of an IDP are developed by the employee with input from the supervisor. The IDP links the individual's career interests and needs to organizational priorities. IDPs are used to help employees:
    • learn new skills to improve current job performance
    • maximize current performance in support of organizational requirements
    • increase interest, challenges, and satisfaction in current position
    • obtain competencies that can help lead to career changes

    An IDP IS:
    • a developmental partnership between the employee and manager. IDP preparation involves feedback, clarification, and discussion about developmental needs, goals, and plans. Manager-employee communication is key to the success of the IDP process. The mutual interests and concerns of the individual and the organization must be considered in the IDP process. The IDP is a vehicle to address the needs of the employee and the needs of the organization. The best IDPs begin with a plan to maximize current job performance. The activities can assist the individual in meeting both personal and organizational goals for success.
    • a broadly defined developmental plan which may include on-the-job assignments, self-development activities, and formal classroom training.
    • an active and ongoing process in the organization. Ideally, IDPs should be reviewed, updated, and revised every six (6) months, or as needed.

    An IDP IS NOT:
    • a performance appraisal. The IDP is not a means to formally assess the employee's performance. In this regard, it does not replace the performance appraisal system to determine promotion, pay, awards, etc. Development is the purpose, not appraisal.
    • a contract for training. Employees should include all training interests on an IDP. However, training is not guaranteed because it is on an IDP. Training decisions are made in accordance with NIH's policy, priorities, and budgetary constraints.
    • a way to clarify or revise a position description. If a position description does not accurately describe the duties performed, this is a matter for the manager and the Office of Human Resources to solve.
    • a guarantee of a promotion to a higher grade. An IDP can help prepare an employee to become qualified for a higher graded position, but does not guarantee advancement.
    • a panacea for manager-employee relations problems. The IDP is only one part of the comprehensive efforts of an organization to enhance job satisfaction and cooperative work relationships.

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  28. What are NIH plans for implementing competencies?
    Future plans include:
    • A competencies dictionary containing all of the NIH specific competencies will be available to use in 2010. Employees and supervisors will be able to customize their competency models to identify the competencies that are needed for success in a position.
    • Suggested competency models are being created for occupation specific models. These competency models are available as an example of what competencies are commonly found in certain positions.
    • Rolling out the use of competencies in nine administrative areas: The Training Center will work with the champions of nine occupational areas to develop and implement a roll-out plan that encourages and supports the use of competencies. (See question 23 for a list of the nine occupational areas.)
    • Tying recruitment to competencies: The Strategic Programs Division has begun to ensure that the questions in HHS careers (used to rate applications for jobs) are linked to competencies. Interview guides have been developed for all of the 10 job occupations and for leadership and management positions to help supervisors in selecting job applicants who possess competencies that are most needed by their organizations. These guides can be used now. After supervisors understand the gaps in their organizations (gaps should be clearer after reviewing the results of individual employee assessments), they will be able to search for applicants to fill the identified gaps. Also, this fall, a group of Administrative Officers, Presidential Management Fellows, Client Services Division personnel, and other Human Capital Group staff will recommend how competencies can be further linked to the recruitment process.
    • Communication: NIH will continue to communicate and educate NIH staff about competencies. We will continue to get input on what more should be done to ensure that employees and supervisors have the tools and knowledge needed to use competencies to meet our organization’s goals.

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