The difference between core competencies and values

September 24, 2015 Sarah Beckett

One of the questions our consultants are frequently asked is, “Is there a difference between organizational values and core competencies, or do they perform the same function?”

It’s a good question, because these two elements are closely related. But to clearly define and support your organizational culture, it’s important to have both in place.

In this post, we'll look at the following points:

  • Defining competencies and values
  • Competencies versus values 
  • Case Study on how competencies helped OPSEU


(Need a quick recap on competencies? Click here to download our free eBook, Competencies 101 and learn the basics about competencies.)


Defining Competencies and Values

Let’s start by defining some key terms:

  • Competencies identify the observable behaviors that successful performers demonstrate on the job. Those behaviors are the result of various abilities, skills, knowledge, motivations, and traits an employee may possess. 
  • Core competencies are a specific type of competency. They identify the key values and strengths shared by everyone in the organization, regardless of the job they perform. 
  • Values identify the beliefs or ideals shared by everyone in the organization. Whether they are organizational or personal, our values define the things we believe are important, meaningful, and right.


Competencies vs. Values

While competencies and values have significant areas of overlap, there’s a key difference between them:

  • Values are intangible. They are based on feelings, perceptions, preferences, and priorities—an internal code that influences how we experience and interpret the world.
  • Competencies are tangible. They define on-the-job behaviors that can be objectively observed and measured by the people around us.

This tangible element is very important. Too often, organizational values remain at the conceptual level and fail to be embodied, because we don’t have a way to objectively define what those values mean at an operational level.

How to make your company's values into something tangible:

Although we may all agree that “customer service” is a core value and a competitive advantage, if we can’t define what effective customer service looks like at every level of the organization, it becomes a meaningless buzzword instead of a blueprint to guide our performance.

HRSG competency consultant Christine Lamothe explains it this way:

“Values are what are important to the organization, and competencies are the tools that support that. Maybe a continuous learning environment is critical for the organization. Maybe it’s client satisfaction or quality of service. Whatever it is, you would look at core competencies to support that. It’s a marriage of the ‘what’ and the ‘how.’ How do your employees demonstrate those values day to day?”

By providing that tangible element, core competencies enable organizations to translate their values into day-to-day workplace behaviors that can be identified, measured, supported, and developed using specific HR tools.


Case Study: Connecting Values and Core Competencies for OPSEU

Problem: The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), an HRSG client, had a strong set of political and ethical values that weren’t connecting with their hiring and performance-management processes.

Solution: With HRSG's help, they went through the process of selecting core competencies that aligned with those values so that they could bring clarity and consistency to their HR practices.

“When we look at potential candidates, we are looking at the six core competencies and determining whether these people fit the organization and fit our values,” explains Nazlin Mohamed, OPSEU’s Supervisor of Employee Relations. “It’s helped us to determine the right kind of people and communicate with our staff in terms of what’s expected.”

OPSEU is leveraging their core competencies throughout the talent management lifecycle, starting with the development of a set of interview questions that enables them to identify candidates whose values are the right fit.

Next, OPSEU plans to use core competencies to guide performance management activities and create specialized learning development plans that will ensure employees are supported to grow in ways that reinforce the organization’s values.

For OPSEU, a strongly values-conscious organization, competencies were a way to reinforce and support their existing culture. But an organization doesn’t need to have formalized values in place to benefit from the core competency selection process.

In fact, the process can help to crystallize those unspoken values that differentiate, motivate, and inspire the organization.

To learn more, check out the full case study below on how OPSEU used competencies to achieve consistency and accountability.


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Post last updated: March 19, 2019.

About the Author

Sarah Beckett

Sarah is an experienced marketer with over 12 years experience. She drives HRSG brand marketing strategy and the implementation of all related programs.

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