A guide to Success Profiles: what recruiters need to know in the UK and beyond

By on 23/02/2022 | Updated on 28/02/2022

In this guide, we outline what public sector managers and HR professionals need to do to build a merit based, diverse and inclusive workforce

Success Profiles are a recruitment framework used within the UK civil service since 2019, which enable an organisation to identify the key skills, knowledge, experience, behavioural competencies and personal attributes required for successful performance in a given role. Global Government Forum has produced a guide on what job applicants need to know about Success Profiles. Here, we focus on guidance for recruiters.

So, what are the intended benefits of Success Profiles – and of competency frameworks, which were used in the UK civil service previously – and why do civil service organisations use them? Do these approaches help to achieve recruitment on merit? And what are the lessons from the UK civil service experience that recruiters elsewhere might find helpful to consider in developing the best approach to building a diverse and effective workforce?

The intended benefits of Success Profiles

Before the introduction of Success Profiles, UK civil service recruitment was based on a competency framework – a structure that sets out and defines each individual competency, such as analysis or people management, required by individuals working in an organisation – that provided the basis for the questions that applicants were asked in an application and at interview. The approach aimed to provide clarity on what recruiters should expect of applicants, on how job seekers should prepare their applications, and on how civil servants could widen their experience and skills in order to develop their career prospects. It was also intended to help recruiters assess transferable skills of those from career backgrounds outside the civil service. Many regarded it as an improvement on previous approaches in which interviews could be little more than an unstructured conversation. As the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) says: “Competency frameworks, when done well, can increase clarity around performance expectations and establish a clear link between individual and organisational performance. When developing and implementing a framework, care needs to be taken to balance detail with flexibility and avoid an overly prescriptive and non-inclusive approach.”

The UK’s Civil Service Competency Framework appears not to have got this balance right, as feedback from managers indicated that the system was too rigid. Applicants were expected to give real-life examples of when they had previously demonstrated examples of the competencies required for a specific job. Because it focused only on past behaviour, it did not allow for a more rounded view of the person. Civil service recruiters became concerned that it resulted in a narrower range of candidates being selected than might have been achieved with a more flexible approach. It also raised concerns about diversity and inclusion outcomes.

Upcoming webinar: Round peg in round holes: how governments can master recruitment

The civil service decided to move recruitment away from using a solely competency-based system of assessment and to introduce a more flexible framework which could assess candidates against a range of elements using a variety of selection methods.  

The new framework was based on “success profiling”. Like competency frameworks, this gives selection panels greater clarity on what to expect from applicants and helps job seekers know what they are expected to demonstrate in the application process. But Success Profiles, as used in the UK civil service, include a wider range of elements, alongside competencies, in the recruitment process. In particular, recruiters may use strengths-based questions which consider applicants’ attitude and motivation in relation to what the job will require. The applicant therefore has more opportunity to demonstrate their personal strengths as well as past achievements. Applications, CVs and interviews are the most common ways in which the elements are assessed, but the guidance lists many approaches that may also be used including presentations, judgement tests, and written exercises.   

Do Success Profiles and competency frameworks help to achieve recruitment on merit?

Competency-based and strength-based approaches are used by a wide range of recruiters, which suggest that they have found them to be effective. The CIPD found in its 2020 resourcing and talent planning survey that while competency-based interviews were popular, 36% of employers prefer values-based interviews – which show the extent to which applicants match the values of the employer organisation – and 31% incorporate strengths-based questions into their selection process. (The UK Civil Service Success Profiles incorporates strengths-based as well as competency-based questions).

Rupert McNeil, UK government chief people officer has said “we know that Success Profiles are a more inclusive, fairer and more accurate approach to assessment and hiring decisions, and build on an individual’s natural talents and strengths. Testing strengths, or using a blended approach, also ensures less-experienced candidates have the opportunity to demonstrate their potential, strengths, enthusiasm and transferable skills, and not just their experience”.

Read more: How strengths-based recruitment can help civil services attract neurodiverse talent

But how much evidence is there that approaches such as the Civil Service Success Profiles (and previously the Competency Framework) really are better at achieving recruitment on merit? Compared to approaches that do not use frameworks, both competency frameworks and success profiling should in theory ensure greater consistency in the recruitment process; the intention being that one potential source of bias – recruiter discretion in the approach to the application process and interview – is reduced. But proving that they achieve this outcome is difficult. The civil service is becoming more diverse, but it is unclear what role approaches such as Success Profiles have played in this. One challenge is separating out the impact such approaches might have had on the diversity of recruits from other initiatives such as diversity awareness training, diversity targets and other changes to recruitment procedures such as name-blind sifting of applications. This is an area where more research is needed and further evaluation can be expected now that Success Profiles have been in place for a few years.

What to consider when introducing a success-profiling approach to recruitment

So, what questions might the UK Civil Service Success Profiles (and the competency-based system that preceded it) raise for those in other organisations and countries? Whenever we are learning from a different organisation or country, it is important to take account of the local context and capacity. What is right in one context might not work in another and sometimes an incremental approach to change can work better than bringing in a completely new system in one step. The following points may help those outside the UK civil service who are considering the relevance of the UK approach for them:

  1. Strengths and limitations of a competency-based approach

The UK Civil Service Success Profiles was a response to feedback that the previous solely competence-based approach was too narrow and inflexible. If you use a competency-based application system, it may be worth considering these questions:

  • What feedback have you gathered on your current system from managers who have recruited people using it?
  • Is the current system recruiting the workforce you need in line with the organisation’s goals and values? Is it achieving the diverse workforce that you need?
  • Might your current system be too narrow an approach for getting the best person for the job and for supporting diversity and inclusion?
  • What is most useful about your current system and how can you build on this?

2. Keeping the approach simple enough

The UK Civil Service Success Profiles contain a lot of detail, for example under the descriptions of ‘Behaviours’ (which outline the competencies, such as delivering at pace, that applicants should demonstrate). Some have questioned if the Success Profiles approach overcomplicates recruitment. If you have, or are developing, a similar system the following questions may help you assess whether your approach is simple enough:

  • What is the optimal balance between providing sufficient detail to give a comprehensive picture of expectations and keeping a framework short enough for people to find it manageable?
  • Is it clear which parts of the system are essential core components and which are optional?
  • How can you address the needs of technical professions without overcomplicating the main framework?
  • If you develop a new system, how can you make it more than a ‘competency framework 2.0’ (i.e. more than just a rebranded competency framework?)

3. How can a Success Profiles approach support staff development

One of the claimed benefits of the UK system is that it enables civil servants to plan their career around the ‘Strengths’ and ‘Behaviours’ set out in the Success Profiles framework. These questions may help you consider how best to enable this if you have, or are developing, a similar system:

  • Is the content of your framework aligned with what the organisation needs? Were line managers and heads of profession sufficiently involved in its development?
  • How can you raise awareness of the role of your framework in career development?
  • What support needs to be in place (guidance, mentoring, training etc) to ensure your framework supports career development?

4. What support do recruiters need

A more flexible system places more trust in individual recruiters and selection panels. Such empowerment of recruiters is a positive development, but it also means recruiters may need more support and training to help ensure consistency, avoid unconscious bias, and to make optimal use of the system’s flexibilities. Such support needs to cover all aspects of the recruitment process including drafting vacancy notices, sifting applications, interview skills and giving applicants feedback.

  • What approach does your organisation take to providing support for line managers and all those involved in recruitment?
  • How are you gathering feedback from recruiters about the process?
  • How might such support be strengthened further?

5. What support do applicants need

Prospective applicants might have concerns about a new or existing system and will need support.

  • What forms of support (guidance, Q&A sessions, training etc) is needed in your organisation to ensure applicants understand what is expected and that any misunderstandings they have are addressed?
  • How are you gathering feedback from applicants on their experience of the existing system?
  • How could you gather information on potential applicants’ concerns about any new approach?

The above questions are useful both for considering your existing system and in how you would manage any changes to a new approach.

Overview of the UK Civil Service Success Profiles framework

The Civil Service Success Profiles guidance explains that “the Success Profile framework moves recruitment away from using a purely competency-based system of assessment. It introduces a more flexible framework which assesses candidates against a range of elements using a variety of selection methods. This will give the best possible chance of finding the right person for the job, driving up performance and improving diversity and inclusivity”.

The Civil Service Success Profiles are made up of five elements (listed here in alphabetical order):

Ability – the aptitude or potential to perform to the required standard
Behaviours – the actions and activities that people do which result in effective performance in a job
Experience – the knowledge or mastery of an activity or subject gained through involvement in or exposure to it
Strengths – the things we do regularly, do well, and that motivate us
Technical – the demonstration of specific professional skills, knowledge or qualifications

Not all elements are relevant to every job, and the elements for a specific role will be tailored to it and the type of person needed. Applications, CVs and interviews are in practice the key ways in which the elements are assessed, but the guidance lists many approaches that may also be used including presentations, judgement tests, and written exercises.

As well as supporting diversity and inclusion goals and making it more likely recruiters will select the best person for the role, Success Profiles were designed to better reflect the increasing development of professional functions (e.g. commercial and procurement, policy, project management and delivery) across government. (You can find a list of civil service professions here).

Competencies remain a large part of the Success Profiles system, but they are now called ‘Behaviours’. Vacancies on the civil service jobs site will usually mention four or five Success Profiles Behaviours that will be a key element of how applications are sifted for interviews. Sometimes, vacancy notices will specify that if there are a large number of applications then one of the civil service Behaviours (specified as a “lead behaviour” in the vacancy) will be used as the basis for the sift. On occasion, the vacancy notice will explain that a Personal Statement will instead be used as the basis for the sift.

As well as facing interview questions relating to these Behaviours, applicants can expect questions that demonstrate relevant Strengths e.g. questions that explore the applicants strength as an influencer might be along the lines of “Can you tell me about a time when you implemented change, bringing your team on board?”. Strength questions aim to reveal the way an applicant would approach an issue, what they do well, and their motivation. The guidance contains an A-Z list of Strengths that might be required in a role and also show which Strengths map across to which Behaviours.

Success Profiles are not only used in the UK Civil Service. For example, a Leadership Success Profile is used in the New Zealand public sector. Many organisations in the public and private sectors use Success Profiles in their recruitment, talent, training and organisational development strategies.

Global Government Forum provides a range of training seminars on management, leadership and team-building topics, which can be found on our website: Civil Service Learning | Global Government Forum. Our range of topics includes a training seminar on Managing Performance and Leading Remote Teams in Government and Creating and Growing a Productive Team – Interviewer Skills.

About Tony Cash

Tony Cash is an expert on policy, strategy and regulatory best practice. He is a former civil servant and his roles included Head of Strategy and Communications for the Joint Trade Policy Unit and Deputy Director of the Department for Business internal training team. In his role as a training consultant, he has trained people in policy-making best practice and better regulation across the UK and overseas (including Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dubai, Guernsey, Ireland, Kenya, Malta and South Africa). He has worked with many government organisations on impact assessment. He also provides training on many related subjects including change management, governance, leadership, parliamentary affairs, project management, public service reform, risk management and strategic management. He delivers training in a wide range of formats including online. Tony is also an organisation development expert (MSc OD) and holds qualifications in coaching (Certificate in Executive Coaching), training (CIPD Certificate in Training Practice), project management (PRINCE 2 Foundation and Practitioner) and Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

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