Core EHS Competencies

Environmental health and safety (EHS)professionals spend a lot of energy improving their technical competency. Yes, they are becoming smarter, but they still can lose the battle to demonstrate that they add value to their businesses. There are other dimensions to competency that are key determinates of success. Managers need to take an inventory of where they stand. Here are some suggestions on how to accomplish this skills inventory.

Have you ever asked yourself why some EHS professionals are able to obtain business management support more often than others? People will use all kinds of excuses to explain why they were not able to gain backing for their programs. Often, these excuses have nothing to do with the real reasons why they failed to deliver results; sort of the upgraded versions of the "the dog ate my homework."

Today's vice presidents, directors and managers of EHS professionals struggle to find creative ways to demonstrate how their staffs deliver value to their business.1 Significant attention has been given to tailoring financial metrics, such as return on investment (ROI), to justify the expenditure of funds to implement EHS programs or install new information technology solutions. In our current business environment, justifying projects financially will likely go farther than the overused, "If you don't do this, you will" (a) go to jail; (b) suffer un-quantified risk/liability/image damage; etc.

There is more to succeeding at your job than simply going through the mechanics of ROI calculations and preparing impressive PowerPoint® presentations. Daniel Goleman's groundbreaking work on "emotional intelligence" helped dispel the notion that IQ is only one narrow dimension of competency.2 Managers must be able to assemble a portfolio of competencies within themselves, and their staffs, that will lead to superior (not just average) performance.

So What is a Competency?
The word "competency" has been used in a variety of ways for years. Most of us relate to this word when it is used to define the "core competencies" of a corporation. C.K. Prahalad and Gary Hamel coined this term in their 1990 Harvard Business Review article, "The Core Competence of the Corporation." 3 They defined core competencies as the collective learning and coordination of skills that harmonize streams of technology leading to competitive advantage. Several examples of core competencies include Intel's design of complex chips for personal computers, DuPont's safety, 3M's "sticky tape" technology and Honda's gasoline technology and small engine design.

Competency, in the context of individual success, takes on a slightly different meaning. Dr. James E. Leemann, adjunct professor at Tulane University, colleague and former DuPont safety, health and environmental manager, describes a competency as "a fundamental characteristic of an individual that can predict meaningful superior performance in a job." In Dr. Leemann's research and work to improve competencies inside companies, he has identified the competencies that distinguish superior performance among safety, industrial hygiene and environmental professionals.

Leemann notes, "One of the most interesting findings in the application of this research is the understanding of exactly why EHS jobs are so complex and difficult to perform. Although there are more than a dozen specific competencies that must be mastered to succeed, an individual's technical expertise did not differentiate superior from average performance. The good news is that all of these competencies can be developed through training." When compared to other technical professional occupations, environmental, industrial hygiene and safety professionals must master two to three times as many competencies to be considered superior performers.

Is the EHS Profession Ready for the Competency Movement?
The Center for Environmental Innovation, in collaboration with the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, is investigating the "health" of the professions.4 The research to date, led by Dr. Leemann, finds that EHS professionals are increasingly concerned that they cannot get their projects approved and their jobs seem fraught with endless barriers. It's tough all around, but EHS professionals appear to be particularly frustrated. If technical expertise does not differentiate superior from average performance, what might be the missing ingredients for success?

Professor David C. McClelland launched the competency movement with his 1973 paper "Testing for Competence Rather Than for 'Intelligence" 5 wherein he noted that traditional academic aptitude and knowledge content tests, as well as school grades and credentials 1) do not predict job performance or success in life and 2) are often biased against minorities, women and persons from lower socioeconomic strata.6 The area where EHS professionals need development and improvement is in the cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies. The results can be dramatic. For example, research has shown that one standard deviation in performance can be worth as much as 120 percent output value added to the organization.7 What specifically are these performance enhancing competencies?

  • Cognitive competencies focus on helping the EHS professional figure out what's causing a problem and what to do about it. Some of these competencies include such characteristics as technical expertise, analytical thinking, conceptual thinking and information seeking.

    Just because a particular competency, such as technical expertise, does not differentiate superior performance; does not make it unimportant; in fact, just the opposite is the case. With respect to the EHS professions, Dr. Leemann's research revealed that technical expertise was a "threshold" or "essential" competency required to perform at a minimal or average level. EHS professionals interact with sophisticated technical and managerial talent in other professions. There are underlying expectations of the level of EHS expertise these individuals should have just to get a seat at the table.

  • Interpersonal competencies provide an EHS professional with the skills to reach out to the appropriate individuals in the organization to obtain agreement on what the problem is and subsequently commit to identifying, developing and pursuing solutions to the problem. Some of the characteristics that distinguish interpersonal competencies include involving others and relationship building. Most EHS professionals would agree that having a relationship with decision makers ahead of time (and ensuring that they are involved in problem identification and selecting the solution) will make for a better outcome.
  • Intrapersonal competencies are all about personal effectiveness and maturity, which are internal traits that permit an individual to be successful. Some of these traits are self-control, perceptual objectivity, perseverance and achievement orientation.

All EHS professionals have experienced the proverbial "pressure cooker" situation. I recall an industrial hygienist telling me that she was being pressured by her management to stop a personal monitoring program because it was costing too much and feared the results might support future litigation against the company. She maintained control of her emotions (self-control) and took the time to understand her manager's and internal counsel's points of views and the reasons for these points of views (perceptual objectivity), which took several months to work through (perseverance). She was then able to sustain the monitoring program and demonstrate that the operators were not being exposed to harmful fumes (achievement orientation).

A Strategy for Competency Development
Most work situations will involve the simultaneous use of multiple competencies. To determine which competencies apply to a given work situation, it is important to define the roles and functions of the EHS group within the business. This can be accomplished by selecting a group of EHS professionals within the organization to identify the major elements of each function along with the criteria that defines performance success for each. Next, the expert panel nominates EHS professionals within the organization whom they believe meet the performance success criteria for each function. A competency specialist interviews these "model" EHS professionals to develop very detailed behavioral descriptions of how each person goes about his or her work.

After the interviews are completed, the competency specialist analyzes the transcribed interviews, looking for known competencies and conceptualizing new competencies from the interviews. From this analysis, a competency model for success is developed for the EHS occupations in the organization. The competency model is validated by both the competency expert and the panel to ensure that the identified competencies do indeed reflect superior versus average performance in a given job situation. Once the model is validated, it is ready to be used in the preparation of training modules for each occupation, development and career pathing, performance management, succession planning and new hires. Table 1 contains an outline of this systematic method.

Table 1.Adding EHS Value through Competencies

1. Establish an expert EHS professionals panel to:
  • Brainstorm the major EHS roles and functions
  • Brainstorm performance success criteria for each EHS function
  • Identify EHS professionals to be interviewed
2. Identify professional expert in competency to:
  • Interview selected EHS professionals
  • Analyze transcribed interviews for core and threshold competencies for each EHS occupation
  • Create Competency Models for each EHS occupation
  • Validate the competency mode with support from the panel
3. Apply competencies through training, professional development, performance appraisals, succession planning, etc.

EHS individual contributor and management positions are high-stress positions, requiring a deep understanding of not just the technical issues, but the other dimensions of competency mentioned in this article. Interpersonal competencies are especially important. Because no model has previously defined the requirements for achieving success in these occupations, EHS professionals are prone to seeking out technical knowledge in an effort to develop themselves. Although this knowledge enhancement is very important, even more critical is the need to develop specific cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies. Identifying and applying competency science to an EHS organization can provide EHS professionals with the necessary tools to vastly improve their performance and target what is needed for the business to achieve its goals.

1. See Manager's Notebook, "Where's the Real Value?," May 2003, by checking out the Archives at here at for a summary of how to identify environmental value.

2. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence. New York: Battam Books, 1995.

3. Prahalad, C.K. and G. Hamel, "The Core Competence of the Corporation," Harvard Business Review, 68 (1990): 79-91.

4. For a description of this project, "Pulse of the Professions," go to the Center for Environmental Innovation Web site at

5. McClelland, D.C., "Testing for Competence Rather Than for 'Intelligence,'" American Psychologist 28 (1973): 1-14.

6. Spencer, L.M. and S., Competence at Work - Models for Superior Performance, New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1993.

7. Hunter, J.E., F.L. Schmidt, and M.K. Judiesch, "Individual Differences in Output Variability as a Function of Job Complexity," Journal of Applied Psychology, 75 (1990): 28-42.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2003 issue of Environmental Protection.

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