Competency-Based Interviews Guide

26 March 2021
12 minute
Competency Based Interviews Guide

What is a competency-based interview?

Competency based interviews are designed to test one or more skills - or competencies. Also known as behavioural, structured or situational interview questions, interviewers will ask a set list of questions based on a specific skill and your answers will be compared to a pre-identified list of answers. 

Another way to look at a competency-based interview is that, whereas some employers choose to look at your previous experience or even level of education, this interview technique is specifically designed to test your skills. Or, if you want a more subtle explanation - your past behaviour determines your future performance.

Because of this style of questioning, many employers from different sectors choose competency-based interviews at different stages of the recruitment process - larger institutions often choosing to use them as part of an early assessment phase.

Competency-based interviews are designed to let the candidate talk, inviting a response that indicates how the candidate dealt with previous real-life challenges and situations.

It is this past behaviour and the skills that are developed in dealing with situations that employers are seeking to understand. How has the candidate dealt with difficulties? Other people? Learning new skills? 

By using real-life situations and examples, employers and recruiters can identify which candidates have skills in areas of real life situations where other interview techniques may fail to explore past experiences.

What are some of the key competencies employers should be looking for?

Leadership, problem solving and team working are just some of the key skills that employers should be looking for in these competency-based interviews. The role of the interviewer is to discover what past, real-life situations the candidate has had to face, and how they overcame issues or developed their skill sets.

Fundamentally, a competency-based interview should be aligned with the requirements of the recruiter. For example, if the role calls for a good team worker, then questions should be asked around this skill area. There are, however, some clear competencies that stand out as key to any role. These include;

  • Communication

How good is the candidate at communicating within their own team, up the chain of command, or when facing clients? Are their skills better suited to non-verbal communication over face-to-face? Is it vice versa? 

  • Adaptability  

How does the candidate adapt to new situations? Do they get flustered or thrive with a changing business landscape? Do they like monotony in their working life or crave an ever-changing situation?

  • Leadership 

Has the candidate got any experience leading teams? What was that experience like? Do they enjoy being at the top of the chain of command or do they struggle because they don’t have the skills to lead? 

  • Problem Solving

How good is the candidate at finding solutions in their day-to-day life? Have they worked in an environment that required abstract thinking? Do they enjoy spending time trying to think of solutions over focusing on problems? 

  • Organisation

Organisation skills are important, especially in admin and leadership roles, so, how does the candidate manage their time? What do they find to be the biggest “time thieves?” What have they done to become better organised - and how has that helped them?

Of course, there are no limits to the kinds of skills required for different roles but having a wider, overall picture will help employers and recruiters get a better understanding of the candidate and if they fit the role that's being advertised. 

Other competencies that can be looked at in more detail include:

  • conflict resolution
  • decisiveness
  • independence
  • flexibility
  • leadership
  • resilience

Competency based interview questions

Competency-based interview questions are trying to discover more about the candidate and their relevant skill set. They will mainly be dependent upon the role and sector the candidate is applying for, but there are many standard style questions that interviewers can prepare.

What do some of these questions look like? Here are just a few examples.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

The interviewer is trying to analyse a few different things with this question. What do you consider an achievement? How was this actually completed? Did you lead a team, were you part of a team? 

A good answer could be “I oversaw the development of my sales team which led to a 20% increase of turnover in my last role.” Here you've clearly identified the achievement, given data to support the question and then shown how it has had an impact.

Give an example of a situation where you solved a problem in a creative way.

The interviewer is trying to understand how the candidate thinks and tackles problems. Does the candidate have a methodical approach or are they more lateral and abstract thinkers? 

A good answer would include showing a technique based solution. “I gathered data on the (x) problem at the time, gave myself some challenging questions, explored answers and ideas and then put a plan in place to overcome it.”

How do you cope with adversity?

The interviewer is trying to ascertain how the candidate handles stress and changing environments. What techniques do they have to cope with any of these internal challenges and is the candidate someone that would respond emotionally or logically to this situation. 

A good answer would include a personal experience in the workplace. “When my company downsized and changed elements of my role, I took the time to see what I could and couldn’t manage. From there I worked with senior management to discuss any of my concerns and went on training courses to fill skill gaps.” This shows pro-activeness and good stress management in a stressful situation. 

Describe a situation in which you led a team.

This is a simple question to understand - the interviewer wants to know what the candidate’s leadership skills are, how advanced they may be and what kind of leadership style they have. 

Good answers would need to include a real-life scenario such as “I was once tasked with delivering on a (x) project that required multiple people from different teams - this was business and time critical.” This identifies the problem, the people required to form your team and what the candidate did to complete it.

How candidates should answer competency-based interview questions

Competency-based interview questions are not only looking for answers from candidates but, also, an explanation. How did they overcome/develop/resolve is the value in the answer. Using the STAR technique can help candidates prepare for competency-based interview questions.

The STAR technique means that candidates can take some very actionable steps which include: 

  • Situation - a description of the background or context.
  • Task - a description of the task or challenge faced.
  • Action - explain the action taken and how/why it was chosen.
  • Result - how did it end, what was accomplished and what was learnt.

Example: Tell me about a time when your communication skills improved a situation?

Situation: Company X needed to roll out a new software package across different teams based around the world. As a lead technician it was your job to successfully implement the launch and oversee that every manager understood how it worked. 

Task: Identify all the stakeholders in the process and where the stumbling blocks could be. Communication was key to seeing the project succeed. This meant being able to not only develop written skills but also face-to-face communication and confidence on video calling. Language barriers were also a consideration so choosing language that was easy to understand was project critical. 

Action: Communicate openly and regularly with all the teams. Endorse every action of the rollout with a written procedure that all teams could access. Use task management software that showed rollout stages. 

Result: The project was delivered on time and all teams were communicated with. Your communication skills across different devices and platforms became much easier and fluid giving you confidence to deliver training and lead teams.

How can candidates prepare for competency based interviews? 

Candidates can prepare for competency based interviews by simply practicing, and the good news is, it’s relatively easy to do. A great place to start would be finding jobs that match skills and experience to a role and then practicing answers from potential questions those roles could pose.

Here are some other great tips: 

  • Before arriving at the interview, look over the job description and pick out the skills highlighted.
  • For every skill, have an example of how you have used/displayed that skill over time.
  • Any work experience, including experience from life, school or even in volunteering is good experience. If you don’t have much professional experience, be sure to show that you have the personal experience to back up any questions. 
  • Don’t lie about your experiences. Interviewers can easily spot this and mistakes will be unpicked. 
  • If you get stuck, don’t try and think on your feet. It can lead to flustered or false answers which as noted, is not a good start.
  • Get familiar with the STAR approach to answering competency questions. Practice questions using the system with friends or family and set up mock interviews with anyone you may know. 
  • Do a self-audit of your professional skills. Ask colleagues to give you feedback on your best skills and where you may need to improve. 
  • When describing your results, be sure to use numbers and have either very specific data or use terms like “approximately x percent”.
  • Avoid using industry jargon. Your interviewer may not know it and become confused by your answer. 
  • Have ready a set of short story answers of the 5-10 most common competency-based questions.
  • If you don’t have a suitable answer or experience, tell the interviewer. Say “I don’t have any experience to answer this question but, I do have experience in xyz”.
  • Relax in your answers as well. Over-rehearsing can lead you to sounding robotic. 
  • Finally, be sure to convey your personality. Scripted answers can take away from your natural charisma or confidence.

How to conduct a competency-based interview 

If you're performing a competency-based interview then being prepared is key. There are many things you can do as an interviewer to make sure you're ready. One of the easiest ways to make sure you're prepared is by taking a look at the most commonly asked questions in a competency based interview.

Firstly, set the criteria of the role you are recruiting for. What are the skills that are being requested by the manager/team? From communication skills to working independently, it's essential to know this. Once you have that information, you can then work your way to creating the right questions.

Questions should be thought about carefully - and how each one will be worded/structured so that the candidate can provide specific examples for each skill. Some questions might not get a full answer, so it's important to think of follow up questions.

As an interviewer, use the STAR structure to mentally tick off if the question exposes the skills you're looking for from the interviewee. Structure your question tailored around the STAR example. 

Finally, write down a structure of how you want the interview to go. Remember to actively listen to answers, allow time to think and discuss and evaluate the answers at the end.

How should employers score competency based interviews? 

Scoring of competency-based interview questions is down to each team and organisation but a good system would be to have a key from 0 to 5 which states poor to great. Take the total questions and score out of the maximum possible score. 

A poor answer (0) would be the interviewee didn’t show any associated skills with the questions. Follow up questions may be required if someone scores a 0. 

A relatively poor answer (1) would be that the candidate had limited experience. It could also be that when prompted they didn’t have much more to convey. 

A suitable answer (2) would be that the candidate has shown a good understanding of the question and has some of the required experience.

A good answer (3) would be that the candidate not only has a good understanding and some of the required experience but can also show other areas where the experience has helped.

A very good answer (4) would be that the candidate can demonstrate multiple skills and identify where it has helped the previous employer/life situation.

A great answer (5) would include multiple times that the candidate has been able to demonstrate that they can complete the job and exhibit other areas where this skillset can be used.

How effective are competency based interviews for employers?

As with many different interview styles, competency-based interviews for employers give a general understanding of a candidate. For skills-based interview, it helps them quickly understand what skills the candidate has in a short period of time.

But what are the main advantages for employers in a competency-based interview? Here are just a few:

  • It's easy for employers to have a set script for competency-based interviews. Alongside a score-point based system for candidates, this means that the system is fairer. The process is the same for every candidate and the measurement tool is equally the same - allowing the candidate an opportunity to shine.
  • Because competency-based questions require candidates to use their experiences over knowledge or education, it can be easier for them to open up and showcase the things that matter in a skills based interview, which are, of course, skills! 
  • Employers are looking for two main things when interviewing candidates; someone who would work well with the team and that same person who would excel at their job because of their skillset. A competency-based interview gives candidates every chance to show they have all the experience and capabilities necessary to do the job well.

How Thomas can help to identify key competencies in employees and candidates 

The Thomas Assessments page gives employers more information on these types of assessments and has advice for recruiting managers to help select the right candidates for the roles they're looking to fill. 

Online, filled with helpful guides, user-friendly interfaces and a system that provides real-time feedback and scoring, our workplace assessments and psychometric tests can guide you through finding the right candidate for your business. 

The Thomas recruitment platform combines technology and psychology to translate people’s diverse characteristics into easy-to-understand profiles that simplify decisions about recruitment, retention and development.

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