People sat waiting for a job interview

Competency Based Interviews.

Competency Based Interviews.

A blueprint for success, every time

The competency based interview is often approached with trepidation by candidates. The format is very different to less structured interviews and requires a specific approach in order to succeed. It’s probably the only type of interview where answering questions with the right information but in the wrong way can mean failure. This guide is designed to help candidates succeed at the competency based interview by taking steps to prepare beforehand and to remain calm and focused during the interview itself. Read the following guide, practice your approach and you’ll never have to fear this interview format again.

Why do employers use the competency based interview?

This type of interview normally forms part of a wider interview process. It might be conducted over the telephone, or face to face depending on the company. It would usually be accompanied by a less structured interview at some point. Again all this depends on the company and its particular process. I’ve had some senior candidates fail this type of interview and some relatively inexperienced candidates perform excellently. The good news is that anyone can do well if they stick to the methodology.

The competency based interview is designed to assess your ability to do the job you have applied for based on past behaviour. More specifically, it looks at how candidates have performed previously against a set of competencies that are relevant to the job. The CIPD offers the following definition, ‘Competency’ and ‘competencies’ may be defined as the behaviours (and, where appropriate, technical attributes) that individuals must have, or must acquire, to perform effectively at work – that is, the terms focus on the personal attributes or inputs of the individual.’

So, the company interviewing you is trying to assess, based on past performance, whether you exhibit the right behaviours to succeed in the role. Therefore, you must find a way to get across to the interviewer that you have demonstrated the behaviours in real life situations.

A level playing field

As well as giving the company a structured way to assess candidates, it also offers two other things. Firstly, a level playing field, meaning that candidates can shine whatever their experience. Because it looks at behaviours, it works for all experience levels. Whether the candidate is a CEO or someone who has just graduated, everyone can find examples that will allow them to demonstrate the desired behaviours. The second thing the interview style allows, is for anyone to conduct the interview, regardless of their experience or particular approach. This means that large numbers of candidates can be interviewed by many different people in the organisation, and the results can be objectively assessed. As long as the interviewer sticks to the questions and accurately records the responses, candidates can be reassured that any biases held by the interviewer will have no impact on the results.

After the interview, the results are assessed and a score is given for each question, dependin on how much evidence of each behaviour the candidate has offered. If the candidate has not offered any evidence of the behaviour, then the score for that question would likely be zero. If the candidate has shown some evidence, then perhaps a score of one or two would be given and so on. Scores are typically on a scale from zero to four, although this is up to the company to decide and knowing the scoring system shouldn’t change your approach in any case. The scores are then added up to give an overall score for the interview, which can be compared like for like with other candidates. Hopefully you are starting to see that it is possible to score highly in this type of interview, if you follow the correct approach and make sure that you use the methodology to address each question in full.

Preparation is key

In order to shine in a competency based interview, preparation is one of the most important things to consider. You should know the type of interview you are going to be attending beforehand. Ask the company or your recruiter if you don’t know. Whilst you are very unlikely to be given the actual questions, you may be able to find out, or work out, the competencies and behaviours that the interviewer is going to assess. A lot of companies will list the competencies in their job specifications or descriptions. If the competencies are not given, why not try asking for them? A phone call to the company will show professionalism on your part, and demonstrate a diligent approach to your work. You could try saying, ‘In order for the interview to be as productive as possible, could you please forward me a list of the competencies that will be assessed?’ Most candidates won’t do this, so as well as being better prepared for the interview, you’ll also stand out from the crowd for the right reasons. To put this in a work context, would you ever turn up for an important meeting having done zero preparation? Your approach to interviews is a direct indication of your approach to work.

Typical examples of competencies that might be assessed are communication, decision making, resilience and ability to adapt. A quick Google search will bring up several websites with comprehensive lists of competencies and the likely questions that accompany them. If we take ‘working in a team’ as an example, you could be asked, ‘Give me an example of when you played a part in delivering a piece of work to a tight timescale?’ You can see that this question could be applicable to many different situations. A CEO might formulate an answer about a strategic review, whereas a school leaver might talk about working with others to finish a piece of coursework in time for a deadline. Either situation allows the question to be answered fully, using very different examples.

When preparing for the interview, sit down with your CV and think about situations you have faced where you can demonstrate the behaviours for each competency. Everyone can do this regardless of their experience. The important thing is to think about how you behaved in the situation and what the outcomes were.

STAR stories

The best way to ensure that you answer each question fully is to use the STAR methodology. This stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result. To answer the question above, you could say, ‘In my final year at university, I had a number of deadlines to meet. One of these was to collaborate with other students to present the findings of a year-long research project into social media in the workplace (situation). My role (task) in the group was to manage the production of the presentation so that it was ready to be delivered by the specific date. I recognised that everyone was busy with other work, so I put together a timetable and assigned tasks to each person, with regular meetings set out to check progress (action). Some people were struggling with their workload, so the meetings were really helpful and allowed us to reallocate some tasks to people who were less busy. Ultimately, the presentation was delivered on time and as a group we were awarded a first for that piece of work (result). This is just one example of how to use the methodology to fully answer the question to the satisfaction of the interviewer. I guarantee that you can think of similar examples from your career, education or even family life.

The interview will feel strange as it won’t have much of a flow to it. You’ll be asked a question, you’ll give an answer; the interviewer will sit quietly and write down your answer in full then ask you another question. This is normal for the interview style so don’t be put off by the silences.

Difficult subjects

Interviewers like to throw in difficult questions now and again, to explore how you react to change and adversity. A good example might be, ‘Tell me about a time when something you undertook went wrong. What did you do and what was the outcome?’ There is nothing to fear from answering the question, if you stick to the plan. Answering these questions can in fact impress upon the interviewer your suitability for the role. Everyone makes mistakes; it’s how they deal with them that’s important. Here you should talk about the situation and your tasks honestly. Describe what happened and what went wrong. From there you can set out the actions you took to turn things around and what the results were. With a bit of thought, it’s possible to turn most negatives into positives. One word of warning here though; don’t use examples that paint you in a bad light. You might think it was noble to stand up to your boss and refuse to do something you were asked to do. Your interviewer however might see you as someone who has a problem with authority. Context is everything and if you can’t get that across then it’s better to use another example.

In summary

Competency based interviews are useful for comparing a large number of candidates in an objective manner. They focus on behaviours, and can be conducted by interviewers with varying skill levels, meaning that you won’t be disadvantaged if you have a less experienced person interviewing you. Your answers will be scored according to how fully you answer the questions. The good news is that if you follow the methodology, you can greatly increase your chances of obtaining a high score.

Preparation is key. Find out if the interview is to be competency based, and ask for the competencies if they are not included in the job specification. Go through your CV and your experience, pull out relevant examples and practice your answers. Use the STAR methodology to formulate a complete answer and remember to cover each part fully.

Don’t be afraid of difficult subjects, prepare for them and have examples to hand where you can demonstrate how you turned adversity into triumph.

Stick to the plan and you’ll impress. Good luck!

Please share any of your experiences with this type of interview below.

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