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Guide to Competency Based Interviews


What is a competence based interview?

A ‘competence based interview’ is an interview in which each candidate is asked similar questions, designed to obtain information about the match between the candidate’s competencies and those required for the job.

What is special about a competence based interview?

In many organisations interviews held nowadays use competencies. Whilst competencies are widely used within companies, for many of us interviews can be our first real experience of using them so it is important to prepare for a range of competency questions. 

In simple terms, a competence is about the way we do things or “behaviours” we use. If you are successful at “Team Working” for example, you will do things in a certain way that will make you successful at this competence. Competencies describe these behaviours and are the result of a mixture of skills, abilities and knowledge. A competency based approach brings all these things together under one heading. 

Once you understand what a competence is, the approach used during a competence based interview becomes clearer. It’s a structured way for the interviewer to find examples and evidence of when you demonstrated the range of behaviours that make up an individual’s professional competence.

Remember, whilst a competence based interview will focus mainly on competencies, other areas may also be covered in a more conventional way.

How is this different from other interviews?


In a competency based interview, questions that give information about the key competencies for the job are asked.  These questions concentrate on the most important parts of an individual’s past experience, focusing on the behaviours that were demonstrated.  The responses will then allow the interviewer to ‘match’ the individual to the job, based purely on what is necessary to be successful in the role.


So what will happen during the interview?


Before focusing on the behavioural competency interview questions, initially the interviewer(s) will usually ask you some questions about yourself and your background to get to know you better.  These will be followed up with questions to gain information about the key competencies, often beginning with phrases like:

‘Tell me about a time when ......’
‘Describe an occasion when .....’
‘When has it been important to .......’

This may feel strange at first, not least because it appears rather formal as an approach, and the interviewer will be taking notes of all the evidence for each of the competencies from your responses to the questions.

Remember that by asking competency interview questions, the interviewer is interested in finding out about you and what you have achieved, not about your team, project or manager’s achievements.  So, remember to talk about the part you played in the team’s achievements, your contribution to the project’s deliverables and how you have supported your manager and the business through the achievement of your objectives.

During the interview, remember that you should try to answer the questions as specifically as you can.  If the interviewer stops you from expanding on a particular point, don’t let this put you off.  The interviewer must ensure that you have sufficient opportunity to discuss the key competencies they are interviewing for.  They may steer you back onto areas where you describe your competencies in more detail. 

There will be an opportunity at the end of the interview for you to add any information that you think is relevant, but has not been covered during the interview.  This is also the point at which you should ask any outstanding questions you have about the job.

It is important that both parties engage the process and leave the interview with all questions answered.

What is the interviewer looking for?


You will now understand that a competence based interview focuses on finding examples of when you used certain behaviours which is where the competency based interview questions will be experienced. What will I be compared with?

It is also useful to look at the findings of some external research into selection decisions made by interviewers. This research shows that there are 3 key factors around typical competency based interview questions:

Ability e.g. do you have the right competencies? 
Want e.g. how much do you want this job? 
how will you show this?
Fit e.g. how well will your skills fit within the team?

Remember to think about all three of these factors when preparing for your interview and have a clear idea on the list of key competencies that the interviewer will be seeking. 


What will I be compared with?


The interviewer will make two key comparisons in deciding whether you are the right person for the job: 

How do you compare against the requirements of the job?
How do you compare against the other candidates

This is important. You may not have the level of experience suggested in the advertisement. Whether this means you are successful at getting an interview can depend on the other candidates as well, including their key competencies. 


What is the format?


The line manager who is recruiting will normally run the interview either by themselves or with a colleague either someone from their team or a human resources representative may take part. 

Interviews normally last between ¾ hour - 1 hour, but can take longer or shorter depending on the nature of the job.   The interview will normally cover 3-4 competencies which are key to the job and you can expect competency interview questions around these core requirements for the job.

In addition to the interview, you may be asked to complete other tests, e.g. a work based exercise; a computer simulation; or psychometric test. If these are to be used, you can expect to be advised beforehand. 


How do I prepare


Preparation is vital. You will need to put together examples, or “scenarios”, about when you demonstrated these competencies. One way of approaching this is shown here:

Gather together your current CV along with details of your objectives, performance development reviews and any other relevant information.

Take one or more blank sheets of paper and brainstorm your roles and key responsibilities over the past few years.  You might list them or use a mind-mapping technique.

Now, for each area of your responsibilities think about your achievements. What did you achieve, what happened as a result of your actions, what were your successes?

Finally, look through your roles, responsibilities and achievements and pick those that are good examples of you demonstrating the key competencies. For each of the key competencies you should have at least two good examples.


Turning your preparation into good answers

The next step is to be able to get this information about your skills and abilities in an interview.

Think about the below:

Jo has 15 years experience and has worked in his current job for the last 3 years. Jo has now applied for a job in another department. In the interview, the first question is “Tell me about a time when you have needed to justify to others a difficult decision?” 
Interview 1…

Jo felt that with all his experience he did not need to prepare for the interview. When he is asked the question he tries to think about an example. He stops to think. Finally, he remembers something that happened about 3 years ago. Jo starts to answer the question and starts a lengthy general description of the situation.

Or Interview 2…

Jo feels that with all the experience he has a good chance of getting the role. When he is asked the question he thinks through the scenarios he has prepared. He stops to think. Of the two good examples he has, one is better for this question. He spends the next few moments thinking how to relate the example to the question that he has been asked. 

Remember, your preparation means that you have a range of scenarios to use. When you are asked the question, stop and think about which one is most appropriate. Think about how you will use it to answer the question that you have been asked. 

When you are ready to answer, a useful technique to use is “STAR”:

S Situation e.g. where were you working? when? 
T Task e.g. what was the objective?
A Activity e.g. what actions did you take to achieve this
R Result e.g. what happened as a result of your actions?

STAR makes it easier for the interviewer to understand your answer. It also helps you remain focused. 

You now need to think about the difference between an answer that is okay and an answer that really hits the mark. 

Think about these general rules which will help you:
Be time specific … in January …
Focus on what you did … my role, I …
Focus on what actually happened not on what might have happened

Being vague … in general, I always …
Opinions which are not relevant … I don’t like my boss …
Talking about your colleagues and not what you did…we, the team ….
Name dropping
Personal matters, unless you are asked 
Humour – it can go badly wrong!

Remember these are only general rules and sometimes it is appropriate to break them!


More advanced techniques


The following techniques can help you in an interview. However, they will only help you if you are well prepared and confident. 

If you remember something later on in the interview:

  • “perhaps I should have highlighted earlier on …”

If you’re not sure whether you have answered the question:

  • “are there any areas you would like me to go into more detail?”

If asked about your weaknesses and failures:

  • use one which you have overcome and learnt from

If you can, use a weakness that is also considered a strength:

  • For example, having a high attention to detail can be both a strength and a weakness



And after the interview?


The interviewer will review the notes taken during the interview, and make a decision regarding each candidate’s suitability for the role.

In summary then, the Competence Based Interview is being used to improve the objectivity and quality of selection decisions.  It makes no additional requirements of you, but you should prepare for the interview in a slightly different way, as outlined above.  The benefit of this approach is that it allows each individual interviewed the opportunity to explain how their own competencies and experience match the particular requirements of the job.


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