Acing competency based interviews

Written by: Gemma Saunders
Published on: 1 Aug 2014

Gemma has over fourteen years of experience in recruitment working across a number of sectors and delivering on roles from graduate campaigns to Board level hires.  

That dread when you hear that the next stage of interview is going to be a 'competency based interview' is familiar to most of us; what if my mind goes blank, what if I don't have any good examples, what if I have to make something up? Competency based interviewing (CBI) has replaced the old 'biographical chat' where the interviewer goes through your CV and asks questions about your past roles, in an attempt to bring a more scientific and fair approach to interviewing. Competence is described as 'an observable skill or ability to complete a task successfully'.

The theory is that every job has a number of key competencies necessary to do the job well – HR should be sitting down with Line Managers to decide what these competencies are and what is critical. Often key values or competencies which are at the core of a company culture will also be measured during an interview and these might form a 'competency framework' for the organisation.

The best way to 'ace' a CBI is to prepare properly and put time aside to do this:

  1. Ensure you have a job description or brief. These will usually give some indication of the competencies necessary for the role and might even list them. If you don't have a JD refer back to the job advert as they will often be included on this.
  2. Research on the company website as this will often include information on values and competencies that employees are expected to display, in particular look at the 'careers' section if there is one.
  3. Once you have a list of competencies you need to think of examples where you have shown you have this competency; for example, working under pressure, influencing others or managing conflict. Try to keep the examples work-related but if there is a fantastic example outside of work, such as from University or sports that's fine.
  4. Competency based questions will usually consist of something like 'Tell us about a time when you had to work under pressure to achieve something against a tight deadline'. When talking through your example ensure you use the STAR structure – Situation, Task, Action, Result – so describe the situation, what was the task, what did you do and what was the outcome?  You will often be asked what 'would you do differently' or 'what didn't work and how did you handle this', so be prepared for these questions too.
  5. Even examples where something has gone wrong are fine as long as you can show that you have learnt from this and would change your approach next time.
  6. TOP TIP – remember to say 'I' and not 'we'! The interviewer is not assessing your team or your manager so make sure that you talk about 'your' role and what 'you' did.
  7. Prepare one or two examples for all of the competencies and you will be fine but try to keep your answers relatively succinct.

Despite all this it's still worth remembering the 'halo and horns effect' – if the interviewer likes you they will mark you more highly than someone they don't like, even if you give the same answer in a competency based interview….so remember the basics and smile, make good eye contact , have a firm handshake and relax and be yourself.