How to Run Competency Based Interviews

Measuring Skills for Specific Roles

How to Run Competency Based Interviews - Measuring Skills for Specific Roles

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Focus in on your candidates' true potential by testing their competencies accurately.

When you're recruiting for a role that has specific skill requirements, how can you be sure that you get the right person with the right experience?

Often qualifications and even work experience are not enough to accurately determine skill level. Competency based interviews can help here. They are a rigorous interview format you can use to help ensure that you hire someone whose skill set accurately matches the specific needs of the job.

In this article, we'll look at what competency based interviewing is, how to use it, and the benefits that it can offer.

What Is a Competency Based Interview?

A personal competency is a combination of knowledge, skills, judgment, and attributes. Examples of competencies might include teamwork, leadership or decision-making.

Competency based interviews test whether a candidate has the precise knowledge, skills or values that are necessary to be effective in the role that you are recruiting for.

This method is very different from an informal "getting to know you" interview style, which focuses on the candidate's personality, and can be better used to assess whether they are a good "fit" with your organization's culture and values.

In a competency based interview, questions are designed to assess a candidate's strengths and weaknesses in the key competencies required by the role. You can then score their responses against agreed criteria to build up an objective picture of their suitability.

The Benefits of Competency Based Interviewing

Research has shown that unfocused interview techniques lead to huge numbers of unsatisfactory hires every year, each one costing the equivalent of around one-fifth of the position's salary. [1]

Hiring the wrong person can result in sub-standard work and missed deadlines, causing team overload, as other people are forced to pick up the slack. You may find that you need to spend on more training and development than you'd planned, or even a second recruitment drive.

Competency based interviewing can help organizations to avoid this inefficiency, by focusing effort on the early stages of recruitment.

The strict selection criteria used ensures that you can identify and eliminate candidates who have a distorted view of their ability, and removes the need to rely on a "hunch."

Both the organization and its employees can benefit. After all, a competent and capable recruit will likely be much happier in the job than someone who's struggling, or afraid of being "found out," and will more likely stay. Conversely, an applicant may discover before they commit to a role that they wouldn't enjoy it, and they'll save you time and money in the long run if they choose to leave the process.

Finally, competency based interviewing can help with the governance of your recruitment processes. It is an evidence-based, transparent process that uses specific criteria to test all candidates equally, fairly and consistently.

How to Use Competency Based Interviewing

You can hold an effective competency based interview by following these three key steps:

Step 1: Develop Clear Selection Criteria

It's important to be crystal clear on the skills, attributes, knowledge, and behaviorial traits that you need a recruit to demonstrate, so that you can test and compare candidates fairly and intelligently. So, you'll need to develop a watertight set of selection criteria.

Your organization might already have a competency framework and you'll likely have a team skills matrix. Supplement these by researching the particular role you are intending to fill.

For example, for an existing position, focus on the job description: does it accurately reflect the competencies needed to perform the job? Talk to the person currently in the role about what they do to check whether the job description needs to be updated.

You'll need to start from scratch for a new post. Think about what a new recruit's responsibilities will be and how you'd like them to progress in the role. Consult people who do similar work, or who will be in the same team. Look at similar roles being advertised elsewhere as well for further tips.

Decide what skills are essential to the role, and which are merely desirable. You may find that a candidate fulfils most but not all of your competency criteria. This doesn't mean that you should automatically "write them off." The candidate could still make a great addition to your team as long as they are willing to learn and you're able to provide support and training.

Step 2: Prepare Effective Questions Using the STAR Technique

Once you've decided your selection criteria, it's time to draw up some questions that focus on each core competency. Think carefully about how you'll word each one and structure them in a way that enables the candidate to provide specific examples of each competency.

For instance, asking, "When was the last time you had to deal with a colleague who struggled to organize their workload? What did you do?" is more informative than asking the hypothetical, "What would you do if you had a team member who was disorganized?"

Similarly, a description of what the candidate did as part of a team won't tell you what they did or what decisions they took as an individual. So, be ready to probe further with follow-up questions.

The STAR technique can be particularly useful here. It stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Result. It's usually used as a method for answering interview questions, but can provide an excellent framework for structuring your competency based questions.

For instance, you could use it to frame a question about conflict resolution as follows:

  • Situation: "Tell me about a time when you had to resolve a conflict on your team?"
  • Task: "What did you decide to do to resolve it and why did you decide to handle it that way?"
  • Action: "What action did you take and what skills did you use?"
  • Results: "What did you achieve? How did your team benefit?"

It's perfectly OK to ask for examples of when things didn't go so well. In fact, this can help to test how well the candidate works under pressure and whether they demonstrated resilience. But be sure to keep a balanced and reasonable tone, and avoid focusing on the negative. Good candidates may be turned off if they feel they are being interrogated!

You will also need to think about how you are going to test the attributes that you have identified. Consider a range of aptitude, proficiency and personality tests as appropriate.


If you're struggling to think up some competency based questions, see our worksheet on Sample Interview Questions and our article Hiring People: Questions to Ask for ideas.

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Step 3: Conduct a Structured Interview Process

A good competency based interview should be structured and have precisely defined goals. So, remember to be disciplined and to keep your focus.

You're asking for a lot of information from the candidate, and you need to be able to retain, manage and use the information that they give you, effectively.

The following points can help you to do this:

  • Have a set structure. Ask each candidate exactly the same initial questions. Make sure that each interviewer on the panel understands the scoring system and how to use it, so that each candidate is graded fairly and consistently.
  • Listen carefully. Active listening is particularly useful when you need to process and understand complex information. Pay attention to the candidate and acknowledge their responses by nodding or giving the occasional "uh-huh." However, make sure that your actions are mindful, and not mechanical, and don't allow yourself to get bored or to lose focus.
  • Allow thinking time. Don't be afraid of silence. You're asking questions that require a lot of thought, so give the candidate the space that they need to think through their answers. It's also important to give yourself time to evaluate what they are telling you.
  • Take notes. Competency based interviews are in-depth, and interviewers sometimes disagree on what they remember was said, so be sure to take full and accurate notes. However, take care to avoid unconscious bias in your observations. For instance, "they looked down a lot" is more objective than the interpretation "they were embarrassed and nervous."
  • Evaluate and discuss. Spend some time afterward discussing the candidate's test performance and looking at any examples of their work that they've brought with them.

Tip 1:

Don't let the interview structure become too rigid. Give each candidate space to talk about any additional expertise, or to explain something unusual in a resumé. Otherwise, you might both miss out in a way you could never have foreseen!

Tip 2:

No matter how well the candidate meets your selection criteria, be sure to consider wider issues, too, when you make your final decision.

For instance, do their values align with the organization's? Will their personality fit with those of their colleagues? Will their commute be sustainable?

Key Points

Competency based interviews can be used to precisely assess whether a candidate has the necessary skills, knowledge and personal attributes required to fulfil a specific role.

They can be particularly useful in helping organizations to improve the transparency of their recruitment processes, to reduce costs and employee turnover, and to improve job satisfaction.

You can use competency based interviewing by following these three steps:

  1. Develop clear selection criteria.
  2. Prepare effective questions using the STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Results) technique.
  3. Conduct a structured interview process.

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