The competency-based interview – a walkthrough

24 Feb 2015

Organisations regularly use competency-based interviews when hiring for a multitude of IT jobs because they assess candidates’ past performance with actual real-life examples, and provide a view of their future performance, says James Milligan of Hays.

Typically, competency-based questions are used for entry and executive-level jobs, and positions where there is an element of internal/external customer interaction, such as IT support, business analysis, project management and functional testing.

The reasons companies like them for graduate hiring is that the prospective candidates are likely to have very little work experience, and asking competency-based questions allows interviewers to get an insight into the candidates’ behavioural traits before they hire them. For experienced hires, competency-based questions allow an organisation to see how a prospective employee has behaved in previous specific scenarios.

If you’re a prospective candidate or a hiring manager, the good news is that the principles behind competency-based interviewing are very simple to understand and apply.

By just reading this article you will be able to gain insight in to how to answer or construct competency-based questions.

Competency-based interviewing works on the STAR principle. The STAR stands for:

  • Situation – This will be an open question and will start with “Tell me about or describe a situation when … ”
  • Task – This will be a funnelling question(s). “What was required?” “Who was required to do it?” “When was is due by?”
  • Action – What did the candidate specifically do? Skills used and behaviours.
  • Result – What was the outcome? A good interviewer will also ask: What did you learn or what would you do differently?

The questions will typically be based upon the candidate attributes in relation to the job description. The list below is not exhaustive, but outlines some of the most common competency subjects to come up during an interview. You will have to determine for the specific job which are the most appropriate:

  • Customer centric
  • Team player
  • Deadline driven
  • Self motivated
  • Influence
  • Resilience
  • Leadership

So now that I have identified the most popular, I am going to give a couple of real-life examples below from recent interviews I have conducted. I will outline the job that the candidate was interviewing for and the competency being tested for.

Job – Technical Support Agent

Competency – Customer centric

Situation – “Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond to deliver outstanding service to a customer?”

Task – “What was required? Why was it required? When was it required by?”

Action – “What specifically did you do?”

Result – “What was the outcome? Is there anything you would have done differently?”

Job – Project Manager

Competency – Time Management

Situation –  “Tell me about a time when you thought that you weren’t going to deliver a project on time?”

Task – “Why did this happen? What were the issues?”

Action – “What specifically did you do?”

Result – “What was the outcome? What did you learn from this?”

Job – CIO

Competency – Leadership

Situation – “Tell me about a time when you had to transform a business/team to create a high performance culture.”

Task – “What was required?”

Action – “What specifically did you do?”

Result – “What was the outcome? Are there any learns that you would apply if you had to do this again?”

As an interviewer

As you can see from above, it is not complex to understand how to construct competency-based questions as an interviewer. It is always sensible to have two interviewers in these styles of interview, allowing one person to focus on asking the right questions and the other person to assess the interviewees’ performance.

Interviewees who are not familiar with this style of interviewing can go off on tangents and it’s important that you pull them back on track by letting them know they have strayed away from what you are looking for. Direct them back to your question. In addition, if you need more detail, do ask additional probing questions in order to get into the specifics.

Scoring candidates:

There are many ways of scoring the interviewees’ performance, but I like to keep things simple by using the following points method:

1 – All negative responses

2 – Mostly negative responses

3 – Mixed between negative and positive responses

4 – Mostly positive responses

5 – Wholly positive responses

For example, if you ask five competency-based questions, the maximum score a candidate can get is 25 points. By scoring each candidate, this will allow you to compare and contrast.

As a candidate

Always check the job description in advance to identify the competencies. Prepare a couple of different examples that you could use for each competency should they come up.

Always answer the question with “I” rather than “we”. As “I” suggests that you owned the challenge, whereas “we” suggests that you were part of a team dealing with the challenge.

If you are interviewing through a recruitment agency, a reputable one will run through the above in order to make sure that you are as prepared as much as possible. If you are not recruiting through an agency then ask a friend or family member to do a mock interview using the above principles with you.

James Milligan

James Milligan is senior business director for IT and talent solutions at Hays Ireland

Job interview handshake image via Shutterstock

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