Competency based interview questions are said to be the most effective way to determine whether a candidate is suitable for a role. Each question in a competency based interview, sometimes referred to as a structured or behavioural interview, is intended to test the specific skills and knowledge, as well as attitude, of an individual. In any case study of this approach to interviewing, you will find variations of questions which begin ‘how do you…’ or ‘tell me about a situation when…’ Concrete examples are then required by the person being assessed, and these evidence-based answers will be marked against a pre-agreed set of criteria.
We decided to ask some of our consultants what they think of competency based interviews and which strategies and techniques have proven successful for them in their recruiting careers.
The approach, according to our experts, should always be driven by your needs first and foremost. In most cases, and especially if an assignment is retained, companies will insist on using competency based interview questions to determine candidate fit. A recruiter’s role is to work closely with you and advise which competencies should be tested. These are tailored to fit the brief of the role and discipline (what the successful candidate is expected to deliver) as well as your culture and the team the ideal candidate will join. Each company is different, though. Not only in the competencies they find attractive, but also in how they interpret what a certain behavioural competency is. Having an intimate understanding of how you think is critical to overall success.
“Creating a brief includes identifying a mix of behavioural competencies, technical abilities and experiences to assess prospective candidates against. Your job is to determine whether that evidence fits with your organisation’s interpretation of what a certain behavioural competency is.” Richard Morgan, Associate Director; Finance & HR
“Competencies should always be underpinned by values and a mission statement, but also those values must be embedded in your business and demonstrated by how people at the organisation act. Do they live up to them on a day to day basis or are they just words on a webpage? To get hiring right, you must know what makes a company tick.” Lisa Taylor, Associate Director; Engineering, Manufacturing & Supply Chain
Interviews should always be focused on assessing skills, knowledge and experience as well as competencies and an individual’s alignment to values. They’re not intended to test ability, but rather gather as much evidence as possible from candidates in relation to the pre-agreed competencies. The method coached at Nigel Wright is conversational. Our experts all agreed that you should judge the quality of answers given. How in-depth are they? Are they ‘high level?’ Do they provide lots of examples? If someone is skirting around the details or isn’t forthcoming with information about an area they claim expertise in, it’s usually a sign they’re not right. Candidates are always convinced, though, that they’re giving you what you need. This is where technique becomes important, as you must probe the evidence provided so that answers are as thorough as possible to get good insight into the candidate.
“If a candidate has lots to say and is very specific with their examples, it’s a good indication, in my view, of their ability. As an interviewer though, you must have the foresight to dig around and scrutinise what they tell you. More evidence will reinforce your assessment that it matches your expectations. However, it is a judgement you make. Competencies are not something that can be categorically proven. There’s a degree of interpretation involved in deciding whether someone demonstrates the competencies you’re seeking.” Richard Morgan, Associate Director; Finance & HR
“The conversational method has been used successfully for years. There are three things you should always seek to learn – competency to do the job; will they fit into the culture or what kind of support will they need to help them settle (progression opportunities, working with the team, etc.); and will they stay i.e. does their motivation match your needs. As a hiring manager, it’s your job to understand each of those areas.” Ben Debnam, Associate Director; Sales, Marketing and IT
“What I’m looking for is concrete examples of people’s achievements. The best candidates are the ones who arrive with lots of examples, and then can select one or two to elaborate on in more detail.” Sue O’Donovan, Managing Consultant; HR
Once you’re clear about the information you need from a candidate, style dictates how you go about gathering that information. At Nigel Wright, each consultant develops their own style over time which they use within the parameters of the competency based interview. Some will prefer a very structured approach, while others will be flexible – having a list of key questions to ask but mixing these in with other discussion points related to the role and your organisation. Scoring systems are used occasionally if you request it, though relying too much on metrics, our experts claim, can create issues as people can learn to answer competency based interview questions in the right way and score highly, while still not having the necessary skills, experience and knowledge for a role.
“I always list the different areas I need to cover during an interview and move from one to the other based on how the conversation flows. The most important thing is coming away with all the information you need, and if that means going back or jumping forward in your list, then that’s fine. Scoring systems are optional, but most of the time your assessment is based on your expectations of how candidates respond to questions.” Richard Morgan, Associate Director; Finance & HR
“If delivering competency based interviews you can use a structured interview framework with agreed questions and some form of scoring system, if you have a system in mind. Generally, though, the approach is all about making qualitative judgments based on your experience.” Ben Debnam, Associate Director; Sales, Marketing and IT
“Often, three competency based interview questions is enough. A typical interview will begin with assessing someone’s background and what technical value they will bring to the role, as well as discussing their achievements, motivations and attraction to opportunity. After you’re satisfied these areas have been covered, you ask the three competency based interview questions and make notes based on the answers given. All shortlisted candidates should be re-interviewed within this framework. You can then compare responses like for like.” Lisa Taylor, Associate Director; Engineering, Manufacturing & Supply Chain
“For competency based interviews, I always have a list of four or five set questions, structured in a certain way, so that it’s easy for me to later present the information. These questions are spread out across a two-page document, with plenty of space for me to make notes. I will, of course, ask other questions during the interview such as those which explore someone’s achievements, motivations and values etc. All of this informs my decision making.” Sue O’Donovan, Managing Consultant; HR
Networks and industry knowledge, as well as experience at making informed judgements about whether candidates have the right cultural fit and behavioural competencies to succeed are valuable. All our experts were adamant that, although some people are naturally stronger at judging character than others, experience developed over several years of interviewing people will make you better at it. During their first year at Nigel Wright, a Junior Consultant will conduct face to face interviews with between 200-300 candidates. So, once someone has been at our business for several years, they’ve got thousands of interviews under their belt.
“Experience certainly helps you become a better judge of character. You must also learn from your experiences though – if you still revert to the opinions you held at the start of your career then, I’d say, your judgement, won’t have improved. You must absorb what you see and hear and then learn from it.” Richard Morgan, Associate Director; Finance & HR
“It’s naïve to assume you’re always right. Good hiring managers are open to challenging themselves, listening to other’s opinions and admitting they’re wrong. However, to label your ability as ‘intuition’ gives it a disservice – its informed judgement based on experience of meeting thousands of people in similar situations.” Ben Debnam, Associate Director; Sales, Marketing and IT
“From experience, I can determine from a competency based interview where people are strong or weak in different areas and then advise you on how and where to probe further during the final interview stages. Expert hiring managers gain the ability to accurately benchmark and make a call on how experienced someone is.” Lisa Taylor, Associate Director; Engineering, Manufacturing & Supply Chain
Competency based interview questions are ‘skills and experience’ related and should probe things like leadership, driving change and transformation, managing conflict, people engagement and collaboration. Significantly, you must always probe in a way which reveals whether someone played a leading or supporting role in the examples given. The emphasis should be: did you really do it or were you just part of the team that did it? ‘We did this’ answers score low, and an ‘I did this’ answer scores highly.’ But then you need to find out how they did it. Or what role they played within the team. Some people are understated in their style too, while others are overstated – so all the while you’re assessing how truthful someone is by digging for tangible evidence.
General competency based interview questions
“A popular question is: ‘what makes you different to the other shortlisted candidates?’ The best way to answer this question is be very specific e.g. ‘there are two things that make me different to others’ and reveal attributes which you perceive are unique – get personal rather than making generic statements like ‘I’m hard working.’” Sue O’Donovan, Managing Consultant; HR
Leadership and management competency based interview questions
“’What’s the toughest situation you’ve ever faced?’ is an ideal question for leaders, as they will always have to deal with tough situations. The answer doesn’t have to be work related either, you’re just getting a sense of what they think ‘tough’ is, how they dealt with the situation, what their coping mechanisms are, etc. “Technical competencies are often taken for granted the higher you are in an organisation. At a senior level, it’s up to you to build teams of people with different technical expertise and knowledge. In interviews, you assess how someone uses the technical capability of their team to make an impact on the organisation, driving performance and growth.” Richard Morgan, Associate Director; Finance & HR
“Technical ability is less important when hiring senior candidates, and more focus is given to their ability to communicate a vision, engage people, etc. It’s more about ‘how someone takes people with them on a journey rather than ‘can you fix that machine?’” Lisa Taylor, Associate Director; Engineering, Manufacturing & Supply Chain
"You get a sense of seniority by asking people about the structure of their team or how they fit into the leadership team. Getting them to describe how they manage and lead, who they influence as part of their role, the challenges they’ve faced around relationships, people development, performance management and service delivery improvements - and how they’ve dealt with them - will also indicate leadership strength.” Sue O’Donovan, Managing Consultant; HR
Project management competency based interview questions
“Project management interview questions should aim to ascertain the role someone played during a project – were they the leader, a coordinator or just a member of the project team?” Sue O’Donovan, Managing Consultant; HR
Teamwork competency based interview questions
Engineering competency based interview questions
“Engineers are naturally technical, so it’s difficult to assess softer communication skills and determine who are the genuinely great leaders. You’re also trying to determine someone’s leadership style. For example, there are engineering or manufacturing leaders who remain invisible to their people – they rarely visit the shop floor and when they do, people assume there’s an issue. Companies will often be looking to avoid those people and appoint, for example, a ‘hands on’ plant manager who engages with people, knows the names of the guys in the factory, where they went on holiday, makes them feel valued and therefore more likely to buy into their vision.” Lisa Taylor, Associate Director; Engineering, Manufacturing & Supply Chain
Digital marketing competency based interview questions
“Digital is like sales because it’s all about metrics – page views, PPC conversions, etc. Candidates should know their numbers and have targets to hit. You also need to ensure they know the platforms they work with as well as assess what they’ve done versus what the team, or an external agency, has delivered.” Ben Debnam, Associate Director; Sales, Marketing and IT
Sales competency based interview questions
“You need to make sure sales candidates are clear about their numbers, have consistently hit or exceeded their targets and can demonstrate how they have achieved success including what obstacles have they overcome. Sales interviews should be the most straight forward because you’re basically assessing metrics, together with how well someone sells themselves.” Ben Debnam, Associate Director; Sales, Marketing and IT
HR competency based interview questions
“When recruiting at a lower level, testing technical knowledge is often a good idea E.g. ‘Tell us the five legal ways that you can sack someone?’ ‘What new laws will impact HR this year?’ ‘What forthcoming changes in the law will impact HR?’” Sue O’Donovan, Managing Consultant; HR
An alternative method to competency based interviews is to perform an unstructured interview – basically a conversation based around a few general questions which allow an interviewer to gain an overall impression of a potential candidate. Either method is representative of standard practices used by most recruiters and hiring managers today. Recently, though, there has been a spate of research criticising the validity of job interviews, with some analysts even saying they should be scrapped altogether. Is it time then, to rethink the job interview altogether?
In a Fast Company article from April 2018 Psychology Professor, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic summarises some of the research. For example, typical or ‘unstructured’ interviews are shown to have a mere 4% chance of predicting job performance of any given role, with predictability only improving up to 13% following structured competency based interview questions. Other studies referenced by Chamorro-Premuzic include one which confirmed that in employee selection, intuition and subjectivity are still largely favoured over more rigorous scientific approaches for identifying skills, knowledge and experience. And in another example, the issue of unconscious bias is raised, with studies highlighting how any attempt by interviewers to ignore preconceived views of gender, age, race, appearance, or social class, will, in fact, make these biases more prominent in their minds.
In an article by Management Today from June 2018, the absurdity of assessing someone’s performance during ‘one hour’ as being a suitable way to measure their ability to do a job is debated. Interviews, the author argues, usually, if not always, benefit certain personality types, such as those with natural charisma and confidence – extroverts rather than introverts – as well as people who perform under pressure. Yes, the article agrees these can be great qualities for some roles, but they don’t always determine job success. Companies may also miss out on great talent, it says, because someone lacks these characteristics and therefore is deemed a poor ‘fit’ for the culture.
In a popular TED talk from 2012, writer Susan Cain outlines how during the last few decades workplace cultures have changed to now almost entirely favour extroverts – large amounts of stimulation, shared desks, open plan offices. This has been detrimental for the personal and professional growth and wellbeing of introverts, who excel in quieter, low-key environments. Between a third and a half of the population are introverts, so that’s a lot of mismanaged talent and missed opportunities. Introverts, she says, also tend to miss out on leadership positions (we can assume because they don’t interview well) even though research indicates they’re better at delivering outcomes. In a now famous study from 2016, 21% of American CEOs were found to have psychopathic traits such as superficial charm and extreme self-confidence – perfect attributes for acing traditional job interviews – but not necessarily making them great leaders.
While Chamorro-Premuzic hints at the promise of Artificial Intelligence to offer more effective hiring solutions, envisioning a future where machines are used to strip out biases and play down personality traits during interviews, while offering robust data driven analysis to uncover predictive evidence that potential candidates will perform in certain roles – both he and Management Today settle on the fact that, certainly in the long term, humans will continue to play a key role in the job interview process. What needs to happen, therefore, is a rethinking of the job interview so that it incorporates a more scientific and numeric methodology and is undertaken by interviewers that are highly trained in delivering this approach as well as making judgements based on several data points, rather than relying on intuition and ‘gut-feel.’
Both articles agree that competency based interviews need to take absolute precedence, but these interviews should go to an extreme ‘next level’ by using well-structured and consistent questions each linked to a specific numerical rating and scoring system. Chamorro-Premuzic takes this a step further again by insisting that interviewers should prepare carefully designed scripts to control the direction of the conversation, always seeking factual and ideally data-based confirmation, of a candidate’s skills, knowledge and experience – almost like a multiple choice questionnaire. Improvisation should be cut out completely, and any introductory ‘small talk’ kept to a minimum or avoided altogether.
Significantly, these souped-up competency-based interviews, both Chamorro-Premuzic and Management Today agree, should never be used in isolation. Rather, they represent a component of the application process, which must include psychometric testing – proven to work better at assessing personality than human intuition – practical tests of ability and even reviewing a candidate’s appraisal data too. Earlier this year, Forbes highlighted that getting potential candidates to submit examples of their work for review– such as presentations, excerpts of research, lines of code and campaign materials – earlier in the applications process, can better inform interviews. And Management Today also suggests doing psychometric testing prior to the interview stage to help interviewers prepare more insightful questions.
While our experts agreed that a typical job interview will never reveal for certain whether someone is a perfect fit for a role, having an intimate knowledge of your organisation’s culture, together with the tenacity to delve into a candidate’s experiences and achievements, will lead to success. Part of this is understanding someone’s personal preferences, habits and interests as all these things provide strong indicators of different behavioural traits. These will not only determine whether someone will ‘fit’ into a culture but inform how you should work with a candidate to help them integrate into the team and organisation. Interestingly, our consultants said they are mindful of different personality types when interviewing and try to challenge people, through their questioning, to flex their styles. Getting personal with candidates is also a valuable part of the service – it’s a tight market for talent and building rapport can go a long way to ensuring candidates choose your company over another.
“Judging someone based on their charisma can certainly lead to hiring mistakes, but you certainly want people to feel relaxed and be themselves, because you’re more likely to get an accurate sense of who they are. You should never get seduced by a face to face interaction though – especially if you seem to get on well with the candidate. Under no circumstances does that indicate they will be right for the role.
I don’t find people put on a performance; they can sometimes over-emphasise a point they’re making which comes across as insincere, but that’s easy to spot, and rare.” Richard Morgan, Associate Director; Finance & HR
“My style is naturally ‘chatty’ and informal. But I use this to understand the person and get a feel for their values and cultural alignment. Those softer communication skills, at a senior level, are usually the key difference between a good and great person. If someone has had lots of different jobs, they’re usually good at giving scripted, perfect answers during interviews, as well as asking good questions. To spot this, you must ensure your questions probe and seek depth in the answers given. Ask for examples, but then keep digging into that example to ensure it’s authentic.” Lisa Taylor, Associate Director; Engineering, Manufacturing & Supply Chain
“You naturally make assumptions about someone’s personality by the way they answer questions. But that should never be the crux of whether you hire someone – it just reveals how you should work with that person to help them integrate into a team and organisation. Any team needs a mixture of different personalities and styles. People need to learn how to flex their personality depending on the situation and who they’re speaking to. Also, your must sell yourself during an interview, and that is perhaps an issue with competency based interviews – they don’t allow enough flexibility to build rapport with prospective hires.” Ben Debnam, Associate Director; Sales, Marketing and IT
“Woolly answers are a red flag that you have a weak candidate. You can usually tell when someone is trying too hard to impress you because they offer very little to back up claims they make about their achievements and ability. It can be challenging though. You’ve really got to be on the ball. Most HR candidates are personable, good with people, expert at building relationships and influencing others.” Sue O’Donovan, Managing Consultant; HR
In conclusion, the overwhelming message from our experts is that using lots of sources of assessment beyond the competency based interview will enable you to get as clear a picture as possible of your candidates. While certain things are easy to assess accurately, such as qualifications and sector experience, softer skills and other nuanced aspects of someone’s experience, personality and knowledge can be better ascertained through a combination of things like interviews, presentations, psychometric testing as well as references. Submitting written reports and portfolios is required on occasion, with some companies even using group exercises and testing centres to establish teamworking skills and technical knowledge. All consultants were adamant that psychometric testing is valuable but should never be used as a pass or fail. Furthermore, they each agreed psychometric testing almost always reinforces your judgment while highlighting useful areas to probe further during a final interview stage. And finally, several people should be involved in candidate interviews to ensure a diluting of individual biases.
“Psychometric tests are valuable though should never be used as a decision making tool, but rather as a way of providing deeper insight into a person that allows you to explore aspects of their personality further in an interview. We’ve also asked candidates to write reports as part of the process and use it as the basis to ask questions during the interview. Everyone has biases – it’s impossible not to – and it’s hard to avoid them. The best way to achieve a balanced view is getting the opinions of as many people as possible during the assessment process. Then, of course, references add another dimension.” Richard Morgan, Associate Director; Finance & HR
“Psychometric testing should always be used as the final stage of a process, to confirm your assessment is correct. Good hiring managers should never let it sway their decision, but rather look at the results to inform their onboarding process. Occasionally they will reveal some surprising things that add extra depth to the investigation. An anomaly gives you a reason to probe further to discover what’s really going on. References and recommendations outside of the interview process also help solidify your judgements.” Ben Debnam, Associate Director; Sales, Marketing and IT
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