How to survive competency-based interviews

William Hepworth 01.04.2014

The competency-based interview. Words that can strike fear and trepidation into some of the most confident (and competent) individuals...

The reality is that this type of interview question is simple enough to negotiate with the correct approach and preparation. On the other hand, underestimate the interview at your peril. In recent times, hiring managers have had to struggle against budget restrictions and then been under pressure to make the right hire once they have finally secured their precious headcount. They have two, maybe three, hours of interview in which to formulate their opinion and, in this context, the answers you give to the competency-based questions take on just as much importance as first impressions, rapport, and your answers to any technical questions.

Benjamin Franklin once said: “fail to prepare; prepare to fail”. I somehow doubt that Mr Franklin was ever subjected to a competency-based interview before becoming one of America’s founding fathers, but he has a good point. Very few people can answer a competency question straight away with no prior thought.

This type of interview question is normally framed with the phrases: “describe a time when...” and “what would you do if...” It will typically seek to explore your approach to certain situations, how you like to work and how you take ownership for tasks within a team situation. It will typically seek to explore your approach to certain situations, how you like to work and how you take ownership for tasks within a team situation.The interviewer will not only be considering the actual specifics of the answer, but also the way in which you answer the question. Are you able to respond in a concise, logical and structured manner or are you prone to waffling and straying from the subject in question? Clearly this is important to anyone interviewing candidates whose role will be required to answer queries from and advise key stakeholders within the business.

It is pointless trying to prepare for specific competencies. Prepare great examples to demonstrate teamwork, using your initiative, working to deadlines or dealing with difficult customers, and you can guarantee that the interviewer will ask you something totally different. In any case, you do not want your answers to be overly prepared and sound robotic.

The best approach is to think of, prepare and practice with around four examples of situations (from your recent working history) that can lend themselves to multiple different competencies. When the question is posed in the interview, take a second to decide which of your examples will lend itself best to the competency in questions and then use the “STAR” technique to answer to structure your answer:

Background to set the scene – client, project, people involved etc.

What was the problem? What did you need to achieve? Time frames?

What were the options available to you? What did you do? How did you do it? If you were working as part of a team: what specific tasks did you take ownership for?

​What happened as a result of the actions you took? What was the end result? How did you fare against targets / expectations? What did you learn? What could you have done better?

Remember, it is important to differentiate between your own input into the project or piece of work as part of a wider team. You need to display where you have taken initiative and not take credit for other people’s actions. Think carefully about the examples you use and do not make things up, as you will not be able to backup your answer with evidence when asked further questions. You do not need to choose examples where you did everything perfectly at the first time of asking, rather it can be good to show your “human side” as long as you can demonstrate that you have identified and learnt from mistakes and subsequently used your initiative to find a way to overcome any obstacles in completing the task.

I hope this information is helpful when approaching your next interview. Please feel free to contact me if you have any further questions.

William Hepworth's picture
Manager | Tax