Guide to Competency Based Interviews

Guide to Competency Based Interviews

Chris Richardson Market Insight, Career Advice

Competency-based interviews are becoming an increasingly common part of the recruitment process with many organizations attaching a high level of importance to their outcome. As a result, we have created this document to give you an idea of how to approach competency-based interviews. To help you do this we have set out 16 typical competencies along with some typical questions and behaviors that they seek to explore.
Competency interviews can sometimes be quite daunting, but with an element of preparation and a broad range of examples, they can actually run quite smoothly and be an opportunity to stand out from the crowd.
Competency-based interviewing is a structured interview approach which aims to gather evidence of how well a candidate will perform in a particular role. This is achieved by asking candidates to describe past experiences of when they have demonstrated particular competencies (or job relevant behaviors). Employers will want to explore your past experiences as a large amount of research suggests that past behavior is a strong predictor of future behavior. For each particular competency, you will usually be asked a number of questions, to give you more than one opportunity to demonstrate your abilities.
In order for an organization to assess whether you are appropriate for a role it is important that you talk about specific past experiences, rather than your general way of working. It is also important that you describe what you actually did, rather than talking about the performance of a team you were a member of. To give you a better understanding of the types of questions you may be asked, the following is the typical format for a competency-based interview question: “Describe a time when you have worked in a particularly effective team.”
Competency-based interviews are very structured, with every candidate often being asked the same questions. This is to ensure that everybody gets the same opportunity and the process is completely fair to all.
Before reading on, if there is anything else we can help you with then please do get in touch using the below form, one of our consultants will get back to you:

Form ID:5412


Tips for Participating in a Competency-based Interview
Before attending the interview:
  • Think about what kinds of behaviors may be important to perform well in the job.
  • Think about times in the past when you have demonstrated your abilities e.g. successful projects, interactions with other people, convincing a difficult audience, analyzing a large amount of information.
  • Think through exactly what you did in these scenarios and separate your own actions from those of any team you were a part of.
  • Don’t be restricted to purely job related examples; you may also have good examples from school/university or hobbies.
During the interview:
  • Listen carefully to the question and make sure you provide an example of what is being asked, not just telling the interviewer what you want them to know.
  • Talk about a specific example, not about how you generally act.
  • Talk about what you did e.g. “I spoke to lots of different individuals” not “We spoke to lots of different individuals”.
16 Typical Competencies:

1. Action Orientation

  • Demonstrates a readiness to make decisions, take the initiative and originate action.
2. Commercial Awareness
  • Understands and applies commercial and financial principles.
  • Views issues in terms of costs, profits, markets and added value.
3. Creativity and Innovation   
  • Creates new and imaginative approaches to work related issues.
  • Identifies fresh approaches and shows a willingness to question traditional assumptions.
4. Drive And Resilience
  • Maintains effective work behavior in the face of setbacks or pressure.
  • Remains calm, stable and in control of themselves.
5. Flexibility
  • Successfully adapts to changing demands and conditions.
6. Interpersonal Sensitivity
  • Interacts with others in a sensitive and effective way.
  • Respects and works well with others.
7. Leadership
  • Motivates and empowers others to reach organizational goals.
8. Oral Communication
  • Speaks clearly, fluently and in a compelling manner to both individuals and groups.
9. Personal Motivation
  • Commits self to work hard towards goals. Shows enthusiasm and career commitment.

10. Persuasiveness

  • Influences, convinces or impresses others in a way that results in acceptance, agreement or behavior change.
11. Planning And Organization
  • Organizes and schedules events, activities and resources.
  • Sets up and monitors timescales and plans.

12. Problem Solving And Analysis

  • Analyses issues and breaks them down into their component parts.
  • Makes systematic and rational decisions based on relevant information.
13. Quality Orientation
  • Shows awareness of goals and standards.
  • Follows through to ensure that quality and productivity standards are met.

14. Specialist Knowledge

  • Understands technical or professional aspects of work and continually maintains technical knowledge.
15. Strategic
  • Demonstrates a broad based view of issues, events and activities and a perception of their longer-term impact or wider implications.
16. Written Communication
  • Writes in clear and concise manner, using appropriate grammar, style and language for the reader.
Competency & Definition
Action Orientation
Demonstrates a readiness to make decisions, take initiative and originate action
Suggested Questions:
  1. How do you ensure that work you delegate gets done properly and on time?
  2. What have you found to be the most significant obstacles to getting people to take action? How have you handled these obstacles?
  3. Describe a fire-fighting situation which you dealt with, what did you do and how did you do it?
  4. What changes have you introduced into your current role?
  5. What have you done when something has happened, or needs to happen where there are no parameters to deal with it?
  6. Is there scope for improvement in your department? What have you done about it?
Desired Behaviors:
  • Initiates activities, achieves outcome and sees situations through to conclusion
  • Sets challenging performance standards for self and team
  • Displays a clear sense of priorities and uses relevant information
  • Shows evidence of contingency planning and recovery of
  • Situations Displays energy and enthusiasm to achieve outcome
  • Willing to take a risk to do something differently.
Negative Indicators:
  • Shows no evidence of completing projects
  • Fails when obstacles are encountered Procrastination
  • Misses opportunities.
Competency & Definition
Commercial Awareness
Demonstrates a full understanding of how businesses & industries operate; knows his/her own market well & is commercially aware.
Suggested Questions:
  1. Thinking about the competition in your industry who do you think will be the winners and losers over the next couple of years? Why?
  2. How do you ensure that you keep abreast of developments in your respective market? (Both in terms of product & industry sector) How does this assist you in your current role?
  3. Tell me about an instance when you have turned business away. Why did you do it? How did you do it?
  4. Have you ever "lost" short-term business for a longer-term gain?
  5. How do you decide upon the priority business opportunities to focus on?
  6. Tell me about some of the mistakes you made in business. What were the consequences?
Desired Behaviors:
  • Knowledge of own market areas
  • Knowledge of competitors
  • General commercial knowledge of specific industry sectors
  • Knowledge of how businesses operates
  • Knowing which business activities/opportunities will yield the best results
  • Knowing when efforts are not leading to results.
Negative Indicators:
  • Does not make commercially viable decisions.
  • Does not "chase the money"
  • Has no planned approach for business growth
  • Afraid to turn business away.
Competency & Definition
Creativity & Innovation
Demonstrates an ability to approach situations with an open mind and demonstrate a unique way to solve problems as opposed to relying on others.
Suggested Questions:
  1. Give me an example of a problem in work that you have resolved with a completely different, or unusual approach. What were the results?
  2. When have you had to back down and why? What were the outcomes? How did you take it?
  3. When, in business, the information you receive is unclear, how do you get clarity?
  4. How has your approach to solving a standard problem changed?
  5. How have you improved your product, services, and position in the market?
Desired Behaviors:
  • Free thinking, broad vision, intuitive, imaginative
  • Shows ability to think laterally, sees the angles
  • Demonstrates the ability to try and experiment with alternatives
  • Bored with tried and tested
  • Introduced new products, service, markets
  • Tries and experiments with alternatives, where initial routes have proved unsuccessful.
Negative Indicators:
  • Uses standard methodologies
  • Predictable and conformist
  • Sticks to the tried and tested
  • Prefers routine approach
  • Lacks imagination.
Competency & Definition
Drive and Resilience
Remains positive and optimistic when setbacks occur; always finds a way forward.
Suggested Questions:
  1. Describe a situation where you have had to change something you were personally very pleased with. How did you feel?
  2. Tell me about a recent project where you have encountered some resistance. How did you deal with this? What was the outcome?
  3. Have resource limitations ever upset your plans?
  4. Tell me about the worst setback you have experienced in your career/personal life to date. What did you do?
  5. When did you last leave a project unfinished and why?
  6. Describe a situation where you gave your all but failed.
Desired Behaviors:
  • Acts on own initiative
  • Tackles problems in a determined fashion.
  • Maintains effort until the client is satisfied.
  • Remains positive in light of failure.
  • Tough minded; becomes more determined when things don't go well.
  • Ties up loose ends and successfully closes projects.
Negative Indicators:
  • Becomes defensive when mistakes are made & blames others at every opportunity
  • Allows others to dictate to them without question
  • Does not actively seek feedback or avoids it at all costs
  • Gives up at the earliest opportunity
  • Leaves tasks unfinished
  • Impatient & easily bored
Competency & Definition
Ability to respond differently in different situations, to different people and to different ideas.
Ability to respond to changes in priority and deal with the unexpected.
Suggested Questions:
  1. What changes have you had to handle in your job over the past 6 months? How fast did you adapt? How did others adapt?
  2. What problems have you encountered by changing jobs and locations?
  3. Describe an occasion when you had to completely change your plans?
  4. Tell me about a situation you have encountered where you have had to make a major compromise.
  5. What have the cultural differences been between the companies in which you have worked and how did you react?
  6. Tell me about a situation in which you strongly opposed an initiative that was carried through.
Desired Behaviors:
  • Manages conflicting priorities
  • Applies new skills or knowledge in new areas
  • Establishes structures and processes to plan and manage the orderly implementation of change
  • Adapts to situations as they arise and responds appropriately
  • Takes the lead in setting new business directions, partnerships, policies or procedures
  • Helps employees to develop a clear understanding of what they will need to do differently as a result of changes in the organization/market.
Negative Indicators:
  • Is indifferent / obstructive towards change
  • Remains blinkered & unwilling to accept new ideas
  • Says "we always do it this way"
  • Unwilling to compromise.
Competency & Definition
Interpersonal Sensitivity
Ability to establish solid and durable working relationships with clients, and colleagues.
Suggested Questions:
  1. Describe the range of different styles you adopt in dealing with other people at work. Give specific examples.
  2. Tell me about an occasion when you have had to change your usual style to win business.
  3. Describe the nature of your relationships with your colleagues.
  4. Outline the history of a strong client relationship.
  5. When have you acted to retrieve a working relationship due to a mistake?
  6. How do you ensure a new member of staff fits quickly into the team?
Desired Behaviors:
  • Establishes rapport with clients and colleagues
  • Understands quickly what the client's needs are, picks up cues
  • Takes a genuine interest in people and anticipates reactions
  • Listens to what others think and feel, picking up on unspoken messages
  • Concerned about what other people think and feel
  • Seeks other's views.
Negative Indicators:
  • Lack of subtlety & awareness of other's position
  • Opinionated / dogmatic
  • Pompous, arrogant, insensitive to others
  • Treats everyone exactly the same.
Competency & Definition
Takes control of situations and events; recognizes and rewards others' performance; motivates; coaches and develops others.
Suggested Questions:
  1. Describe a time when you have set goals for an individual or for your team. How did you go about it? Were they achieved?
  2. Tell me about a sensitive or difficult staffing issue you have dealt with. What did you find most difficult about it? Why was this so? What was the outcome?
  3. When was the last time you disciplined a member of staff? How did you handle the situation? What was the outcome?
  4. How have you introduced change to your team?
  5. How do you ensure your team gets feedback on its performance?
  6. Describe a situation in which you coached a team member.
Desired Behaviors:
  • Has effectively conducted performance appraisals
  • Develops people on the job and recognizes good performance
  • Coaches and trains staff, motivating teams to give their best
  • Sets clear and understandable development objectives
  • Delegates effectively
  • Confronts difficult management/staff issues promptly.
Negative Indicators:
  • Believes in a tell style of leadership
  • Is insensitive
  • Demonstrates an inconsistent style of leadership
  • Tries to change how things are done without any consideration of proven methods & working practices.
Competency & Definition
Oral Communication
Active listener; communicates clearly, concisely and confidently in all situations and using all media (e-mail, telephone, face-to-face etc).
Suggested Questions:
  1. You must have taken part in brainstorming sessions – can you recall some of the breakthroughs you achieved? How did these come about? Give me details.
  2. What methods/work style/approaches do you use to gain consensus in situations where there is disagreement?
  3. How and when do you prepare before a meeting with a client?
  4. Describe an occasion where by investigating a client's needs more closely, it helped you to make a good decision.
  5. What is the communication process in your company? What part do you play in it and how could it be improved?
  6. In what situations do you feel uncomfortable communicating?
Desired Behaviors:
  • Communicates clearly, concisely and confidently
  • Readily exchanges ideas/develops a dialogue
  • Listens to others and uses the information when talking to others
  • Structures what they say, so communication flows logically
  • Takes the listener as the reference point
  • Communicates information openly.
Negative Indicators:
  • Unable to give any examples
  • Unable to express information/situations clearly or concisely.
Competency & Definition
Personal Motivation
Demonstrates a need to achieve and is committed to personal, team and company objectives.
Suggested Questions:
  1. What are your objectives in your current role? What steps have you taken to ensure they have been / will be met? How do they impact on others in the team? How do they impact on the business?
  2. How do you monitor your own performance and what drives you to achieve objectives? Have you ever been faced with a brick wall when trying to achieve an objective?
  3. Have you felt at any time in the past 6 months that you achieved an objective through sheer persistence?
  4. What career goals have you set for yourself?
  5. How do you react to competition at work?
Desired Behaviors:
  • Sees tasks through to completion
  • Motivated to achieve demanding targets
  • Prepares personal development plan with specific goals and a timeline for their accomplishment
  • Thrives on competition
  • Promptly notifies management about problems affecting ability to achieve objectives
  • Competitive, wants to be the best.
Negative Indicators:
  • Waits for things to be done for them
  • Will ensure they achieve their objectives — at the expense of other people
  • Operates in a "blame" culture
  • Does their own thing without directing energy towards the business objectives.
Competency & Definition
The ability to persuade and influence other people and gain support through strong argument
Suggested Questions:
  1. Tell me about a situation where you have had to influence a person or a group of people.
  2. Describe an unpopular change which you have had to implement/oversee. How did you achieve success? What was your intended outcome? How did you approach the situation? What challenges did you encounter? How did you resolve them?
  3. When have you persuaded a manager/colleague/client to do something they were reluctant to do?
  4. What approaches have you found most successful in influencing others to your point of view?
  5. Describe a situation, which you have handled poorly --what did you learn?
  6. How do you tackle aggressive individuals?
Desired Behaviors:
  • Identifies people's needs and described the benefits to them in those terms
  • Assertiveness/positive influencing skills, knows when to escalate issues
  • Identifies solutions which at least appear equitable to both sides.
  • Tailors the message to suit the recipient.
  • Looks for leverage and areas of commonality, using analogies to illustrate and clarify points.
  • Enjoys persuading people and will engage specialist help where required.
Negative Indicators:
  • Waits for others to come up with new initiatives
  • Becomes defensive when challenged
  • Will shout someone down without hearing his or her point of view
  • Does not think through the pros & cons of suggestions.
Competency & Definition
Planning & Organizing
Prioritizes; sets stretching but realistic targets and deadlines; plans ahead and has a structured approach to work.
Suggested Questions:
  1. Describe a project you have managed / been responsible for. How did you plan your time? (& others time?)
  2. How did you deal with obstacles?
  3. Have you ever managed a project, which you knew would run over the timescale? What did you do? What could you differently next time?
  4. In your current job, how do you schedule your time and set priorities?
  5. What is your approach to deadlines at work?
  6. How did you prepare for this interview?
Desired Behaviors:
  • Evidence of prioritizing workload
  • Works in a structured and methodical way
  • Plans ahead to ensure timely delivery of results
  • Manages time effectively
  • Maintains accurate management information, administrative records etc.
  • Puts a value on their own time, identifies what is appropriate to this value.
Negative Indicators:
  • Works late but unproductively most of the time, regularly misses deadlines
  • Seldom completes a task unless they do all of the work themselves
  • Reactive approach
  • Inflexible in modifying plans/priorities
  • Is easily fazed by obstacles/interruptions.
Competency & Definition
Problem Solving and Analysis
Analyses issues and breaks them down into their component parts. Makes systematic and rational judgements based on relevant information.
Suggested Questions:
  1. Tell me about a time when you recognized a problem in your organization, what did you do?
  2. Give me an example of a good decision taken recently. What were your options to resolve it? Why do you think your decision was the right one?
  3. Give an example of a time when you had to consider the impact of strategies on the organization and customers and how they could have affected products and services.
  4. What are the major frustrations in your job and how do you deal with them?
  5. What are the boring mundane or routine parts of your job, how do you keep them to a minimum?
  6. How have you dealt with a problem which has had seemingly impossible obstacles?
Desired Behaviors:
  • Effectively uses business tools and systems in a systematic effort to organize and manage information for decision-making
  • Analyses problems by examining trends or the links between two separate parts (e.g., pros and cons using relevant, available information)
  • Prioritizes work in alignment with business goals (e.g., priorities prospects).
  • Analyses relationships among several parts of a problem, situation, product, or system
  • Makes causal links between potential causes of events, consequences of actions, or multiple-part chains of events (e.g. identify correct products for the customers' needs)
  • Anticipates obstacles and thinks ahead about next steps, and considers whether short-term goals will meet long-term objectives.
Negative Indicators:
  • Doesn't gather all the facts before embarking on a course of action
  • Cannot explain solutions and basis for decision
  • Gets easily deflected onto side issues or something more interesting.
Competency & Definition
Quality Orientation
Delivers a high quality service to external clients and internal colleagues, maintaining Company brand standards.
Suggested Questions:
  1. What examples are there during the past 6 months where you have personally initiated action to address a quality or service issue?
  2. How do you know what your customers think of your services?
  3. What complaints have you received in the past 6 months? How did you react?
  4. Have you ever been recognized as an individual or as part of a team for a quality award?
  5. What quality standards / systems does your current company use?
  6. Who are the quality leaders in your marketplace?
Desired Behaviors:
  • Knowledge of quality procedures and standards, sets and develops appropriate systems
  • Sets high standards of quality for themselves and others
  • Sets up guidelines relating to quality and monitors work against the standards set.
  • Initiates new initiatives in establishing and maintaining standards
  • Goes for quality rather than quantity, carefully reviewing outputs
  • Looks for ways of improving the quality of all work.
Negative Indicators:
  • Just wants to get the job done — goes for a "quick fix"
  • Profit rather than customer focus ("short-termism")
  • Negotiates on price too readily
  • Lacks attention to detail.
Competency & Definition
Specialist Knowledge
Has an extensive knowledge of his/her own field or department; understands the business and uses this to provide credible advice.
Suggested Questions:
  1. What examples are there during the past 3-6 months where you have made an important decision, which turned out to be correct?
  2. Have you made any poor decisions in the past 6 months? Tell me about it/them.
  3. How do you gather information on clients?
  4. How do you use that information to influence a business opportunity?
  5. When did a client last ask you for advice?
  6. How do you form business connections?
Desired Behaviors:
  • Sound understanding of the appropriate sector
  • Sound understanding of clients
  • Utilizes knowledge management techniques to influence clients effectively
  • Provides the client with credible advice
  • Networks within their specialist area
  • Continued professional development, keeps abreast of cutting edge technology in his/her technical area.
Negative Indicators:
  • Limited knowledge of sector/market
  • Does not develop business
  • Shows no interest in upskilling.
Competency & Definition
Demonstrates a broad based view of issues, events and activities and a perception of their longer term impact or wider implications
Suggested Questions:
  1. Describe a challenge or opportunity you identified and how you developed a strategy to respond to it.
  2. Describe a strategy you initiated to achieve a longer term business objective. What process did you use to identify it? How did you go about assessing its impact?
  3. What steps do you take to keep up to date with changes in the organization?
  4. Have you ever been involved in writing a corporate/marketing/production plan?
  5. What policies have you been involved in and how were these arrived at?
  6. What plans have you made for your future career and how are you going to go about achieving your long term objectives?
Desired Behaviors:
  • Takes broad strategic aims and turns them into practical plans
  • Displays awareness of impact of external factors on specific areas of responsibility
  • Demonstrates awareness of the whole system and how areas integrate
  • Evaluates the implications and draws conclusions
  • Anticipates problems and develops solutions
  • Identifies future threats and opportunities, by understanding organization’s position as compared with competitors.
Negative Indicators:
  • Focuses on the here and now
  • Lacks understanding of broader issues
  • Shows a lack of awareness of the company goals and aims.
  • Does not comply with company guidelines/best practice
  • Responds on intuition and gut feel.
Competency & Definition
Written Communication
Writes in a clear and concise manner, using appropriate grammar, style and language for the reader
Suggested Questions:
  1. How would you set up product information documentation or presentations in order to positively influence a new product or process?
  2. What examples are there during the past 3-6 months where you have had to make presentations to large or difficult audiences?
  3. During the past 6 months how have you prepared to present a case to your Director / colleagues/ client?
  4. In what situations do you feel uncomfortable with written communication?
  5. Have you compiled any papers or articles?
  6. How do you pitch the level of written communication?
Desired Behaviors:
  • Report writing and preparing presentations will be a regular part of their role
  • Regular usage of software tools in preparation of literature and as an aid to clarify complex information
  • Has put together handouts or capability documents
  • Completed university/college dissertations
  • Concise, succinct use of words
  • Can give examples of tried and tested templates and documents used.
Negative Indicators:
  • Does not use all media available (sticks to one method of communication)
  • Hides behind the written word
  • Cannot provide examples of compiling reports/papers.
We hope that these guidelines provide a good indication of how competency interviews are usually conducted and some useful examples of types of competencies tested and typical questions.
With the right amount of preparation and a bit of thought, these meetings often prove to be the most constructive part of the whole interview process.