Competency Interviews

I often speak to candidates who haven’t attended a formal job interview for quite a long time. They’ve been working with the same organisation for several years but now find themselves back on the job market.

Very often these job hunters have difficulty adapting to the increasing use of competency interviews by employers, with most candidates being more familiar with the traditional or biographical interview. However organisations have become increasingly aware of potential issues around fairness and objectivity during the selection process. As a result they have invested in training their interviewers in a more structured and more effective means of selecting staff.

This article sets out to explain what is involved in a competency interview and also provides a simple and easily learned technique to help recognise and answer competency interview questions.

What’s a competency?

A good starting point would be to define a “competency”. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) define competencies as:

 “ …the behaviours (and where appropriate the technical skills) that individuals must have to perform effectively at work…”

Employers develop a “competency framework” for different jobs within an organisation. If we take the example of the competency framework for an Air Traffic Controller there are a number competencies (or behaviours) that would indicate that an individual would be well suited to this type of work.

For example:

An Air traffic Controller should:

  • Be decisive
  • Follow a set of rules
  • Base decisions on data
  • Be conscious of detail and be accurate

Imagine indecisive air traffic controllers who followed their own set of rules, based decisions on a whim and tended to be inaccurate!

At a competency interview the assessors would develop a set of questions (and tests) designed to identify an individual’s likely competencies in each of those areas.

It’s important to note that the competency interview is NOT designed to assess a candidate’s technical ability, and of course engineers, doctors, teachers and of course air traffic controllers go through years of training to acquire specific technical skills. Nevertheless the CIPD definition recognises that it is the combination of both technical skills and behaviour that makes individuals suitable for a particular job or job category.

A competency interview suggests that the hiring organisation has thought long and hard about what kind of person would succeed in a particular type of role. You can be confident that if you do get offered a job following a competency interview then you have been assessed as being “fit for purpose” and you will most likely be happy and productive in that job, Of course being offered a job for which you are quite unsuited would be bad news both for you and for your employer.

One further characteristic of the competency interview is that the questions focus on your PAST experience, based on the premise that your past behaviour is the best predictor of your behaviour in the future.  In most cases all the candidates attending a competency interview will be asked the same (or very similar) questions and the assessors will evaluate the responses to an agreed scoring system. This means that the interview, when conducted by trained assessors, will be fair and objective and from the employer’s point of view easily defensible. They will be able to fully justify hiring decisions in case of any challenges to their final choice of candidate.

So how do you recognise a competency question?

Since competency questions are focussed on your past experience you can expect the questions to take the form of an open question about a past event or experience.

For example:

“Can you tell us about a time…

“Can you give an example..”

“Can we discuss…”

“Can you illustrate…”

And so on.

How do you answer a competency question?

The best technique is to use the STAR model – Situation, Task, Action, Result.  Using this technique keeps you focussed on the answer and helps you to respond to the competency question in a structured and logical way.

Here’s an example of a typical competency interview question with possible answers.

Competency = Innovation

“Can you tell us about a time when you introduced a new process into your organization?”

Answer 1

“Well I was working as HR Manager at an investment bank. I reviewed the recruitment process and noted that it wasn’t efficient. I decided to completely restructure the recruitment process.”

Unfortunately this answer will not be sufficient to impress the interviewers. It provides only the SITUATION and the TASK but does not continue to provide details of the ACTIONS that you took or the RESULT of your actions.

Let’s try again…

Answer 2

S  Well I was working as HR Manager at an investment bank. I reviewed the recruitment process and noted that it wasn’t efficient.
T I decided to completely restructure the recruitment process.
A I carried out a survey of the key stakeholders including all of the hiring managers within each department. I also carried out a review of the recruitment processes used by other investment banks. I then presented a very detailed plan to the Head of HR at the bank and received formal approval to proceed.  I introduced a new HR System based on Oracle HR and conducted a series of workshops to roll out the new processes across the business.
R As a result the recruitment process was much more efficient, more cost effective and resulted in measurably better hiring decisions with clear evidence that staff turnover was reduced by 15% over a 24 month period.


That second answer would score high marks from the interviewer because it provides a full answer to the question and most importantly details the value added to the business in the good positive result.

Be aware also that competency questions often lead to “follow up” or probing questions. In the example of the HR Manager, follow-up questions might include:

How did you establish the recruiting practices of the other banks?”

How did you measure the improvement in efficiency?”

And so on.

Sometimes competencies are actually listed in the job advertisement. If not you can try to establish the required competencies prior to the interview either by contacting the employer directly or by asking the recruitment agency. Once you know which competencies will be tested think about the likely competency questions and then carefully plan and rehearse your answers using the STAR model.

This simple technique will give you the edge and ensure that you perform at your best at a competency interview.

Jeremy I’Anson is a professional careers coach and the author of You’re Hired! Total Job Search 2013 published by Trotman Publishing. For further details visit















About Jeremy I'Anson

Jeremy I'Anson is the author of You're Hired! Total Job Search 2013 published by Trotman Education. Jeremy provides one-to-one career coaching to job hunters at every level from graduate to CEO. Jeremy writes career related articles for the national press including Computer Weekly and The Guardian. He is the official Career Coach at the Daily Telegraph. View all posts by Jeremy I'Anson

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