Direct Line Group

What to Expect in a Competency-Based Interview

Posted by Direct Line Group at 02:58 PM

What to expect at a competency based interview

So you’ve written, checked and double-checked your application, sent it off and spent several agonising days, weeks or even months waiting to hear back. Then suddenly, you receive a response from the recruiter: they’ve called you to interview.

Then you notice that it’s not just any interview – it’s a ‘competency based interview’ (sometimes shortened to ‘competency interview’). At this point your palms perspire a little and your pulse picks up the pace. What exactly is a competency based interview? It sounds rather cold and technical, but in fact there’s not much to fear from them if you prepare correctly.

In order to know what to expect, it helps to have an understanding of what is meant by a ‘competency’.

What are competencies?

Competencies are qualities (in the form of character traits or capabilities) that an employer considers valuable for a particular job.

They can be technical skills specific to a certain position, such as having proficiency with a particular software application. These tend to be used for technical or specialised roles.

But since competency based interviews are used most commonly for broad, entry-level positions such as graduate employment schemes, the focus of many tends to be on ‘behavioural competencies’. These cover softer skills or abilities, such as the following:

  • Analytical and/or evaluative skills
  • Commercial orientation and/or awareness
  • Communication
  • Decision making
  • Flexibility
  • Initiative
  • Leadership potential
  • Motivation
  • Organisation skills
  • Problem solving
  • Results focus
  • Reliability and trustworthiness
  • Teamwork
What is a competency based interview?

Competency based interviews have a set structure. The questions tend to be written by specialised psychologists. There’s less of the unstructured ‘back-and-forth’ of the kind that often happens in standard interviews.

On the other hand, a series of competency based questions could form just one part of a longer interview, so it’s still a good idea to prepare answers to typical interview questions as well.
The questions you’ll be asked are likely to be relatively open-ended, based on:
  • experiences you’ve had in the past
  • how you interpret them
  • the insights into your character that they reveal.
Remember that just because these questions focus on experiences in the past, that doesn’t mean that as a fresh graduate or junior applicant you’ll be at a disadvantage. Behavioural skills tend to be transferable, meaning that your achievements in sports teams, societies or your studies can be highly relevant to the job for which you’re applying.

Why use competency based interviews?

Employers see value in competency based interviews for several reasons.

Firstly, they add a layer of objectivity to the recruitment process. Using a standard format enables employers to compare candidates in a fair and logical way. While they don’t remove the subjective element all together, they do make it more difficult for interviewers to rely (even if just subconsciously) on their gut instinct to evaluate candidates. So in this way they can be fairer on candidates, as well as more effective for recruiters. This is especially important in large organisations with graduate employment schemes, as the format can be standardised regardless of who is running the interview.

Secondly, by using questions that focus on particular competencies, recruiters can get an accurate sense of how you’ll perform in their organisation. Quirky or leftfield interview questions like “If you were an animal, which would you be?’ are great ice breakers, but don’t necessarily provide the deep insights that employers really need.

Thirdly, the objectivity, standard format and relevance of competency based interviews limit the potential for discrimination. It therefore gives some legal protection to recruiters, as well as giving them a better way to find the best candidates available to them.

Who uses competency based interviews?

A huge number of UK employers across all industries use competency based interviews as part of their recruitment processes. This includes most of the country’s top graduate employers, including:
  • Direct Line Group
  • PwC
  • Aldi
  • Google
  • The UK civil service
  • Deloitte
  • GlaxoSmithKline
  • John Lewis Partnership
The number of employers using them is only likely to grow, as competition for the top entry-level jobs becomes ever fiercer.

A sample of competency based interview questions

The interview questions will have been commissioned or designed by the recruiter in order to reveal insights into the qualities they’re looking for. It follows that they’ll differ somewhat between organisations. On the other hand, they tend to follow a particular format, and when it comes to soft skills there will be a lot of overlap between them.

Here is a sample of competency based interview questions.
  1. “Tell me about a time you used your communication skills to solve a problem.”
  2. “Describe a situation in which you took the initiative.”
  3. “When have you taken on a leadership role?”
  4. “What’s your greatest achievement?”
  5. “How do you cope with challenging deadlines?”
  6. “Tell me about a difficult decision you’ve made.”
  7. “How do you organise your workload?”
  8. “Tell me about a time you’ve received negative feedback, and how you responded.”
  9. “What motivates you?”
  10. “When have you missed a deadline despite your best efforts?”
When answering these, follow these pointers:
  • Be concise – avoid too much scene setting and extraneous detail
  • Be honest – how you respond to failure is a common focus of competency questions, so there’s no need to pretend that everything you touch turns to gold.
It helps to use the widely-followed STAR technique. This means describing:
  1. the Situation
  2. the Task that was before you
  3. what Action you took
  4. the Result of your action
While STAR provides a logical model, also make sure to listen to the question carefully. If, for example, you’re asked “How do you cope with adversity?” it makes sense to answer the question directly first before backing it up with an example, rather than beginning abruptly with, “My computer crashed on the day before my dissertation was due…”

In summary, competency based interviews can have benefits for you as a candidate as well as for employers. If you prepare properly by taking the time to reflect on your experiences and keep the STAR technique in mind, there’s every chance you’ll shine during your interview.

Good luck!

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