What are Competency Based Interviews?

So far, we have talked about ‘behaviours’ as being central to the assessment centre selection process. This is true as far as it goes, after all the assessment centre is all about demonstrating what you are capable of rather than saying what you can do. This is hardly surprising since the assessment centre evolved due to the shortcomings of the job interview process, as every employer knows how easy it is for candidates to talk up their achievements and experience in an interview.

However, some competencies cannot easily be demonstrated in exercises and the only opportunity to ‘demonstrate’ them will be with reference to your qualifications, employment history or personal achievements. The assessors are aware of this and almost all assessment centres retain some sort of interview component, usually a competency-based interview (CBI).

This style of interview consists of a number of targeted questions that require interviewees to describe a specific task or situation. The assumption being that the best indication of an individual’s future behaviour is their past behaviour.

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This type of interview is typically a more structured version of a normal job interview and there are usually between three and six assessors on the panel. The assessors ask each candidate the same primary questions, although secondary questions will depend on the individual candidate’s responses to the primary questions.

For example, all candidates may be asked the following question:

“Tell us about an occasion where you have shown leadership”

Your response to this primary question will then determine which secondary questions you are asked. These secondary questions usually ask for more detail in the area that the assessors find the most ‘interesting’.

For Example,

Interviewer: “Tell us about an occasion where you have shown leadership”

Candidate: “I was captain of the university basketball team and my responsibilities included organising the weekly training sessions. This was actually the toughest part of being team captain, once the game actually started everyone was sufficiently self-motivated to give their best performance, but persuading people to turn out to the weekly training sessions, so that we could win, was the most difficult part.”

Interviewer: “Go on...”

Candidate: “I found that the best way to motivate players to train was to agree with the coach which particular skill each individual player needed to work on most – we would discuss this after each game. I’d then approach the players individually and ‘sell’ the training session based on that. I found that when players believed that the training session was going to address their own needs, rather than being just general training, they were much more motivated to show up.“

Interviewer: “Interesting, can you give me an example of how you would ‘sell’ a training session? What type of thing would you say to a player?”

As you can see from the example, the interviewer has used the second question to elicit more information about a particular aspect of the competency ‘leadership’ that was demonstrated in the first answer.

You may occasionally find yourself in a CBI where all of the candidates are asked exactly the same primary questions and no secondary questions are asked. The reasoning behind this is that it supposedly removes any subjectivity by giving each candidate an identical opportunity to show their competencies. Unfortunately, it makes it much easier for candidates who are prepared to exaggerate their achievements or who have pre-prepared themselves with model answers, as they know that the interviewers will not be able to use follow-up questions which could expose weaknesses in these model answers.

Preparation & Techniques for Competency-based Interviews
It is important to identify what competencies will be assessed. Some employers will provide this information before interview and some will not. If possible, you should ask as this will save you a lot of guesswork. If this information is not provided explicitly then you will need to work out the likely competencies required from the job description and the information that you have about the organisation. This is described in detail in the 'Assessment' Centre' eBook.

There are three approaches that you can take to answering competency-based interview questions:

1. No preparation – just answer spontaneously.
2. Try to Prepare a model answer for every possible question.
3. Use the STAR method – Situation, Task, Action, Result.

Option 1 – If you are under a lot of time pressure then you may feel that preparation for the interview should be at the bottom of your to-do list. This is a common reaction because for most candidates interviews are something that they already have experience of, whereas role-play exercises and group discussions are less familiar and therefore more intimidating. Consequently many candidates feel that they need to prepare for these exercises rather than the more familiar interview.

If you have attended a couple of traditional interviews recently then it can be quite tempting to think ‘Well, I can remember most of the things I was asked and the interviewer seemed OK with my answers, so I’ll just wing it.’ Unfortunately, this approach does not work very well with CBIs. This is because you are expected to reply to questions in terms of a specific example and because you are under a lot of time pressure, you don’t always have time to pick the best one. This means that candidates often start describing a particular situation because it is the first thing they thought of which seems appropriate. They then realise that the example that they are using is either not the best one or that is not really suitable. However, they have now committed themselves and can’t go back. This has the effect of undermining their confidence as well as failing to illustrate convincingly the competency in question.

Option 2 – Try to Prepare a model answer for every possible question. There are a lot of publications on the market that claim to provide you with ‘Great Answers to 1001 Interview Questions’ or some variation on that theme. Even if it were possible to memorise most of these ‘ideal’ answers, there are two problems with this approach.

Firstly, they don’t sound sincere. Remember, human beings are very adept at spotting insincerity and professional interviewers are actively looking for any sign of dishonesty.

Secondly, even if you are a talented dissembler and you are able to make these ‘off the shelf’ answers sound convincing, they won’t usually be consistent with the information on your CV or resume.

This approach really cannot be recommended because it often ‘blows up’ on the candidate particularly if the interview is being conducted by more than one assessor.

Option 3 - Use the STAR method. This method is designed to deal with the problem of preparing for CBIs. This method will provide you with answers which illustrate convincingly the competency in question as well as being consistent with your CV/resume. The STAR method is described in detail in the 'Assessment Centre' eBook.

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