Why you should think about competency-based interview questions
We are all familiar with the usual interview questions, such as ‘What are your reasons for leaving?’ Our hearts often sink when we are asked yet again, ‘What are your strengths and weaknesses?’ We can sail through this line of questioning with confidence – after all, is perfectionism truly a weakness? The narrative of our career is a story we can tell with practised ease, but when it comes to competency based interviews we find ourselves on an entirely different playing field.
First of all, what is a competency? It is the ability, skill and experience to perform a task or function and is assessed on the premise that past behaviour is a strong predictor of future behaviour. To give an example, an employer may wish to explore your creativity competence. Instead of asking ‘Are you creative?’ to which you are inclined to reply, ‘Yes, everyone says I’m creative!’ you will be asked a competency based question; ‘Describe an example of where you have used your creativity to do something differently.’
This question requires a considered and well thought out reply, giving a personal case study of a situation, an objective, your action and the result. Key competencies will often include project management, interpersonal skills and leadership qualities as well as specialist knowledge and experience.
The best way to prepare for this is to look closely at the job description you are interviewing for and to identify the key behaviours or competencies. You can then prepare examples of where, in the past, you have demonstrated this skill and ability. It is a bit like preparing mental case studies of your past experience to give evidence that you will be able to do this again, for your future employer. A hot tip here is to be as specific as possible and to focus on what you did, not your boss or your team members.
Let’s look at a candidate, we’ll call her Anna Burland, who is being interviewed for a Senior Consultant role at a top 10 PR consultancy. She is asked about her writing skills, and replies, ‘Yes, I love writing, I’d say I am an excellent writer.’ All this tells us is Anna’s own opinion of her ability rather than evidence of her skill. A better answer could be, ‘When my team is under pressure, I am the person who is relied on to write quickly and accurately, for example, last week we needed to respond to a new business brief, so it was handed to me, I wrote the first draft of the proposal, shared it with my boss, and produced a final revised copy within 24 hours. We won the pitch.’ This gives us evidence of a situation, the action taken and the result. It is also clear that Anna did the writing, not her boss.
In this case Anna will also be given a writing test as part of the interview process, which works well for assessing writing skills, but it is not always easy to test other competencies, such as interpersonal skills. If Anna were to announce, ‘I’m a real people person, I love people,’ it tells us little more than the fact that Anna probably likes to have a good chat in the office. If instead Anna is asked, ‘Can you describe a time when you have had to resolve a difficult situation with a client?’ she will need to give a specific example and actual evidence – and this is why competency based interviews are becoming increasingly popular.
Competency based interviews can be quite daunting but with the right preparation you will certainly stand out from the crowd.
Ros Kindersley is the Managing Director of specialist PR and communications recruitment consultancy JFL