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Totaljobs Editor
9 min read

How to conduct a competency-based interview: A step-by-step guide

With 37% of HR leaders navigating challenging skill shortages, there's never been a better time to learn how to conduct competency-based interviews. This structured interview style assesses the skills and abilities a candidate can bring to the table, helping you to access a wider pool of talent, hire more objectively, and ultimately find the best person for the job. Here's what you need to know to get started.

Interviewers greeting a candidate at the beginning of a competency-based interview

By focusing on the abilities and practical know-how a candidate can bring to the table, employers can get a better idea of whether a person has the required skills to be successful in a role.

In this article, we’ll go through what a competency-based interview is, why they are useful and how you can implement them effectively in your hiring.

What is a competency-based interview?

Competency-based interviews focus on gauging whether a candidate has the skills or competencies necessary to succeed in a role by following a series of pre-prepared questions.

As a result, candidates are asked to recount specific situations where they have effectively demonstrated relevant problem-solving abilities and other core skills.

The benefits of competency-based interviews

Why use competency-based interviews in place of traditional interview techniques and questions? Because of the benefits they provide within the hiring process, such as highlighting candidates’ transferable skills.

Let’s delve into some of the other benefits you could reap by utilising competency-based interviewing.

Unlock new talent

A competency-based approach to interviews focuses more on demonstrable skills over industry experience or qualifications. This allows recruiters to identify individuals from outside their industry who fit the profile they are looking for, even if they don’t necessarily meet the usual criteria.

Enhance objectivity 

Traditional open-ended interviews give you more freedom to take the conversation in a given direction, which can mean getting off track from the topic of a candidate’s ability to do the job. You’re not looking for the most likeable candidate, or the one you have the most in common with, known as similarity bias.

Using competency-based interviewing techniques can therefore enhance objectivity by making it easier to compare candidates based solely on their answers.

Reduce bias

We all have our own conscious and unconscious biases, but as a talent professional, it’s important to ensure they don’t affect hiring decisions. By making interviews less subjective, a competency-based approach helps reduce bias in the hiring process and promotes workforce diversity.

Minimise the risk of bad hires

Bad hires are expensive, and can result in time wasted for the candidate, you, and your organisation. A hire can go wrong for various reasons, especially if the candidate who gets the job never had the competencies required in the first place.

Getting candidates to answer competency-based questions helps demonstrate their key skills and abilities, thereby reducing the chances of them becoming a bad hire.

Improve employee retention

Competency-based interviews can also improve employee retention. As we’ve highlighted, a bad hire means going back to square one and looking for another candidate, which is time-consuming and expensive.

Competency-based interviews help ensure the chosen candidate can do the job. As a result, your organisation is more likely to be happy with their performance and they are more likely to be happy at work, reducing the chance of them leaving.

Optimise employer branding

Competency-based interviews can foster a positive candidate experience because they know they are being judged objectively. This leaves both successful and unsuccessful candidates with a positive impression of your organisation.

Altogether, this can lead to a boost in your organisation’s brand and reputation, with positive experiences spreading by word of mouth and online reviews.

How to conduct a competency-based interview

So, how do you conduct a competency-based interview? Here are some key steps to help you get started.

Identify key competencies for the role

Before settling on questions for candidates, you’ll need to know what competencies you’re looking for, which will vary depending on your company and the job in question. Many companies look for key behaviours and core competencies derived from their culture and values, regardless of the role.

A competency model framework can help you decide upon the competencies with the following these steps:

  • Review the job description, noting essential duties, responsibilities, and required knowledge and experience.
  • Talk to people currently working in the role, or the line manager for the role in question.
  • Now list the skills, knowledge and abilities you’re looking for.

So, for example, for a Content and Communication Executive role here at Totaljobs, some of the key competencies could include:

  • Organisation
  • Copywriting
  • Creativity
  • Collaboration

During an interview for this role, we would then ask a range of questions related to these specific competencies.

Prepare your questions 

Once you know what you’re looking for from candidates, you can draft a list of questions that will test whether they have those competencies. You’ll want to frame questions in a way that the candidate will need to give specific examples to provide an effective answer.

For the competencies we outlined for the role at Totaljobs above, we might ask a candidate:

  • Tell us about a time you developed and executed a plan against a deadline (organisation)
  • Describe your experience writing for different channels or audiences to promote a project (copywriting)
  • Tell us about a time when you brought a new idea to the table and got buy-in from colleagues and stakeholders (creativity)
  • Can you describe a time when you worked towards a shared goal? (collaboration)

Many candidates will be prepared for competency-based interviews with the STAR method (Situation, Task, Action, Result), a useful framework for helping you to assess their answers objectively. As a result, you may want to prepare follow-up questions to get the candidate back onto the STAR framework, should they go off-topic, or miss out part of it that could elicit insights.

This could include questions like:

  • Could you explain in more detail how you reached that conclusion?
  • What steps did you take to reach that outcome?
  • What were the results of that action?

Prepare the candidate

Interviews can be nerve-wracking for jobseekers, so the more you can put candidates at ease, the better view you are likely to get of who they really are at work. Informing them in advance that the interview will be competency-based means they know what to expect, and they will have some time to prepare.

You may also want to give them a heads-up on the general structure of your interview beforehand. For example: “During the interview, we’ll get you to walk us through your CV and experience, then we will ask some competency-based questions specific to this role, and then wrap up by taking any questions you might have for us.”

Decide on a scoring system

Having a consistent scoring system for each answer means you will be able to assess each candidate objectively and fairly. A simple scoring system of 1-5 for an answer can work, or you may want to prepare a checklist that you can tick off as the candidate ticks boxes with their answers.

Structure your interview 

This is all about keeping it objective. Ask all candidates the same questions and use your scoring system to ensure you’re getting an objective view of their competencies. Some questions may catch candidates out, so give them time to think, or even to come back to a question if they can’t think of an answer straight away.

Take notes

It’s vital to record a candidate’s answers so you can assess them objectively following the interview and provide feedback, so be sure to take notes throughout. Having one person who ‘leads’ the interview and is responsible for asking questions, and another who is responsible for taking notes is often the best way to ensure the candidate has your full attention.

Key competency questions 

The great thing about competency-based questions is some key structures can be easily adjusted for the role you’re hiring for, once you’ve decided the competencies you’re looking for. These base structures are things like “tell me about a time when…” or “give me an example of…”.

Here are 10 suggested competency-based interview questions:

  • Tell me about a time you demonstrated leadership
  • Give me an example of a time you handled conflict in the workplace
  • Tell me about a time your communication skills improved a situation
  • How do you maintain good working relationships with colleagues?
  • Have you ever turned a negative into a positive at work?
  • How have you used your analytical skills to make a decision?
  • Tell me about your process for solving complex problems
  • Give me an example of a time you had to deal with a difficult customer or client
  • Have you ever had to prioritise your workload to meet a deadline?