Most interviews today are competency-based. It’s a phrase that can be confusing. As somebody who specialises in coaching people to succeed at an interview, it is vital to know how competencies are assessed and how to set yourself up for interview success, writes executive coach James Sweetman.

In part one of this feature on Interview Skills, I explored common misconceptions surrounding interviews and the five questions you should be able to answer


What are competencies?

A competency is simply an important skill or attribute that is required to do a job effectively. In every job there are specific skills and attributes that the person in that job needs to have in order to be successful in that role. For example, if the job is working in a call centre handling customer service queries, one of the competencies required will be good communication skills.

Companies know the competencies they are seeking in candidates and most of the time the five or six competencies they have identified will be listed in the job description. Common competencies include: communication skills, organisational skills, being a team player, interpersonal skills and leadership skills.

Knowledge, skills, judgment and experience

By assessing levels of competency during the interview, the employer seeks to learn if you have the skills, knowledge, judgment and experience to be successful in the role.

Competency based interviews are also known as ‘structured interviews’ because the competencies provide a framework around which the interviewers structure their questions and assess candidates. They are also referred to as ‘behavioural interviews’ because by gauging your level of competency, the interviewer is determining if you will be able to behave or act in a specific way in the working environment. 


The three ways interviewers assess competencies

1) Past examples

This is the most common way interviewers will endeavour to assess a competency. They will ask you to share examples of how you demonstrated the required competencies in the past.

For example, talk me though a time where your communication skills helped to achieve a specific goal, or give me an example of a challenging situation you had to manage. This approach is based on the thinking that the best indication of future behaviour is past behaviour. Most of the questions used to assess your competency in a particular area will start with the phrases:

  • Tell us about a time…..
  • Describe a situation where…..
  • Talk us through……
  • Give us an example of…….

A useful way to structure your answer is with the mnemonic STAR.

S/T = situation or task

You are setting the scene, giving a brief description of the situation or task you were facing.

A = action or ability demonstrated

You outline what you actually did, how you approached handling the situation. You are emphasising the skills you displayed. When describing what you did, avoid using broad generalisations or clichés, the more specific you are the better.

R = result or resolution

This is where you wrap up your answer by sharing how your actions resolved the situation or completed the task. Sharing what you learnt from the specific example is a nice way to conclude your answer, especially when the outcome of the situation wasn’t what you expected.

A simple way to identify examples to use to demonstrate competencies is to ask yourself the question, 'in recent years what have I been most proud of'. This question will bring your focus to your recent achievements, where you have probably demonstrated a number of the desired competencies. Have at least two examples of situations where you demonstrated each required competency.

One final distinction when it comes to competency illustration. When sharing an example, remember interviewers are not interested in the story you are telling, they are interesting in knowing the skill and judgment you applied within the context of your example.

2) Hypothetical scenarios

The second way a competency can be assessed is providing you with a hypothetical situation and asking you how you would approach dealing with it. For example, to assess your organisational skills you could be asked, 'if two customers are seeking something from you urgently, how would you go about prioritising their requests'?

Hypothetical scenarios are often used when candidates may not have past experiences to draw upon, for instance if they are starting out in their careers.

They can also be used to test candidates’ ability to think on their feet. Hypothetical scenarios can be challenging because they cannot be predicted, though they will usually be based on relevant work situations. If you are able to answer the hypothetical questions satisfactorily, it gives the interviewer confidence that you would be able to manage yourself well in that scenario.

3) Competency definition

The third way a competency is assessed is when the interviewer asks you to share your understanding of what a competency means. This line of questioning is generally only used in tandem with one of the other competency assessment methods.

You may have your examples lined up and to be asked a question like, 'what are the qualities of a good leader', or 'what makes for a good team player', could easily throw you.

So for each of the competencies listed in the job description, think about how you would define them as part of your preparation. You don’t need to give a dictionary definition or an academic answer, think about somebody who is skilled in that area and what they would do to demonstrate that competency.