12 Oct 2017

Competency Interviews

I've got a friend who is currently looking for a new role and in their industry, interviewing for a new role is almost entirely done by HR Professionals who will typically use Competency based interviewing as their main tool in the recruitment process.  Now, in the advertising industry, you're more likely to be asked what strengths you can attribute to your star sign (true story), but we are seeing more agencies taking on HR staff and we're all going to have to be aware of how to interview slightly differently. I said I'd give my friend some tips and then thought I'd kill two birds etc and do a blog on the subject. 

So.  The basics. What is a competency based interview.  Essentially, this is where the questions will all target a specific skill or competency.  Candidates are asked questions relating to their behaviour in specific circumstances which you then need to back up with concrete examples.

The best advice I can give anyone for such an interview is to be prepared.  Years ago, when I was a candidate myself, I did actually purchase a book called 'Top answers to 100 interview questions'. It was brilliant.  Whilst the thought of 'revising' for an interview might seem a bit bonkers, you should never underestimate interviews or be blase about your experience and skills seeing you through.

HR is a sector in itself.  HR Professionals can be quite a challenging breed of individuals.  Some are great - they understand what they're recruiting for and you can have a competency based interview with added common sense.  Occasionally though you'll find yourself with an HR Professional who perhaps does not have a great understanding of the role they are interviewing for - and in this situation, you have to 'manage the person interviewing you' - without being condescending or disdainful.  In the worst cases, you can see the boxes that they have to tick/score and it can feel like a very painful hour.

Anyway, I'm digressing.  You have no control over who is going to interview you so all you can do is turn up on time, be smart and presentable and assess the person yourself when you arrive.  Don't forget to take a copy of your CV (or two), any supporting information you have been asked for and a notebook and pen.  I would recommend that you don't take your iPad and take notes on that  - it generally doesn't go down well.  Plus, with a notepad, you can make pre-written questions for them (often your mind goes blank in an interview when asked 'have you got any questions for us') and if there are specific things that you really want to say, you can highlight those so that you don't forget.  Make small-talk with the receptionist and be friendly and engaging to everyone you meet.  That's the basics.  You'd be surprised how often candidates ignore these and it lets them down.


Back to the questions.   The most common way to answer competency based questions is using the STAR technique. This describes:

The Situation
The Task required as a result
The Action that you took
The Result of that action

Ultimately, interviewers are not trying to catch you out.  Typically you will have been invited to interview based on the strength of your CV.  So this interview is more about understanding exactly the role that you have played and actually, if you prepare well, you will be reminded (hopefully) of your own strengths and this revision will make you respond much more fluently and cohesively during the interview.  

Do a bit of research before the interview.  Obviously, you need to know the job requirements so that you can tailor your answers to that.  Think of the interview as being the opportunity you have to point out where you can add value to each of the requirements on the job description.  Talk about what you can do, not what you can't!  Create a list of predicted questions - it's not that hard, tailor them again to the job description and make sure you are 'answering the question' - don't try and sidestep - treat it like an exam. You have to answer and respond so that the interviewer can 'tick' the box that you do indeed have the right character/skills/fit for the role, particularly relatively to other candidates. 

How to come up with your predicted questions

What are the key skills that employers look for when recruiting?

  • Teamwork
  • Responsibility
  • Communication skills
  • Decision making
  • Leadership
  • Problem-solving
  • Organisation
  • Goal orientation
Clearly, the type of question that you are asked will depend entirely upon the role and industry you are applying for, the common themes that are asked in competency based interviews are:

Tell me a time when…
Can you think of an example of how/when…

Describe a way in which you…

So thinking about your own sector you need to come up with some questions that you are likely to be asked which will be asked in the above manner to demonstrate the above skills.  Take a highlighter pen through the job description and highlight the key skills that are essential to the job. Then create your questions and answers around these.  Make sure you utilise the whole of your career, you can include school/university. The important thing is to use different examples, not just one for every question.
This blog is already long.  If you need sample answers that you can bastardise then use Google! There do seem to be a lot of sites all giving advice in this area so do some research. Or look for that 100 great answers book..
Remember when prepping the answers, it's not rocket science. Stick to the STAR technique. Keep your answers succinct and to the point - answer the question.  If you find you can't answer easily, try using a different example to talk about.  Make sure you don't fall into any 'traps'.  Say for example you were asked to about an example of having to handle a challenging colleague in the work-place. Employers don't want to hear the nitty gritty where you assassinate a former colleague's character because they were lazy, rude etc.  They want to hear what YOU did and you need to keep it positive talking about how your awesome skills allowed you to neutralise/solve the problem.  Negativity goes down very badly in interviews.

Finally.  My top tips:

Write out your list of predicted questions with your model answers.
Practice your answers OUT LOUD in front of a mirror or in front of partner/dog etc
Know when to stop talking. Don't ramble. 
Be positive. Particularly about colleagues, employers, customers etc.
Don't lie
Check out the social media feeds for the business - be up to speed on all their current affairs
Don't forget the notebook, pen, CV, Job Description etc. 
Get a good night's sleep before the interview
Arrive 15 minutes before the interview.
Engage with the interviewers before the interview 'starts'. Try a bit of small talk.

Good luck!