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A guide to competency-based interviews

Posted on: July 13th, 2015 by admin No Comments


Got a competency-based interview coming up but have no idea what to expect? This guide explains what a competency-based interview is and shows you how to prepare for one with easy-to-remember answering techniques and example questions.

What is a competency-based interview?

You’re probably familiar with a normal interview format (called unstructured interviews). These feel like conversations, as the interviewer asks you general and open-ended questions to get an overall impression of your attitude to work. Whether you successfully pass the interview or not is therefore a rather subjective process.

Competency-based interviews (sometimes called structured or behavioural interviews) are more systematic, with each question carefully constructed to determine your experience of demonstrating specific skills required for the job. Essentially, the interviewer wants to hear about practical examples, so instead of asking ‘if’ you like to work in a team, you’ll be asked to recall the last time you did so.

Employers use this approach as a method of predicting how you will react to the workplace scenarios you’re likely to encounter if they offer you the job.

How do I prepare?

Competency-based questions require upfront preparation.

Firstly, sit down with the job specification and make a list of all of the competencies required for the role. These may include:

  • Teamwork
  • Responsibility
  • Communication skills
  • Decision making
  • Leadership
  • Problem-solving
  • Organisation
  • Goal orientation

Next, sift through your employment history to draw out concrete examples of when you demonstrated these skills.

Finally, practice your answers using the STAR technique.

What is the STAR technique?

STAR is an acronym, which stands for:


The STAR technique is a universally recognised communication method, designed to produce meaningful and complete answers.

Recruiters conducting competency-based interviews will often incorporate the STAR structure into their assessment criteria, marking your responses at each of the following three related stages:

  1. Situation or task

    You’ll need to set the scene by describing the situation you were confronted with or the task that was presented to you. Make it concise and informative; so if you’re being questioned on conflict management, explain how the encounter occurred, or if you’re being asked about teamwork, outline the task that your team was given.

  2. Action

    Tell the interviewer what you did, how you did it and why you did it.

    For example, when being questioned about conflict resolution, most people will say something along the lines of ‘I told my colleague to calm down and explained the situation to him’. However, you’ll make a much bigger impact by highlighting the skills you used to do this, hence a stronger answer could look something like:

    I could sense my colleague was feeling frustrated so I gently asked him to tell me what he felt the problem was. By allowing him to vent his feelings, I gave him the opportunity to calm down. I then explained my own viewpoint to him, emphasising how it important it was that we found a mutual solution.

  3. Result

    Finish your answer by explaining the final outcome of the situation. Also, use this opportunity to reflect upon the situation, highlight any other skills you used to achieve the objectives at hand, and to tell the interviewer what you learnt from the event. This is important because recruiters want to see that you’re focused on achieving objectives rather than relying on chance.

How will my interview be assessed?

Before the interview, the interviewers will have determined which type of answers will score positive points for a candidate and which answers will work negatively against them.

For instance, they may plan on asking you to ‘Describe a time when you had to deal with pressure’ and have set out a number of positive and negative indicators which they will tick during the interview. Positives could include a willingness to seek external assistance and the ability to compromise, whilst negatives could include perceiving challenges as problems and adopting inappropriate strategies to deal with them.

You’re then likely to be marked on a 1-5 basis (poor to excellent) for each attribute on their list.

This is a very rigid recruitment process, which can be daunting for interviewees, but there are occasions when a recruiter can see potential in you and will probe for more details if you’ve failed to address the question fully.

Example questions you could be asked:

Below is a list of example questions that you could be asked during your competency-based interview according to the skill being assessed. However, it’s important to do your own research before attending your interview, as the questions you can expect will depend on the industry you’re entering and the role you’re applying for.


  • Which change of job did you find the most difficult to make?
  • Tell us about the biggest change you’ve had to deal with.


  • How do you ensure compliance with policies in your area of responsibility?
  • Describe a situation in which you went against company policy. Why did you do it?


  • Describe a time when you had to win over a reluctant colleague.
  • Give us an example where your listening skills proved crucial to a business outcome.
  • How do you plan the writing of a report?

Conflict management

  • Tell us about a time when conflict led to a negative outcome. What have you learnt from it?
  • Describe a situation in which you felt differences were a positive driving force in your organisation. How did you handle the conflict to optimise its benefit?

Creativity and innovation

  • Describe a project where you felt the conventional approach was not suitable. How did you manage a new approach and what challenges did you face in doing so?
  • Tell us about a time when you trusted your team to derive a new approach to an old situation.


  • What big decision have you made recently? How did you go about it?
  • Give us an example of a situation that required you to make a decision without input from key stakeholders that you knew would judge you on the choice.


  • What type of responsibilities do you delegate?
  • Give an example of a project you were compelled to complete yourself. What stopped you from delegating?


  • Give an example of a project where a positive outcome was achieved by the input of people from a wide range backgrounds.
  • Tell us about a time when you included someone in your project because you thought they’d bring something different to the team.


  • Tell us about an unpopular decision that you have made recently. What was your thought-process behind it? How did your colleagues react?
  • What steps do you take to understand your colleagues’ personalities?

External awareness

  • Describe from experience how you measure the impact of your decisions on external parties.
  • Tell us about a time when you underestimated the impact of your decisions on external stakeholders.


  • Describe a time when you had to change your approach halfway through a project.
  • Tell us about your strongest and weakest colleagues. How do you deal with differing personalities within your team?


  • Describe a time when you disagreed with a superior. How did you handle it?
  • Which constraints are imposed on you in your current job and how do you work with them?


  • Tell us about a situation in which you influenced others on an important issue. What strategies did you employ?
  • What is your worst selling experience?


  • When have you had to lie to achieve your aims? Why did you do it?
  • Tell us about a time when you were asked to do something against your principles. How did you react?


  • Tell us about a time when you encouraged your team to improve their performance. How did you manage it?
  • Describe a situation in which you received reluctance from your team about a decision you’d made.

Organisational awareness

  • Describe a project that required you to involve input from other departments. How did you identify this need?
  • Tell us about a time you failed to engage at the right level in your organisation.


  • Under what conditions do you work best and worst?
  • Which recent project has caused you the most stress?


  • What risks do you see in moving to this new post?
  • Tell us about risks you have taken in your professional or personal life. How did you make your decisions?


  • Describe a situation in which you played an important member of the team (not a leader).
  • Give us an example of a time when you worked within a dysfunctional team. Why was it dysfunctional and how did you attempt to change it?

Hopefully, you’re now mentally prepared for your competency-based interview. The next step is to get physically prepared; click here for interview attire advice »

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