Competency based interview techniques

guide to competency based interview techniques

You’ve been asked to attend a competency based interview (or a behavioral interview) but have never heard of one ? Have you not attended an interview for years ? been made recently redundant and are unexpectedly having to attend a competency interview and just aren’t prepared?

If so this site is for you.


How does a competency interview work ?

A competency based interview looks to your past behaviours to give your new or should I say prospective employer an idea of how you will behave in the workplace.

What is always helpful for any situation is to understand how this interview type is structured, this will give you a solid foundation ahead of the interview.

Once you’ve digested that take a look at the competency guide which will give you a whole list of competencies and behaviours you might encounter. This is helpful when your reviewing the role description of job advert. You will need to undertake this review to pick out the competencies that you will be interviewed on.




What I’ve tried to do is cover a range of competencies and with as many as I can. I’ve added sample questions so you can get a better understanding of the types of questions you will be presented with – and how best to prepare for the interview.

Once you’ve got to grip of the structure of the interview and the types of competencies with sample questions and answers I suggest you look at the more generic interview guides that I have created. These focus on the techniques of the interview process including laddering and the star interview technique. Both of which will be deployed during your appraisal.


How are the questions structured ?

In short this interview follows a series of laddered questions. One question building on another to probe your past behaviours. The interviewers aren’t trying to catch you out but they are giving you every opportunity to demonstrate the behaviours they are looking for. If you find the interviewer repeating questions over again your short a behaviour.

I’ll build on this shortly but what is critical in achieving success with a behavioral interview is to start thinking about examples as soon as possible to answer those questions.


Examples, examples, examples

Examples do not have to be specific to one behaviour and very often you can reuse them from different behavioural perspectives. So start thinking now. It really is the most important part of a successful preparation.

To improve your examples make sure you loop through the examples as many times as you can. Use a friend or colleague. They don’t need to understand the specifics but need to be primed to question you, ask anything they don’t understand and focus you on what you did. I’ve used this approach dozens of times and it really work.

I highly recommend you read my article about forming examples for a competency interview.


What not to say

As well as what to say, think what don’t they want to hear. Those no-no’s are often referred to as negative behaviours. For example, team players put the team’s objectives ahead of their own, so saying you stepped on people to achieve your goal or you succeeded but the team failed would drop you into the negative behaviour trap.

Don’t fall, but do think about the negatives, invert them, and think positive. As in life negatives can be hugely destructive and cause interview failure.


Don’t forget the traditional interview

For further tips to success check out another article on interview tips. This focus’ on the more generic techniques you should deploy during an interview.

Recognise that any interview is about three things, competencies, technical role specific skills and you.


Balance your interview preparation

You have to balance your prep effort between competency aka behavioural questions and those technical questions related to your role.

For example a project manager will need to be on the top of his or her game regarding the techniques you need to harness for successful change management (risk, dependency and issue management, financial management, critical path planning, resource planning, managing change, ). So please don’t neglect the technical skills whatever the competencies your prospective employer is looking to asses.


Fitting into your future team

Finally remember your prospective employer wants and I know it’s an over used piece of management speak but its true, they want a team player. There are not only interviewing you for your skills and behaviours but how well you will fit into the team, which, they may well be part of.


Top ten competency based interview questions

As a quick taster below are my top ten interview questions. They are my top ten (or is it 11?) as they cover a range of competencies and behaviours to get you thinking and preparing for an interview.

Check out the the top menu page for a detailed list of competencies and behaviours or the right hand menu for detailed exploration. Although a list of questions is useful, you really need to look at and prepare for an interview by reviewing the competency in question.

Interview room

As you browse the list below, just think do I have an example from my own experience that I could use ? These sample question would be captured as part of the laddering question technique that I have already covered. After each question I have highlighted the competency (or behaviour) at the heart of the question.

Example competency based questions

Tell me about a situation where the performance of a team you worked in didn’t meet expectations ?

Developing people

Tell us about a time when a problem you faced required investigation ?

Problem solving

Tell us about an occasion when you needed to gain the support of others to secure the right outcome ?


Can you tell me about time when customer service levels fell short of the required standard ?

Customer service

Can you tell me about a communication that you have had to deliver that was important to the company, department or team ?


Can you give me an example where you needed to work with other people to deliver a solution to a work based problem ?

Developing solutions, Team work

Could you tell me about a time when you have delivered beyond the expectations of your manager ?

Achieving high performance, Professionalism

Can you tell me about a situation where you demonstrated a positive example to your peers and co-workers?


Could you tell me about a time when you had to deal with conflict in a work situation ?

Relationships, Working with others, conflict management

Can you tell me about a time when you had to change the way something was done to improve a task, process or activity ?

Change management

Can you tell me about a time when it was important to prioritise the work that you were undertaking ?

Prioritising and planning

tips for competency interview

Interview tips

My top ten tips for a successful interview

1. Examples – a competency based interview looks at your past experiences and demonstration of behaviour as a guide for your suitability for a new role . To maximise your chances of success you how to develop several examples, ideally at a ratio of one per competency.

2. Its all about you. Remember to answer the questions with an “I”. Assessment will be looking to tick of examples of positive behaviours from a list, all will begin with the candidate demonstrated, the candidate did… So help the interviewer by talking the right language.


3. Don’t hold back. As be wary of singing the praises of a colleague (unless part of team work, collaboration etc), turn their positive behaviours into yours.

4. Rehearse the examples. Make sure you review the examples that you develop with a peer, friend or associate. Other people are likely to see other avenues within you example. They will ask you questions, expose areas that haven’t been well explained and will also help you to highlight the behaviours you demonstrate. Do this a couple of times and you will find it improves iteratively.

5. Freely develop examples. start out focusing on one behaviour or competency but if you find it opening up to suit others, let it. You may find the examples better suits another competency.

6. Negative behaviours. Make sure understand not only what the positives for an interview are but also the negative behaviours hat you need to avoid.

7. Remember the role based questions. It’s likely that the interview will cover both competencies and the technical skills required to perform the role. Don’t forget to prepare for both aspects.

8. Interview standards. This is a job interview. Don’t give the job away, be on time, well presented, understand the location (google earth or street view is helpful). Bring along your notes, role profile, interview invite letter and competency example notes.

9. Interview Questions. Reading a list of competency based interview questions is helpful but not the best way to prepare. Work out the competencies to be assessed and then develop model answers. Then you can compare your examples and tweak them as appropriate, working on any gaps.

10. Choose employment based examples over a hobby. You have a restricted amount of time at an interview. Make the most of the opportunity by describing your past behaviours and your skills within the role. If you choose a hobby or pastime you are missing out on an opportunity to sell yourself.

For some more interview tips check our the Guardian’s interview tips page.


Describing a competency and not just the situation

One of the things many interviewees get wrong is approaching a competency interview as if it was a traditional interview situation. They are asked a question which is looking for a specific behaviour (and evidence) and then spend 90% of the time describing the project, the problem or change rather than their behaviours.

An example, take a question focused on change excellence, tell me about a time when you facing a challenging project ? How did you ensure all project deliverables where meet and business expectations exceeded ?

Now the default for most people will be to over describe the project, its easier (it’s an area of comfort), supported by chronology and often reinforced by our innate story telling approach. You also want – quite naturally – to show off, impress the interviewer with your accomplishments, tell them about all the great success you have hard.

You may well go to the biggest and best example in your memory banks. But is this the best example? Often your role in a big bold change will be limited, others lead the change, you had a smaller task focused role.

Bigger is not always better.

This approach often leads to a traditional interview answer not a competency focused response.

Take another look at some of the key phrases in the question, ‘change excellence’ , ‘challenging’ and ‘expectations exceeded’.

What the interviewer wants to hear is how you delivered excellence in delivery, in a team lead role that’s often through others.

How did you measure excellence ?
What did you do within your plans to achieve it ?
What about the challenges ? How did you look out for them ? And then plan to overcome them ?
Whose expectations were you meeting ? Measures of success? How to bring out the strengths within the team ?
Challenge yourself and the team ?
What was your attitude to the change ?

Its easy to fall into describing a situation.

Focus on describing what you did and importantly how you went about it. If your not talking behaviour, attitude, best practice your very likely underselling yourself.


Graduate Employers use of Competency Interviews

Each year the Guardian top 300 survey interviews graduates to find the top 300 companies that graduates aspire to work for.

I’ve taken a sample of those top 300 employers to explore their approach to interviewing. All have clear needs in terms of technical skills and abilities but what is also apparent is a real focus on behaviours and while the describing word is often different the behaviour being described is shared between organisations and referenced on this site.

It’s interesting, that just by looking at these top five you can see the culture of the organisation being reflected in their competency needs. The BBC and NHS both call out “Resilience” in the sample roles I picked out reflecting the often challenging nature of roles within those organisations.

The Top 5 companies for Graduates

Number one is Google and as yet I haven’t come across evidence of competency interviewing techniques, though that’s not to say they are not in use.

Number two is the BBC whom makes use of competency interviews. As an example a researcher role may require competency in “Creative Thinking”, “Planning & Organising”, “Resilience” and “Under Standing Diversity”.

At number three GlaxoSmithKline (or GSK) refer to the competencies required as part of the application process. Taking a sample role GSK ask for “Problem Solving & Innovation”, “Application” (which relates to the application of processes and techniques) and “Interaction” (which I live often referred to as communication).

Number four is the NHS Graduate Schemas. They are transparent with their needs including competencies. What’s interested is the difference in competency requirements between roles in England and Wales. For the Welsh management scheme they themselves note the list of competencies is “vast” including “Broad Scanning, Drive for service improvement, change and results”, Empowering and engaging staff”, “Financial Leadership”, “Holding to Account”, “Impactful Communication”, “Intellectual flexibility”, “Leading effective teams”, “Intellectual flexibility”, “Political astuteness”, “Resilience”, “Self-belief”, “Self-awareness and management”.

The English version however calls out much more limited set including what I would refer to as “Communication”, “Understanding issues”, Innovation”, “Problem solving”.

Number five brings Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) who deploys a competency based interview as part of their interview process. This isn’t the first step of the process and doesn’t happen (for an Operational Officer role) until week 6 to 10 of their understandably broad recruitment approach. Not unsurprising they don’t go into detail.


Customer services representative competency interview

Competency based interviews are often used to asses candidates for the suitability for customer service roles. In fact this type of role lends itself well to a review of your future performance by looking at your past behaviours. And that is what a competency interview looks to do.

This interview type requires preparation not found with a traditional interview. It offer you both some advantages (principally consistency and fairness) but also presents challenges to the interviewee particularly if this is your first time at interview.

To prepare you have to build examples related to the competency or behaviour under assessment.

Each of these competencies is then explored and requires you to answer a series of questions (which are asked using what’s called a laddering technique).

For example,

Behaviour of communication which is a stalwart of excellent customer services. Could be questioned by:


Example questions

  • Tell be about a time when you hand to change the way you communicated a message? How did you decide to structure your communication?
  • How do you asses the needs of the people you where communicated with?
  • How did you ensure your message was understood?
  • What was the outcome?

Notice how each question builds on the former. This is to draw out your example to cover (or give you the opportunity) to present each of the examples of positive behaviours the interviewer (or more likely framework) has defined.


Example answer

As a customer services representative you’ll no doubt have to deploy this everyday. Your example might recall a time when the customer didn’t understand you or had different communication preferences. You might have spoken to them and then talked them through a website while on the phone (after checking they had time and though it would help). To check that they understood you could have followed up with a courtesy call at a later time and then sent them information in the post and followed up with an email.

If your struggling with your behavioural examples I throughly recommend making use of peer review when developing company examples through a session.


Other customer services competencies

Of course customer services representative aren’t limited to just communication. These roles are also likely to look at other behaviours from the obvious customer service through to gathering information, attention to detail and professionalism and problem solving.


Technical skills

Remember that any interview even if structured around a competency framework you will also require technical skills. These will include IT skills such as data entry or application knowledge but you may also include knowledge of business processes, letter writing and call handling. When you prepare for your interview don’t forget to allow yourself some time to research these skills alongside your example development.



Letter Uncategorized

How to write a cover letter for a Competency Based Interview

Cover letters are a great tool for getting your CV noticed and pulling out your key strengths for the role. It’s really important you spend as much time on the cover letter as your CV as you may find if the cover letter doesn’t work your potential employer might not even bother with your CV.

You’ll often find recruitment agents will help you work up a cover letter as they themselves place a high value on getting the content and style right. Employers can also give you direction, for example GlaxoSmithKline tell applicants that “The information that you have provided in your cover letter and CV will be used to assess your application”, it cannot be any clearer than that.

Top considerations for a Cover Letter

Make sure your language is correct and appropriate. You need to use business language, keep it professional and of course free of grammatical and spelling errors.

Proof reading is a must.  If you have someone in your network who recruitments why not ask them to review your letter for you?

Structure. Make sure you have one! If your application is being skim read (and 99% will be) using an easy to follow structure will lead the reader’s eyes and help them to pick out areas which are important to them. Remeber to keep in concise.

Recognise that the cover letter enhances your CV, don’t under value it, invest and a great cover letter will reward you.

Suggest letter structure

I recommend the follow structure as a starting point. Of course this is a personal document but also one designed to sell.

Think hard if you decide not to cover an area.

  • Introduction
  • What draws you to the role?
  • Your key strengths, experience and skills that make you right
  • Further points that strength your suitability highlighting key competencies and behaviours. Have you been recognised for your behaviours ? any measures of your own professionalism that you could include ?
  • Conclusion, drawing together the key points from the above section.

In summary the Cover letter is a often over looked part of your application. Take you time to get it right and make sure to reference the behaviours that the employer is looking for.

Career Uncategorized

Career Inspiration

I’ve just read Seth Godins latest book entitled the Icarus Deception. While this site is about helping you prepare for an interview you might also want to spend some time thinking about what you really want to do.

The Icarus Deception examines the new reality of the end of industrialisation the fact that going to the best school, doing just what the boss wants and staying safe isn’t going to be enough to succeed.

This might sound like heavy going but its not.

Seth puts forward a message that rather than focusing on what your told and made to fear think about what you create, keeping doing it, stand up for what you believe in, have your voice.

Focus on creating art, your art.

The reality is that following economic collapse our safety zones have moved, to stay safe we have to move. To move means getting uncomfortable, moving out of our comfort zone which sat inside that old safety zone.

Seth’s view is that connections are the new value, being trusted is gold. Just carving out another level of efficiency in a world where globalisation gives us infinite quality resources isn’t enough.

Another interesting perspective was Seth’s description of the worlds worst boss. It rang so true. It was me. Simply if we had a boss that managed our careers the way we do they would have been fired long ago.

How good a boss are you of your career ? He makes a good point worth reflecting on.

I recommend giving the Icarus Deception a read.

If though you don’t want another book at least do yourself a favour and check out Seth’s blog for some daily inspiration.

Good interview Uncategorized

A good interview

Confidence. Nothing is more off putting than not being confident during your interview. So if you want to have a good interview here are my top  tips to maximising your confidence for an job interview.

tips for a good interview

Understanding. Make sure you are best placed for your interview by doing what you can do to understand the interview process. Be it a tradition interview or one that seeks to evaluate your behaviours.  Review my guide to the interview process to help. Also bear in mind any special technical such as a group interview that your employer me deploy.

Preparation. Competency based interviews in particular require you to prepare in a particular way, developing the examples you need ahead of time is so important.

Do your research. You’ll be thrown at the start if your asked “what attracts you to working with us?” and you haven’t research both the company and role. Make sure you understand what either their market is about or any insights to the industry that you can determine. This research should include evaluating the role, put yourself in your prospective employers shoes, what would they be looking for ? Make use of LinkedIn to see what you can learn about your interviewers if possible. Understanding their background will help you frame your responses.

Logistics.  Not knowing where you’re going, who your meeting, travel arrangements, potential for disruptions, taxi numbers and the nearest café to chill out are just unnecessary distractions on your big day.

Team. If you think about it, getting along with your colleagues, your manager and fitting in with the culture can be as if not more important than you skills. Try your best to demonstrate positive team work behaviours. Your behaviours are under assessment and in particular your ability to fit in. Quoting exerts for a newspaper, undermining your employer and probing their ethics will have to wait till you’ve got the job!

Strike a balance. You need to be prepared for examination of your behaviours, technical skills and your knowledge of the role. Don’t forget to study for each.

Presentation. This isn’t limited to physical appearance it also includes any paper work you present. Everything needs to be professional. This includes your LinkedIn or other social profile that is accessible – this often the first place employers will go. Watch what you tweet!

The more your prepared the greater chance you will have of success. Key is to make it repeatable. Sure focus on the role your going for but see the investment in the interview as a repeatable task. Its easy to put everything into that perfect job only to lose out and take your next interview less seriously. Your next employer won’t care that you’ve been for ten interviews, written hundreds of letters, don’t go for sympathy, it’s a weakness that you have to leave at the door.

For futher advice check out my intereview tips.

Giving interview feedback

Giving interview feedback

If your interviewee has followed the advice on this site and many others you may well be approached to give interview feedback following a behavioral interview. Some organisations will have a policy dictating what you can and cannot say but the majority in my experience do not.

how to give interview feedback

Record the interview ! The best advice to giving great interview feedback is to think about it before you actually conduct the interview.

Having a good set of notes is not just important for feedback but it is essential for conducting the interview itself. Without a record of what the candidate has said you leave yourself and the organisation open to scrutiny. A behavioral interview should be scripted in such as way that the assessment is measured against pre defined criteria, without the evidence your at best reliant on memory (and more likely to bring in other factors rather than the behaviours bring examined) and at worst open to litigation. Imagine later you are challenged in court that you declined candidate x due to race, religion, dress, sexuality and have no evidence of what they actually said.

Stress head

Offer to give feedback. You may not feel comfortable or the volume of applicants is too great but if you identify a candidate that was just wide of the mark or demonstrated behaviors that your organisations offers, follow up with an offer of feedback.

Keep it fresh. If asked or offered don’t hang about go back to the candidate as soon as you can. Remember your representing the company as much as yourself being professional is important.

Be positive. Thank them for their time both at the interview and in showing an interest in your feedback.

Be honest. Praise is helpful but if there where stronger candidates ( and there must ave bern!) tell them.

Aim to give verbal feedback. Emails can often be misinterpreted, the candidate will appreciate the personal touch and you won’t spend hours pondering the right words. The interview was verbal keep the feedback in the Sam media.

Keep the feedback specific. Reference the candidates CV or resume (skill levels, training, experience), what they actually said and the details of the job specification. Be careful not to bring in other factors that you cannot evidence either asking for ( I.e. a particular skill) or a response given.

It’s a behavioral interview! You should reference behaviors tell them the ones they where strong in and also ones that also need work.

Suggest improvements. For example if the candidate is interested in this role help them to identify the shortcomings in their skill levels and competencies against your evidenced expectations. Offer suggestions for training, offer up ideas on intermediate roles they should consider as a stepping stone.

Don’t compare. Keep the feedback specific on them. Avoid comparing them to someone else, partially avoid any personal references or physical descriptions. They don’t need to know who got the position.


the Initiative behaviour

At a behavioural interview an employer may want to examine your attitude and past performance relating to an initiative behavior. This is one of those behaviors that you can’t really study for using best practice as a reference it’s very much about your attitude and drive to getting the job done. Employers don’t want robots (even if working on an assembly line), if something goes wrong in a business, process or team they want to be assured you’ll do want you can to get working. They also want the ‘team’ (and everyone in it) to be looking for opportunities to improve.

Developing an initiative behavior example

You might care to think about a time when you were in a competitive environment, how did you stay ahead to make sure you booked the deals or got the most exciting work assignments ?

It’s also a time to reflect on your problem solving ability.

Have you been faced with a complex problem where the answer wasn’t all that obvious ? How about a time when you changed the way a task was done or how people worked together ?

Of course a great example is going to cover a tine where you were operating without direction but in line with corporate and team objectives. It’s important to link your initiative to goals, so that while you might try different approaches you reference the same outcomes.

Initiative behavioral interview questions

A couple of sample inter view questions for you to consider (note these follow the laddering interview technique).

Tell me about a time when you changed the way work was undertaken to improve a situation ? How to you identify a change was required ? How did you develop the new way of working ? Did you face an barriers to the implementation of the change ? What was the outcome ?

Can you give me an example of when you went beyond the requirements of your role ? How did you know it was the right thing to do ? Did you seek any validation on your approach ? What was the outcome ?

Interview role play

Role play

Behavioral interviews usually follow an interview format making use of the question laddering method and the STAR question technique (describe the Situation, Task, Action, Result). But the interview doesn’t have to just be take a formal interview format with you being asked to describe a past experience and the examples you may well have prepared.

Another way for the interviewing organisation to uncover your behaviors is to put you in a role play situation.

Clapper board

Why use role play ?

Role plays will put you in scenario which will more closely resemble the type of situation the organisation recognizes rather than you describing a situation that they don’t understand.

They can also apply pressure to find your real behaviors given a situation.

Pressure is often subtle.

It’s not necessarily someone shouting at you or being particularly awkward (though this can happen) it can be applied by not giving you enough time to prepare or making the material complex or even vague. When you under pressure people tend to revert to type and your behaviors are more likely to come out.

How does a behavioral role play interview work ?

Ideally the interview will describe or at least list the the behaviors they are looking to examine before the interview.

Rather than examining all of the behaviors in one session they may break down the role play into a number of plays, these can be related or unrelated. You will be given a brief, some background to the situation, your relationship to others in the role play, history, information and the aim or outcomes required.

The person(s) your in the role play will of course have a brief. They will be instructed to answer questions in a certain way and will often have a mind map type of document that guides them on responses to your questioning.

The session will be overseen by an assessor or interviewer who will be looking out for examples of the positive behaviors that are required (and remember also the negative behaviors they don’t want to see).

Tips for a role play behavioral interview ?

  • They are looking for behaviors not cleaver answers.
  • If your getting drawn down a particular route which isn’t going anywhere with the actor remember this might just be a dead end, go back a place you need to explore.
  • Role plays are often time bound, watch the clock and remember your objective.
  • The preparation time is designed to distract you from thinking about positive behaviors, don’t forget them.
  • Don’t get wound up or aggressive, calm and collected is what you want, no negative behaviors.
  • Remember to listen! This is a big part of communication for example and likely a positive behavior.
  • Don’t worry if the communication isn’t as natural as you would like, remember the assessor is likely just checking boxes against a list of positive attributes.
  • Look out for hidden pathways and signals. Body language, looking stressed or harassed, nervous etc
Coaching a candidate

Coaching for an interview

Having just coached someone for a upcoming interview I thought I quickly share a couple of tips for approaching the interview preparation.

Don’t assume knowledge

Talk the person writing down the answers and image that’s what they do, don’t assume knowledge.

That person might be a senior member of the company but think of them in an administrative role. Competency interviews are all about what you say, if you perceive the person your talking to has intrinsic knowledge of the subject area your likely to gloss over some of the foundational points of your answer. Those foundations may be critically in demonstrating a positive behaviour.

For instance, you’re being interview for a project management role, and are asked a question about planning. Not explaining your approach to the critical path of a plan because you perceive the person your talking to already has that knowledge wouldn’t help, forgetting to mention that the plan was devised thorough lots of dialogue and communication, drafting the plan and re cutting it again takes away an opportunity to talk and explain.

In a sense the more you think the person knows the less your likely to say and therefore more likely you are to fail, simply because you didn’t elaborate.

Don’t assume knowledge in your interviewer – it will limit your opportunity to demonstrate a behaviour.

Develop those behavioural examples

I’ve mentioned this before but example development is absolutely critical. And I thoroughly recommend a peer review over a couple of sessions to draw out understanding of what you did.

So what do I mean ?

Simply start thinking about activities that you have performed, projects undertaken etc. Remind yourself what you did and how with and how you did it.

For example you’ve delivered a project, you probably demonstrate every behaviour in that one project but can you remember what you did ? take it back to basics, what where the challenges with that project ? who were the stakeholders ?how did the project get from inception to closer ? did you improve something ? offer up options ? evaluate risks and issues ? team work etc ?

Once you have that example, walk a peer through the example. Ask them to challenge you on what you did during the engagement, talk, and get used to talking about that example.

Remember this is about YOU

This is simple. When talking remember this is all about what you did. Not what a colleague did and you thought was a good idea, its about you. If you’re not used to self promotion, get used to it, talk.

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