Competency-Based Interview Questions

Businesswoman at job interview
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Competency-based interview questions require interviewees to give specific examples of times in which they demonstrated particular sought-after interpersonal competencies such as adaptability, creativity, or oral / written communications skills.

Generally, these are behavioral interview questions that prompt interviewees to describe a problem or situation, the actions they took to handle it, and the end results. They allow the employer to quickly evaluate a candidate's mindset, and gauge how a candidate handles certain situations.

What the Interviewer Really Wants to Know

Also known as “soft skills” or “people skills,” interpersonal competencies are those traits that enable people to work well with others and also within fast-paced, high-stress occupations.

Interviewers ask these questions in order to see how closely your competencies and personality traits align with those they listed in the “Desired” or “Preferred Qualifications” sections of their job listing. If the job ad specifically states that the candidates needs to be skilled in, say, conflict management, then it’s a safe bet that you’ll be asked how you have mediated workplace or client conflicts in the past.

Competency-Based Interview Questions

Often, these types of questions begin with the phrases "Describe a time when..." or "Give me an example of a situation where..." 

Interviewers may ask questions about a variety of competencies depending on the skills required for the specific job.

For example, while an interviewer for a retail job may ask competency-based questions about communication and teamwork, an interviewer for an upper management job may ask questions about leadership, independence, and creativity.

Use the STAR interview response technique to structure your answers to these questions. In this technique, you develop an illustrative anecdote that describes a Situation you were faced with in the workplace, the Task or challenge involved, the Action you took to resolve this issue, and the Results of your action.

Examples of the Best Answers

And so, for example, imagine that your interviewer asks you a competency-based question about teamwork such as, “Describe a time in which members of your team did not get along. How did you handle the situation?” Here’s a sample answer:

I was recently on a hiring committee where the members were almost evenly divided between two job candidates. Both candidates were highly qualified for the position, and either would have been a great addition to our team. 

The conflict lay in their respective ages: one candidate was well-established in her profession but within ten years of retirement age, whereas the other was a thirty-year-old dynamo with only four years of experience. The younger members of the team gravitated towards him; the more senior members preferred the older candidate. And, the discussion got extremely heated.

I suggested that we sit together and write a list of the skills and competencies we most desired in our new hire, based on our company culture and the strengths and dynamics of our current team. Once we had agreed on our most important requirements, we were better able to get beyond the age issue and evaluate which of the two candidates would be the best fit.

We ended up choosing the older candidate because she had experience that the rest of the department lacked. And, because we were able to agree on a needs-based approach (and because everyone felt like their opinion had been heard), the team was ultimately content with the hiring decision.  

Why It Works: This response effectively uses the STAR technique to demonstrate the interviewee’s thinking process and to show how they were able to use the competencies of communications, active listening, and conflict mediation to navigate a workplace issue.

How to Prepare for Competency-Based Interview Questions

To prepare for competency-based interview questions, make a list of aptitudes and attitudes that you think are important for the job for which you are interviewing.

  • Check the job listing for examples of required skills and abilities. For example: accountability, ambition, approachability, compliance, conflict management, critical thinking, delegation, flexibility, inclusiveness, influencing, initiative, resourcefulness, risk taking, etc.
  • Next, list situations in which you have demonstrated each of these competencies. Once you have prepared a list of situations, review it. By thinking of examples before the interview, you will be able to answer questions quickly and concisely. 
  • For each skill, write down the situation, the actions you took to handle the problem, and the ultimate results. This is a modified version of the STAR interview response technique. Using this technique will help you give a brief, coherent, and structured response to interview questions. 

How to Answer Competency-Based Interview Questions

Choose Your Example: Before answering the question, think of a specific example of a past situation that answers the situation given. Try to use an example that is relevant to the job you’re applying for. For example, while problem-solving can be a skill you use in a variety of situations, focus on a time when you had a specific work-related issue in the office, and how you managed it. 

Be Concise: It is easy to wander when answering a competency-based interview question, particularly if you do not have a specific situation or problem in mind. Provide a clear, brief description of the situation, explain how you handled it, and describe the results. By focusing on one specific example, your answer will be succinct and on topic.

Do Not Place Blame: If you are describing a particular problem or difficult situation (for example, a time when you had to work with a difficult boss), it may feel natural to attack or place blame on another person. However, these questions are about you, not about anyone else. Focus on what you did to manage the situation; do not dwell on other peoples’ issues or failures. 

Examples of Competency-Based Interview Questions

Adaptability

  • Tell us about the biggest change you have had to deal with in your previous employment. How did you handle it?

Communication

  • Tell us about a situation where you failed to communicate appropriately. In hindsight, what would you have done differently?
  • Describe a time when you had to explain something complex to a colleague. What problems did you come across and how did you deal with them?

Creativity

  • Tell us about a time in which you developed an unconventional approach to solve a problem. How did you develop this new approach? What challenges did you face and how did you address them?

Decisiveness

  • Tell us about a decision you made that you knew would be unpopular with certain people. How did you handle the decision-making process? How did you handle other peoples’ negative reactions?

Flexibility

  • Describe a situation in which you changed your approach in the middle of a project. What made you decide to change your approach? How did you work to implement this change smoothly?
  • Describe a situation in which you were asked to perform a task you had never performed previously.

Integrity

  • Tell us about a time when someone asked you to do something you objected to. How did you handle the situation?

Leadership

  • Describe a time in which you had to improve a team’s performance. What challenges did you encounter and how did you address them?

Resilience (How do you deal with stress?)

  • Describe a time in which you received negative feedback from an employer, colleague, or client. How did you manage this feedback? What was the outcome?

Teamwork

  • Describe a time in which you were a member of a team. How did you positively contribute to the team?

Possible Follow-Up Questions

Key Takeaways

ANALYZE THE JOB LISTING: Read the job posting closely to predict which competencies you are most likely to be asked about. Then, think of good examples of times when you have proven these capabilities in the workplace.

BE CONCISE: It’s best to provide a single, detailed example of a time when you demonstrated a skill in a professional setting, with the positive results of your action clearly explained.

BE CONFIDENT YET HUMBLE: In talking about a past experience, be careful not to throw former colleagues or supervisors under the bus in order to make your own success shine greater.