Have you ever hired someone that you ”just knew” would be the perfect fit? They looked and sounded the part; they gleefully accepted the job offer; then they promptly failed. Learn how to use competency-based interviews to avoid bad hiring decisions.

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What Is a Competency-Based Interview?

A competency-based interview is one in which a candidate is tested for aptitude and fit for the role at hand by using a set of experienced-based questions. Questions are anchored in past experience rather than having a candidate tell you what they think they might do in specific instances. These interviews allow you to hire candidates based on a solid understanding of their experiences specific to the role(s) for which you are hiring. Competency-based interviewing determines the degree to which candidate experience matches up with the competencies deemed essential for the role.

Why Is Competency-Based Interviewing Beneficial?

A competency-based interview helps minimize the risk of making poor hiring decisions that rely too heavily on intuition, suggestion, bias, the influence of others, or the wrong information about the candidate’s background. It allows you to learn far more about the candidate than merely asking questions about experiences listed on their resume.

  • Better results. By matching skills directly to the role for which you are hiring, you have a much better chance of hiring employees who will not only perform but will also stay. Hiring people with too much of a learning curve can put undue stress on the new hire and on a company’s internal capability to bring them up to speed. Hiring people with very little to learn or where personal growth is limited can create flight risk, driving unwanted turnover and creating instability in the company.
  • More equity. Based on their ability to compare answers across the candidate pool, competency interviewing gives hiring managers solid reasons why they did or did not select certain candidates. The process also provides data that can be used as feedback for candidates not selected, which in turn makes for a better candidate experience, allowing those not selected to understand the hiring decision.
  • Creates consistency. Asking questions based on the role requirements creates a sound way to compare candidates. You are comparing experiences across all candidates rather than letting personal style, appearance or other biases interfere with selection. Competency-based interviewing builds a scale (or metric) by which you select the best fit for the role based on actual experience.
  • Risk mitigation. This process allows a company to defend its selection process in a manner that is legal and ethical. While bias can never be 100% eliminated, using an interview process that is competency-based can reduce and/or limit bias-directed hiring. All candidates are asked the same questions and are scored in the same manner.

Types of Competencies to Interview For

Interviewers typically look for a mix of hard (technical) skills as well as soft (interpersonal) skills.

Technical competencies are easily determined by asking the candidate to share their proficiency with the specific systems, software, or equipment in question.

Soft skills are a little more tricky to measure. There are many that can be targeted in a competency-based interview; below are a few of the most common.

You may want to create an interview question for each category that is relevant to your open position. Record your hiring teams’ answers for each category and create a rating scale as to how well each candidates’ experience matches the needs of the position.

Type 1: Decision-Making

What are the types of decisions that most often are associated with the open role? Rational? Intuitive? Creative? What is the expected pace? Are there resources available like more senior peers, digital learning libraries, or subject-matter experts?

Type 2: Teamwork

How important is listening in this role? Conflict resolution? Problem solving? Is there interaction with cross-functional teams? How experienced is the current team? What issues are they currently facing?

Type 3: Stress Management

What sorts of constraints drive stress in this role? How are they best managed?

Type 4: Trustworthiness and Ethics

Is there access to confidential information in this role? Is the person in this role expected to call out specific issues or behaviors?

Type 5: Agility

Does the ability to adapt swiftly and cohesively play a key part in the success of the person in this role? Is change constant or prevalent in this role, or is the role highly repetitive?

Tips for Conducting a Competency-Based Interview

Here are a few tips that will optimize consistent results that are legal, ethical and defensible and serve to assist you in making the best hiring decision.

Tip 1: Review the Current Job Description

The job description should include a thorough list of the hard and soft competencies required in this role in addition to the duties of the role. This is a document that would be part of a court case if you were to be sued, so it needs to be current and accurate. More critically, is an opportunity for the candidates to determine their own willingness and readiness for the role at hand. Often job descriptions are outdated or simply haven’t yet been created.

Tip 2: Validate the Competencies Required

As you review the job description, think about the competencies needed to perform the role successfully, as well as any that may be absent on your current team. Have any of them changed over time?  Become more/less critical? Every hire is a chance to build organizational capability. Ensure that your job description calls out the critical competencies clearly.

Tip 3: Create Questions

Develop a repository of questions pertinent to each competency you identified for the role. Familiarize anyone selected to conduct interviews with the list.

Tip 4: Create a Scoring Matrix

Each question should have a predetermined rating scale . A scale of 1 to 5 is the most common. Define the sort of answer that would distinguish rating a 1 versus a 2, 3, 4 or 5. Determine whether any competencies should carry more weight than others. Keep your matrix consistent across all candidates to ensure fairness.

Tip 5: Select and Train Your Interview Panel

For maximum consistency, the same set of interviewers should interview all candidates. Together, decide who will be asking which questions so as to avoid asking the candidate duplicate questions. Discuss the ideal answers with the panel to develop a shared understanding of what you’re hoping to hear from candidates. Review the matrix with the interview team and ensure they understand the nuances on the rating scale. While the difference between a 2 rating and a 4 rating may be clear, the difference between a 3 rating and a 4 rating may be less clear.

Examples of Competency-Based Interview Questions

Most often, competency-based interview questions begin with phrases like “Tell me about a time when…” or “Describe a situation where…”. Questions posed in this manner encourage candidates to share their actual experiences with you rather than surmising what they would or could do.

Decision-Making

“Can you think of a time where you had to make an important decision very quickly?” The answer you are provided from this question will likely be far more detailed and insightful than if you had asked the same thing in a binary way: “Are you good at decision-making?” With the first question you will gain a valuable sense of how they thought through a problem, whether they generated multiple solutions, if they collaborated or not, their sense of urgency, their thoroughness, and much much more.

Teamwork

“Tell me about the best team you’ve ever been on. What made it the best?” Listen for the specific contribution that they made, the role they played on the team, how large or small it was, or perhaps things they learned about themselves from the experience.

Stress Management

“What’s the most stressful situation you’ve faced in a job so far?” “Why?” “How did you respond?” Listen for the level of complexity in their example so you can compare that to the typical level of stress that occurs in the open position. How did they respond to stress: was it verbal, through action, or a combination? Was it effective? Do they share what they learned from the situation?

Trustworthiness and Ethics

“Tell me about a time when you had to admit you made a mistake at work. Who did you tell and what was their reaction? What did you learn?” Listen to hear if the candidate is open, honest about their mistake, and whether they took ownership or made excuses. Did their learning sound authentic?

Agility

“Describe a situation in which you were asked to do something you’ve never done before. How did you respond?” Listen for signs of stress at facing something unknown, how they sought out the information needed to accomplish the task and the ease with which they completed the task. Was the task completed successfully? Do they describe how the experience made them feel? (Confident? Anxious? Relieved?)

Questions You’ve Asked Us About Competency-Based Interviews

The standard is between 45 minutes and one hour.
Typically, numeric values are assigned to each question. A 0 to 5 rating scale is useful for this process. Candidates are scored on each question Some questions can be weighted more heavily than others. At the end of the interview, the points are totalled and compared to other candidates’.

Milly Christmann is a high energy, operationally oriented talent management leader with extensive expertise in human resources, sales management, service and operations. She is recognized for collaborating with leaders to achieve their business goals by unleashing the power of an engaged workforce. By using process improvement, technology and strong, impassioned people skills as well as by attracting, developing and retaining top talent, Ms. Christmann drives change that matters.

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