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Competency interviews: keeping the human touch and revealing behaviours beyond the cv

The high employment rate of 6-8 months ago has made a U-turn and, due to the massive economic shift caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we are now facing a plentiful supply of candidates. Businesses who are currently taking on staff could, therefore, find themselves searching through literally hundreds of c.v.’s of candidates who appear to have the correct education and experience to fulfil their requirements. This is why, as recruiters who are witnessing first-hand, a huge increase in the amount of applications per vacancy, we feel competency-based interviewing techniques continue to be so important right now. Recruiters look for, not only the skills necessary to excel at a job but also, the team fit, and competency-based or behavioural interviews can ensure that employers can be confident that they are making good recruitment decisions. 

By their nature, competency-based interview questions give candidates every chance to show they have all the experience and capabilities necessary to do the job well. They can give an insight into the soft skills and personality traits that an interviewer needs to know about before they invite the candidate into their team. Especially with the move towards online applications, video interviewing and remote onboarding, that we are encountering more and more now, it is vital that we keep utilising the tools that enable us to maintain the human touch and get to know the person behind the skill set. 

Good quality competency-based questioning help employers understand how a candidate has previously dealt with particular situations, tasks or people. The questions are open; they’re designed to let the candidate talk and they invite a response that tells the employer how they have dealt with a real-life challenge. Past reactions and evidence of reflection on mistakes, can help predict a candidate’s future practice. When a good variation of questions is presented to a candidate, it can confirm patterns of behaviour that are hard to ‘fake’ - as can occur when applicants are invited to deliver stock ‘perfect interview answers’ to hypothetical scenarios.  

So, what sort of questions are we asking? 

Well the questions are very much tailored to the job roles and need to elicit responses which make it clear if the candidate has the specific attitude, team-fit or mind-set for the vacancy at hand. However, there are definitely some common themes that HR managers and companies are looking for, and questions which can coax that information out:  

Top competency-based questions 

  • Every employer wants to know about teamwork. So, we are asking questions like: “Tell me about a time you led or worked as part of a successful team and what you did to contribute to it?” or “How do you maintain good working relationships with your colleagues?” 
  •  Want to know what candidates are like at problem solving? We are asking candidates: What’s the most challenging problem you’ve encountered in the workplace? How did come up with a solution?” 
  • You may need someone who is good at decision making. So, our candidates decisiveness may be tested by asking: “Give an example of a time where you made a difficult decision (either due to limited time or resources) and what was the outcome.” 
  • Leadership is obviously not just required in management roles and answering questions such as – “Describe a situation where you improved the performance of a team can tell us a lot about the role our candidates will take in any team situation or project. 
  • Responsibility is a much- needed trait and asking – “Tell me about a time you took responsibility for a task/project” - will also help us understand about their ability to delegate. 
  • The creativity and innovation of employees are helping businesses all over the world right now to survive, recover and flourish. We’re asking questions like “Describe an idea that you have conceived, implemented and reviewed.”  
  • In rapidly developing industries and environments employers look for adaptability and flexibility to achieve goals. To check if candidates are willing to learn and be proactive we might ask them to “Describe a situation whereby, although you started off thinking that your approach or idea was the best, you needed to alter your direction during the implementation. 
  • When crisis hits, we seek resilience. We test the measure of our candidates by asking questions such as: “Tell me about a situation where you were met with unexpected obstacles and things deteriorated quickly. How did you approach recovering from that? 

All of the above questions, whether asked face-to-face or on video interview, will tell us about a person’s communication skills and personal working style. Competency-based questions also can be aimed at finding out about a persons adaptability to changing priorities, situations and workloads as well as many other ‘difficult to identify (or quantify) traits’ such as conflict management, motivation and enthusiasm. The key is thinking about the kinds of answers you want to hear as an employer , which will tell you the candidate is the right fit. Having an ideal benchmark for key competencies can enable employers (or recruiters) to ‘score’ and compare candidates to those ideals and to each other.  

Importantly, asking candidates for real examples will hopefully get them in their comfort zone, increasing the chance of them revealing behaviours that are a true representation of themselves. So, even those who may feel uncomfortable or unfamiliar with taking part in a video interview, for instance, can talk about situations when and where they are confident, in real-life scenarios, demonstrating skills much more vital to your vacancy than ticking the ‘comfortable on camera’ box!  

About the author

Angela Hooper

Angela has been part of the Impact family, supporting the team behind the scenes, since day one. As a primary school educator and recruiter, Angela has built up brilliant skills in conflict management, strategic thinking and diplomacy – though we’re not sure if that’s because of the recruitment or primary school environments! In between jobs and studying, Angela enjoys being active, travelling and spending time with her family.