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Paul Marsh

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Recruitment: five problems with competency-based interviewing and a few solutions


It’s time to give traditional competency-based interviewing the sack. Here’s how to recruit better using more in-depth, conversational techniques.

Most of us are familiar with competency-based interviewing, having either been on the receiving end of it as an interviewee, or as the person asking the questions. Questions like these are among the most common:  

Give me an example of a time when you successfully influenced someone?

Tell me about a time when you gave good customer service.

This kind of strengths-based recruitment style can be of great benefit – after all, it’s non-discriminatory, useful to ‘get under the hood’ of a person’s personality and understand their behaviour, and helps to set them apart good from not so good candidates.

There are, however, a few issues with this style that you may not be aware of. In this article, we’ll look at five of these, picked up during our time training interviewers, and provide a few suggestions to improve your technique.

Problem one – the number of competencies

It’s often the case that interviewers are forced to go through lots of ‘essential’ competencies in an interview.

The issue is that competencies such as commercial awareness, influencing or strategic orientation are not things you can give just ten minutes to. The interview might be barely an hour long or so long and you’re expected to delve into eight or more competencies.

The answer is to think 80/20: what are the three competencies that will have most impact in the role you’re recruiting for? You can then spend more time on each one and have more chance of getting the person you need.

Problem two – static job descriptions

Job descriptions are often static, historical documents that have a list of competencies that someone decided were required for the role five years ago.

The interviewer then compliantly decides these must be the ones they interview against and end up with too many competencies as above or the wrong ones.

Instead, you need to focus on the few competencies that this team requires now and in the future. This will be different every time a vacancy comes up, depending on the team dynamics, skills the team has and or are deficient in etc. We need to stop taking the rigid approach around assigning a number of fixed competencies to a job role that must apply every time.

Problem three – asking too many positive, leading questions

‘Give me an example of a time when you successfully influenced one of the senior team’ is a leading question.

What if the interviewee has never done this? They may lie and tell you what you want to hear.

Alternatively, they may tell you about an influencing success they had – but that was actually the only one they had. It doesn’t tell you whether this is a habit or a skill that they routinely deploy.

Behavioural questioning should be deep and forensic with follow-up questions that get into why your interviewee thinks and acts the way they do.

The answer is to take out the leading elements of the question and turn things into a two-way conversation instead.

You could instead ask them to ‘give me an example of a time when you were trying to get agreement to something important’.

This leads to a conversation as opposed to closing/pressurising them into having to tell you how amazing they were. You will pick up more insights here then just doing a basic question that is met with a potentially scripted ‘successful’ answer.

Also, add a few ‘failure’ questions: ‘tell me about your least successful working relationship’, for example – because real-life has both success and failure in it.

Problem four – superficial questioning

While we are talking about questions, let’s stop asking a couple of questions, deciding we have learnt all we need to about their prowess with that particular competency and then moving to the next one.

Behavioural questioning should be deep and forensic with follow-up questions that get into why your interviewee thinks and acts the way they do, why they make the choices/decisions they do etc.

Just because we hear a good answer, it doesn’t mean we should just move on. A lot of answers are scripted and designed to tell you about all the good stuff – good behavioural interviewing is less about their results/outcomes and more about habits (whether these give good outcomes or not).

Problem five – post-interview assumptions

After the interview we will often make some assumptions about how good we think someone is or whether they will really behave the way we think they will. We then ask others to get involved and do another interview because we’re not sure.

We can maximise our chances of getting it right by giving feedback to the candidate at the end of the interview. Something we almost never do. We are not telling them whether they have the job or not, we are telling them what we saw and heard in this interview and what it made us think.

If you have it right your interview will stay quiet or nod; if you have it wrong they may correct you and clarify things. This will help you be surer around whether your assumptions and perceptions are accurate.

It’s also great PR to give a bit of feedback at the end as acts as a bit of coaching to them in many ways.

In short, it’s time to ditch the competency based interviewing clichés and do something a bit more powerful.

You’ll find that interviews are more enjoyable on both sides and that you and your organisation become more memorable to the good talent you are interviewing. You’ll then have more chance of a ‘yes’ from them when you offer the job.

Interested in this topic? Read Recruitment: four common hiring mistakes and how to avoid them.

One Response

  1. Greetings……
    Good stuff here, but maybe I have got it wrong, because to me it seems like we aren’t being advised to “ditch” competency based interviewing but modify it? Is that the correct take from this?

    Cheers. DonR.

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Paul Marsh

Managing Director

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