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Nothing is perfect: A guide to competency-based interviews

By Rachel Tubridy, Managing Director of People Source

Woody Allen once said, “money can’t buy you happiness, but it does get you a better class of misery”.  Meanwhile, many commentators like to point out that democracy is far from perfect whilst at the same time being far better than any alternative currently in operation. In short, nothing is ever perfect, and CBIs are no exception.  Here, however, are a few tips and observations that might help both interviewers and interviewees to get the best out of the process.

CBIs are favoured because they provide the basis for making direct comparison between candidates by ‘scoring’ their answers to a standard set of questions which is put to them all.  Usually, these questions are built around a set of required competencies that have been identified and set out in a job advert or job-specification.  This scoring approach can be very useful in an environment where there is the potential for appeals from unsuccessful candidates.  On a more positive note, it is also the cornerstone of being able to provide constructive targeted feedback.

Opponents to the CBI process claim it is a cold approach to hiring, completely missing out on personality, originality, spontaneity and ‘softer’ skills that candidates may possess.  There are also many who believe firmly in the ‘gut feel’ element of hiring who would prefer to have a coffee with a prospective employee than interview them at all.

But it is fair to say that there is a very valid argument to be had for CBI, especially for task-oriented roles, also it has considerable advantages for interviewees as it sets a predefined template for the interview which is a great help when it comes to preparation.

So, how do both sides set about getting the best from a competency-based interview?  Let’s start with the interviewers;

Interviews are not traps

  • Always aim to help your interviewees to show themselves in their best light.  Make them feel at ease, brief them in advance as to the nature of the interview and help them during moments of unease.  Don’t miss out on a really great new colleague because they got tongue-tied for 10 seconds.

  • Explain what you want from a CBI and why you are taking this approach

  • Avoid asking questions about competencies that you have not previously referred to in your job advert, job spec or briefing notes

  • Don’t forget the other aspects of the role that may not be addressed in the formal part of the interview, ask some more open questions, give them a chance to speak freely and express themselves, give yourself the opportunity to find out a bit more about them:

    • What makes them tick / what are they passionate about
    • Have they a sense of humour
    • Do they show empathy or an appreciation for an opposing point of view
    • Do you think they might be creative, innovative or demonstrate other potentially useful attributes
    • Have one person on the interview panel deliberately deviate from CBI questions and to observe the candidate’s body language, adaptability and EQ

And for the interviewees;

Don’t get caught up in yourself

  • Remember, when you attend an interview, focus on what it is the interviewer is asking, listen to the question, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification.  Be careful not to deliver your prepared answer just because you want to demonstrate you had prepared. 

  • Do your research!  Figure out the competencies you are likely to be questioned about and have your answers prepared (with a back-up answer, just in case).  Candidates often come out of an interview having prepared only one example per competency and are stumped when it seems the same competency is being questioned a second time.  Sometimes you are being asked again because the interviewer is trying to help you and give you an opportunity to provide a stronger answer. 

  • Use the STAR technique to set out your response
    • Situation – what was the background / scenario you are referring to
    • Task – what was it you were trying to achieve
    • Action – what did you do to demonstrate the competency in question
    • Result – what was the outcome
  • Know your CV inside out!  You are going to be asked about competencies you claim to have and how you demonstrated them in your past career so there is no excuse for not knowing exactly what your CV says about you and your employment history

Some typical competencies you can expect to turn up at interview, you can easily imagine how some of these could arise in a typical interview involving a CIMA interviewee;   

  • Continuous development CPD
  • Self Motivated
  • Team player
  • Hands on
  • Catalyst for change
  • Work under pressure
  • Positive attitude
  • Commercial Awareness
  • Decision Making
  • Delivering to tight deadline
  • Relationship building
  • Strong communication
  • Results driven

Most CVs, and certainly the majority of  job specs will refer to the above competencies and it should be relatively easy to have your STAR-based examples ready, clearly demonstrating how you live by them

And then there’s the soft skills which could make all the difference between a good hire and a great hire;

  • Communication (strong communication)
  • Negotiation (business acumen)
  • Influencing (catalyst for change)
  • Critical Thinking (decision making, commercial awareness)
  • Flexibility (Positive attitude, CPD)
  • Resilience (self motivated, work under pressure)
  • Collaboration (relationship building)
  • Problem solving (results driven)
  • Dedication (hands on, delivering to tight deadlines)
  • Empathy (team player)

You will notice that some of the skills can be considered under either category.  Communication as a competency could be all about clear setting out of targets, timelines, standards and deliverables whereas an ability to deal with people at every level of the organisation or to empathise with colleagues would be a ‘softer’ application of the same skill.

So, for interviewers, I think the message is to use CBI questions to establish a skills matrix for the role and clearly understand who can deliver on the tasks while taking a holistic view of all candidates and consider their potential overall impact on your organisation.

And for interviewees, prepare well in advance, have your STAR responses ready for key competencies but assume that the CBI portion of the interview will be a ‘score draw’ among the candidates and start thinking how you can differentiate yourself via your extensive softer skills.

About Rachel Tubridy: 

Rachel Tubridy, Managing Director of People Source has worked in the UK and Irish recruitment markets for more than 15 years across various disciplines spanning entry level to executive, mainly in Finance, hence her decision to help found PeopleSource, a specialist Finance recruitment consultancy.  Previous roles include Head of Marketing at Crone Corkill UK, Country Manager for Michael Page and Partner with Brightwater Executive.  She is driven by her passion for honesty & ownership and brings these values every day to PeopleSource. For further information contact Rachel Tubridy on or call 086 662 9674.