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Tips for Effective Competency-Based Interviewing

Effective interviews are not easy – as the interviewer you need to be well prepared. (And it goes without saying that the interviewee also needs to be well prepared!) Map out the questions you want to ask the candidate. Do a thorough review of the candidate’s resume – highlight areas where you would like to learn more. A competency-based interview can be even tougher.

A key part of a competency-based interview is to look at the candidate’s past experience in depth.  Past experience is often a great prediction of how the candidate will perform in the job for which he/she is being considered.  When interviewing candidates, I look at how they have approached issues in the past, what they learned from their approach (especially if it didn’t work out quite as they intended), and how they applied what they learned in future situations.  I want the candidate to tell me stories about their past experiences.  It isn’t sufficient for a candidate to tell me that he is really good at managing people.  I want examples.  And I want examples that show me how he manages individuals with various goals and different personalities.   The interview questions, and the candidate’s responses, help determine if the candidate has the competencies necessary to be successful in the role.  Competency-based interviews do not replace technical interviews and your interview should also cover the technical requirements of the job (for example, knowledge on Microsoft SharePoint and experience building customer portals using SharePoint.)

Before we get to the types of questions you may ask a candidate to determine if they are right for the job, let’s cover the questions you obviously should NOT ask because it is illegal or inappropriate to do so. I am not an attorney so there may be many more questions you should not ask – but these are some of the common ones:

  • Questions about or around race, religion, ethnic background, nationality, sexual orientation, marital status, number or age of children, whether or not the individual needs health care insurance or benefits, disabilities, politics and/or any controversial issues.   For example, if the job involves traveling, you wouldn’t ask the candidate if they have young children that would make it difficult for them to travel.

To make it easier, think of it this way, if the question is not directly related or relevant to a requirement of the position for which the candidate is interviewing, do not ask it.  I would highly recommend you contact your HR department to determine what questions should/should not be asked – especially if you have any doubts.

A Framework for Interviewing

Here is a basic framework for interviewing that you may find of use in your next interview.

  • Introductions, welcome the candidate, and have some general conversation to make the person feel more comfortable – such as the weather, upcoming local events  (holidays, town celebrations, etc.). <I sometimes start this while walking the person to my office for the interview.>
  • Let the candidate know that you will take notes during the interview and that during the interview you will ask questions designed to understand whether there is a match between the needs of the position and the candidate’s background and goals. Let the candidate know that the questions will be designed so that the candidate can share information about their past experiences, and that he/she will also have the opportunity to ask questions about the position, working within the company, etc. The point of the interview is so you both can determine if there is a fit with the organization.
  • For an hour interview – allocate about 50 minutes for you to ask scenario-based questions and about 10 minutes for the candidate to ask questions.  For higher level positions, the interviews I conduct usually last about 90 minutes in duration and I might ask questions of the candidate for about 60 minutes or so. (Scenario-based questions help me to determine how the candidate thinks through issues and problem solves.  I’m not looking for a right answer necessarily – but rather to get some insight into the candidate’s thinking process.  I have provided the candidate a mini case study and given them time to read it and then respond to it.)
  • Close the interview and thank the candidate for his/her time, discuss next steps.  Ask if the candidate has any additional questions or if there is something that was not covered that they would like to share relevant to the position and their ability to do the job.

The Flow of the Interview

By asking probing questions, you begin to understand more about the candidate.  For example, I might start an interview with a question such as:

“Tell me about a time when you had to talk with a direct report about his/her poor performance on a project team.”

Follow up the question with more questions based on the candidate’s response to probe further and get more details:

  • How did the situation occur – who recognized the problem?
  • How long had it been going on?
  • What happened next?
  • How did you approach the individual?
  • What did you say?
  • How did the other person react?
  • What did the other person say?
  • What steps did you take to correct the issue?
  • What did you do to ensure it wouldn’t happen again?
  • What was the outcome?

For another example, you may ask the candidate a question such as:

“Tell me about a time when you disagreed with a decision made by your manager.”

Follow up questions may include:

  • How did you initially feel about the decision your boss made?
  • How did you decide to approach him/her?  How did you prepare?
  • What did you say?
  • What did he/she say?
  • What was the outcome? Were you satisfied?
  • How were you feeling?
  • What was most difficult about approaching your manager?


By asking detailed questions that require the candidate to tell you a story, you begin to learn much more about the candidate and their experiences, how they handle situations, and how they interact with others.  Through this, you have a better understanding of their fit for the position and the organization.   The questions you asked should align to the competencies required for the role.  For example, if the role requires an individual to be able to lead global teams – ask questions about how they have done this in the past.  Every new employee will have a learning curve on the job – they need to get up to speed on the culture, the way of working within the organization, etc.  – but choosing a candidate who has the necessary experience in his/her background that best matches the role you have available will ensure a more successful and quicker transition period.

Share some of your experiences – either as an interviewer or an interviewee – in the Comments field below.  Thanks!