How to Smash a Competency Based Interview

You know how it goes, you walk into an interview, and you think you have done a good amount of research about the company and you are ready, but it can be daunting and make you nervous because you have no idea what they are going to ask you about, or do you?


Following on from my top tips for employers on managing a fair and consistent recruitment process, in this blog, I am focusing on helping those looking for a role.  Competency based interviewing is still very common and it is a way that employers can ask you to demonstrate your competency or level of knowledge, skills and experience through storytelling to bring the examples written on your CV to life.


You might feel there is little preparation you can do, but I disagree.  The questions you are asked in an interview should be based on the job description and more importantly the accompanying person specification.  By carefully reviewing these documents ahead of an interview you can make a good estimation of the topics the interviewers might cover based on the key things required for the role.  With this knowledge you can prepare some stories to tell in advance so that you are not thrown off balance when you are put on the spot and asked to “Tell me about a time when……”


One proven method for successfully responding to a competency-based interview question is to follow the STAR method of response:

S              Situation

Describe a situation and when it took place, what happened, what was the problem that needed addressing or solving?

T              Task

What was the task and what was the goal or expected outcome?

A             Action

Tell me about the action or actions you took to solve the problem or deal with the situation, how did you meet your goal?

R             Results and Reflections


The STAR model itself usually stops at results, but for me as an experienced interviewer if I can see you reflected on that situation and have learnt something from it that’s even better. I am interested to know if you would do exactly the same thing again because it was so successful or would you change something as you had some challenges along the way. Crazily we learn so much more from failure than we do from wins and successes and I think it shows great self-awareness and a commitment to growth and development if you can look back, reflect, learn and move forward.⠀


As an example, if a Customer Service role requires you to have great communication skills which you can adapt to manage different situations, the interviewer might ask you to tell them about a time when you managed a very unhappy customer and how you adapted your communication to resolve matters.  So you can plan a response to:

  • describe a time when you had a difficult or unhappy customer and what their problem was,
  • explain the task ahead of you to resolve the problem and what the expected outcome was for the customer,
  • set out the actions you took to communicate with them which might have been empathising with them to gain their trust and explaining the challenges you face and discussing a solution with them, perhaps following up by email and delivering on your promises,
  • explain the result and how the customer felt, and
  • say whether you would do the same again, or try something different next time and explain your learnings.

Give it a try and let me know how you got on.


Don’t forget having some pre-prepared questions ready for the end of the interview is also good practice.  Here are some ideas for questions (some mine and some courtesy of, you could ask:

  • I can see from my research and your website that your company does/sells …………., what is the company’s key focus/driver for the next 3-6 months?
  • What opportunities are there for development and growth within this role and the wider business? or Do you run training or development programmes?⠀
  • I have heard you have a good package of benefits and support for employees, tell me more about this? (probably a second interview q).⠀
  • How would you describe the culture of the company and do you have a social committee with a programme of events?
  • What are the next steps in the process?
  • Why do you think your company is a great place to work?⠀
  • Is this a new role or replacing an existent role – will there be a handover?⠀
  • How many other people are there in the team?⠀
  • What would my usual day to day responsibilities be or what would an average day look like?⠀
  • How would you describe your ideal candidate?⠀
  • If I was given a copy of a recent staff survey, what would your employees say about working here?


Finally, be aware that there are certain questions employers simply shouldn’t ask you about in an interview.  The Equality Act 2010 set out that discrimination in recruitment and selection of employees is illegal.  Recruitment and selection decisions should not be made on the basis of what we call the protected characteristics (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation).  Recruiters and hiring managers should be recruiting on the basis of the skills needed for the job role advertised and their questioning should be focused on the person specification for the role.  What does that look like in reality?


An interviewer shouldn’t ask you:

How old you are

Your race, ethnicity, or place of birth

Whether you are married or not, or co-habiting and what your spouse or partner’s job is

Your gender or sexual orientation

Whether you have or are planning to have children and what childcare you have in place

Your religion

Whether you have any health conditions or the number of sick days you have had off in the last year/job, or are you categorised as disabled

What your retirement plans are


There are some very specific and unique exceptions to this such as a domestic abuse support organisation that looks after women leaving a domestic abuse scenario, they will be able to recruit women only because the victims wouldn’t feel safe with male staff.  An exception of this nature would be an essential role requirement and would be outlined in a job advert with the reason for why the exemption exists.  The Company would need to be able to justify why they can make this judgement.


If you are asked any of these questions that you feel are discriminatory, you can decline to answer and you could ask how your answer might be relevant to the job role and your selection.  Sadly, you probably wouldn’t get the job for challenging it, but applicants have been known to make a complaint to an organisation and there have been cases where applicants have pursued companies for direct or indirect discrimination.


I would really love to hear if this advice has been helpful and if it enabled you to feel more confident and prepared going into an interview as a result.

Good luck

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