The Problem with Competency-Based Interviewing – An Alternative Approach

The Problem with Competency-Based Interviewing – An Alternative Approach

81% of the reason why people fail in their roles or do not pass their probation period comes down to attitude and behaviour. It’s that slightly intangible thing that we only really see when we get away from the recruitment interview and actually see the person doing their thing at work once hired.

For example, the individual who isn’t actually that flexible, is quite rigid in their approach and becomes quite angry when challenged. They aren’t approachable, this starts to affect working relationships and we wonder whether we made the right decision in recruiting them into the role!

Competency-based interviewing practices are a very established way of trying to understand behaviour during the recruitment process. You know the thing: it’s where we ask stuff like:

  • Give me an example of a time when you successfully influenced someone?
  • Tell me about a time when you gave good customer service.

They can be of great benefit: they are non-discriminatory, useful to get under the hood of behaviour and helps to set apart the good from not so good candidates. But in this insight we are going to focus on five potential issues/problems we have picked up during our time training behavioural interviewing to organisations and a few answers to help move you forwards.

Five Problems And Some Solutions….

Problem One – The number of competencies

It’s often the case that I am forced as interviewer to go through lots of ‘essential’ competencies in an interview. The issue is that competencies such as commercial awareness or influencing or strategic orientation are not things, I can give just ten minutes to. The interview might be barely an hour long or so long and I’m expected to delve into eight competencies!

A Solution

Think 80/20 principle: what are the three competencies that will have most impact in the role I’m recruiting for? I can then spend more time on each one and stand a better chance of getting the person I need.

Problem Two – Static job descriptions!

Job descriptions/specs are often static, historical documents that have a list of competencies that

someone decided were required for the role five years ago! I compliantly then decide these must

be the ones I interview against and end up with too many competencies as above or the wrong ones.

A Solution

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 we have and are deficient in etc. We need to stop taking the rigid approach around assigning the same competencies to a job role that must apply every time.

Problem Three – Too many 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 for.

A Solution

Take out the leading elements of the question and turn things into a two-way conversation instead.

Why not ask ‘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. 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

We ask a question, do a couple of follow-ups and then that’s the complex subjects of influencing or

strategic thinking done and on to the next competency!

A Solution

Spend a lot more time on 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. A lot of answers are scripted and designed to tell you about all the great results! – Forensically interview to understand habits

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 sometimes ask others to get involved and do another interview because we’re “not sure”.

A Solution

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 interviewee 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.

So, 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!

By Paul Marsh, Lightbulb

Paul delivers new, original, practical, ‘non-gimmicky’ tools and techniques: Life At Work. Made Simple. Contact him at for more information.

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