Competency interviewing. Just say no.

Competency based interviewing.  Apparently, it is still a thing.  Who knew?

I do, because this week I had a competency based interview.  I was a bit surprised to be honest.  It had been a while since I’d been through that sort of recruitment process.

It was…… interesting.

Let me add some relevant context.

The role was an interim, employee relations role.  There was a need for deep understanding of employment law.  Lots of experience with leading  people change projects.  Even more experience of working in heavily unionised environments.

They didn’t ask me all that much about that stuff.

What that did ask me was this:

‘Can you tell me about a time that you have worked collaboratively as part of a team?’

I resisted the urge to reply simply: ‘all day, every day’.

It was followed by:

‘Can you give me an example of when you have prioritised your workload?’

For answer, please see above.

Here’s the thing.

I have worked collaboratively as part of a team.  I have a handy example.  I would think most people do.  But past experience doesn’t predict future performance.  With me or anyone else.  My ability to collaborate in the example shared might have been down to a whole range of related factors.  It might have been because I worked in a highly collaborative environment or a great team and the conditions were therefore predisposed to collaboration.  It might have been because I was engaged with my employer or the task in hand.  Equally, I might just be a quick thinker who can make a relevant example up off the top of their head.

There is no guarantee, even with the shiniest answer in the world that scores the most points on a grid, that I am going to be able to replicate what I did before in another organisation or under a different set of circumstances.

Competency based questions like these assess people in the past, not the now or the future.  They tell you nothing about someone’s potential to do a good job other than their ability to find a good example in the moment.

They certainly don’t tell you whether someone could do the job in question, any more than the trend towards questions like ‘if you were a kitchen appliance which one would you be?’ does.*

I’ll take strengths based interviewing over a competency approach any day.  Strengths based interviews allow you to get to know the person in front of you.  What gets them motivated.  What they like doing.  Dislike too.  Assess potential.  You are also much less likely to get some sort of pre-prepared, scripted, generic reply.  They allow candidates to bring their real self, not their example one.

Competency based interviews have had their time.

Let’s start recruiting like its 2017.


PS: I am hoping to hold a Candidate Experience Unconference later this year, to explore how we can work towards better recruitment. If you are interested in coming along, comment below.

*PPS – my answer to the above is easy…. The fridge. Because we are both usually full of chocolate and Prosecco.

32 thoughts on “Competency interviewing. Just say no.

  1. I had a similar experience six months ago. They didn’t ask me any questions that would find out about my ability to do the job – we hardly got to discuss the job at all. I left feeling like I’d had quite a surreal experience.

  2. Candidate Experience Unconference you say…I’m in.

    Competency based interviewing was with me for a long time (as a system I had to work with). Something always felt inadequate about it.

    Would love to help upgrade our selection techniques.

  3. Good stuff Gem. I think it always comes down to the competency if the interviewer!

    I was recently asked ‘can you tell me about a time when you had to intervene between two groups of people who were not acting in accordance with the Values?’

    To be fair I fluffed it but should have perhaps said either:
    a) No, or
    b) I could but what the heck was the manager doing about it?!

    Ps. Count me in for the Unconference

  4. There are no rock solid methods of interviewing, it’s all highly tenuous whatever the latest fad is. Competency based interviewing, done well with proper follow up and detailed probing of any initial glib answers can be very effective (compared, at least, to unstructured interviews).

    Personally, I liked the approach Daniel Kahnemann outlines in his seminal book, Thinking Fast and Slow, which is summarised nicely in this piece: Might be old hat, but it’s a classy hat.

  5. I’m guilty of introducing competency-based selection in a few organisations back in the early 00s. It all seemed to make perfect sense. But later, after having some time away from HR then interviewing to return to the profession, I found out what a ridgid adherence to the format felt like…. not so good…. not a test of my competence at all…. not a great candidate experience. I knew I had a good track record but sometimes I couldn’t recall sufficient detail to the satisfaction of the interviewer. Being in the interviewee chair seemed to be a test of memory or ‘exam technique’ rather than ability: it seemed that any detailed example that fitted the competency description would do regardless of the context and situation behind it. I wanted to scream ‘forget about details of ‘how’ I got there… just listen to the results!’ Please put me on your ‘Unconference’ list, would love to join in the discussion.

  6. yes please to come and play at your unconference. I totally agree with your opinion of competency based interviewing, but then, many interviewers need to have some kind of cheat sheets to make the interview appear competent.

  7. Yes! I absolutely agree! Only a few months back I had an interview where I was asked to give an example of when I had previously prioritised my workload.

    I almost laughed! She may as well of asked if I know how to blink

  8. Well said. An additional thought – an interview is the worst way to select people, apart from all the other ways. We are advocating the creation of long-lasting relationships between employers and pools of potential colleagues outside the company. Less reliance on the artificial environment of the interview. I could go on (and frequently do) but perhaps attending your conference might be a better approach – definitely interested please.

  9. Nice! I had an interview with a NZ tech superstar company. I have led large teams for 15 years in HR and OD. I was asked if I had ever led a team and if so, to tell them about the experience! Even more, I was asked to tell them about a time that I had written an HR policy! Worst I think is they hadn’t even read my CV, and the questions were old school and totally off the mark.

  10. This article made me feel so much better after a hideous experience I had with a competency based interview in January. It was like they were trying to fit me into a mold. I was completely stumped and unable to answer their questions and came away feeling they knew nothing about me. Coupled with the fact they didn’t even have the courtesy to tell me I wasn’t being taken to the next round (fair play, I was terrible) despite them expecting me to hold the date in my diary, I was left with a very bad taste in my mouth and a very dim view of that organisation. It’s a shame, I would probably have made an excellent freelance trainer for them had they taken the time to get to know what I could offer them.

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