Tuesday, 14 August 2012

What's Your Problem series #5 - Answering Competency Questions Successfully

Many interviews these days will include some competency-type questions, if not be solely based upon a full blown competency framework with few, if any, ‘normal’ questions included.

So what are ‘competency questions’?  They are based upon a framework that described the ‘competencies’, or behaviours, knowledge and skills, that need to be displayed in order to carry out the responsibilities of the job effectively.  Competency questions are calling for evidence that the candidate has exhibited these behaviours, in situations similar to those likely to arise in the role, in previous jobs or other activities.

A competency framework usually has several levels for each competency, for example corresponding to behaviours that indicate a novice, practitioner or expert level of competence at a particular activity.  An interviewer may therefore have several example answers they are looking for, which correspond to these levels.

What do competency questions look like?  Since they are asking you for evidence of certain behaviour in the past, they are generally calling for you to give examples of having done things before.  Some examples might be:
  • Tell me about a time when you dealt with a difficult customer
  •  Describe a situation where you had to win consensus for a course of action
  • Give me an example of how you researched a question from a user
  • Tell me about a time when you worked in a team to achieve something

The interviewer is hoping that you will tell them about how you did things in the situation they’ve described, since that will give them an indication of how you could behave in similar situations in their organisation.

In order to answer these questions successfully, you need to have prepared quite a few examples of different tasks you’ve done or situations you’ve been in, so you don’t have to rely on one example to answer several different questions, as well as thinking through how you dealt with those tasks and situations.  When you prepare your answers to these questions, a useful framework to use is the STAR framework.

This acronym stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result.  Since the interviewer wants to hear about how you did things, and whether it was a success, you need to focus on the Action and Result parts in your answer.  Talk briefly about the situation, describe the task you had (ie, your goal in that situation), and then go into a bit more detail about the action(s) that you took to try and achieve this goal, and about the actual outcome or result of those actions.

Taking the first example question above, here is one potential answer to it, using the STAR formula:

“I once had a user who was very upset that we didn’t have a particular book on the shelves the day they came in.  They said they didn’t have time to come back and it was a disgrace that we couldn’t keep popular books in stock.”  (situation) 

“I had to calm the person down, explain to them why the book wasn’t available, and try and find a solution to their problem of getting access to it.”  (task) 

“First of all I showed that I appreciated it was an upsetting situation for them by saying ‘I agree it’s frustrating the book isn’t here immediately’, then I got their permission to start explaining by saying ‘would you like me to explain how this has happened’.  Next I told them how many copies of that book we had in total, and when each copy had been signed out, and so when the earliest of those was due to be returned.  I said that we can only stock so many copies of each book, so that we can have a full range of books available.  Lastly I explained that they could reserve the book, and we’d contact them to let them know when it was available, so they wouldn’t have to come in again on the off-chance but only safe in the knowledge it would be here waiting.”  (actions)

“They gradually calmed down as we were talking, and agreed that we couldn’t stock unlimited copies of each book.  They were surprised to hear about the reservations procedure and asked if they could reserve a book without coming in face-to-face, so I told them about phone and online reservations.  They were pleased about this and said they’d do that next time.” (result)

When you go into your interview, it’s a good idea to take a notepad, ask the interviewer ‘is it OK if I take a few notes?’ and then have it sitting in front of you.  So that you can remember your examples, prepare your notebook in advance by writing keywords that will job your memory in light pencil at the bottom of the page (ie the part nearest to you when the notebook is on the table).  You can then just glance down and quickly remind yourself, if your mind goes blank from nerves during the interview.  You can use the top part of the notepad to takes notes of the answer the interviewer gives to all the questions you have prepared!


  1. This was a really useful blog post, especially the tip about the notebook, thanks!

  2. Hi Annie
    Thank you for commenting, and I'm glad it's a useful one :)

  3. Even having the notebook there is a good prop. I have usually rehearsed everthing several times and so don't even need to look at my notes, but so reassuring to have it there.
    Great post!

  4. Hi Liz
    Thanks for commenting, and I agree that sometimes just knowing it's there calms the nerves enough that you don't need it - I find the same thing with notes for presentations!