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Competencies Interviewing

3 Ways Competency-based Interviews Improve Hiring Outcomes

By Kelly Craig on March, 4 2016
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Kelly Craig

Interviewing is a resource-intensive but crucial part of the hiring process. 

While a growing number of organizations use automated software solutions to screen and short-list the most promising resumes, no technology exists that can perform the function of a human interviewer.

Unfortunately, human interviewers are prone to human error, which is why, according to a University of Michigan study, most job interviews are no more effective at predicting job performance than flipping a coin. Interviewers tend to overestimate their abilities and underestimate their vulnerabilities as objective observers. They make snap judgments. They trust their gut or their intuition. And they ignore meaningful data.

In fact, research from Jobvite, The Undercover Recruiter, and Work4 shows that a staggering number of interviewers reject interviewees for all the wrong reasons, such as being too fashionable or trendy (70%), having bad posture (33%), or having a weak handshake (26%).

While presentation plays an important role in the interview process, a company that rejects people based on superficial criteria is simply not going to bring the best talent into their organizations. That candidate who slumps in her chair could be a gifted and dedicated programmer. The candidate with a weak handshake could be a strong and inspiring leader.

The purpose of an interview isn’t to provide a visual snapshot of the candidate, but to uncover the bigger story: when organizations fail to do this, they’re guaranteed to lose the talent wars.

These three tips will help to keep your interviewing process focused on what matters, reduce the effects of bias, and uncover each candidate’s true capabilities.

  1. Avoid hypothetical questions.

Many interviewers rely on hypothetical questions (“What would you do if…”) to gauge a candidate’s performance. But while hypotheticals may test a candidate’s knowledge, they don’t tell you anything about their behaviors.

For example, if you ask, “What would you do if a customer called in with a complaint?” you may gain insight into their knowledge of customer service best practices, their judgment, or their reasoning abilities. However, you’re not learning anything about how they actually respond to the issue in a real-world context.

Past performance is the best indicator of future behavior, which is why the majority of your questions should begin, “Can you tell me about a time when you…” Research published in the Journal of Occupational Studies and Personnel Studies confirms that behavioral questions outperform situational questions as a means of identifying successful candidates.

How competencies help: Competency-based interviews can help to keep things firmly planted in reality, because competencies define those crucial on-the-job behaviors that define success. Let’s take the example of a customer support representative.

The position’s competency profile specifies the “client focus” competency at a level-one proficiency, which means that successful performers “are able to shows clients or customers that their perspectives are valued.”

To explore the candidate’s past performance in this area, the interviewer asks, “Can you tell me about a time when you showed a client or customer that their perspectives were valued?”


  1. Structure the interview process

The single most important thing you can do to improve interviewing outcomes is to structure the interviewing process. Meta-studies on the topic confirm that structured interviews are measurably more effective than unstructured interviews. A structured interview involves developing an interview script and measurement methodology and sticking to them closely.

The script will include a list of initial questions, a series of follow-up questions designed to elicit additional information as needed, and a consistent scoring mechanism that enables you to evaluate the responses and assign a numeric value that indicates whether the candidate’s answer demonstrated below-average, average, or above-average capability.

How competencies help: Because competencies are a highly structured way of defining job performance, they lend themselves to structured interview processes. Most organizations develop a set of questions for each competency in the organization, so that interview scripts can be quickly assembled based on the competency requirements of the job.

Every candidate is asked the same questions, and those questions are anchored firmly to the job requirements, ensuring both the consistency and the relevancy of the interview process.

Software such as HRSG’s CompetencyCore (which features built-in interview guides linked to competenciescan improve consistency even further by enabling organizations to centralize their competencies and related question banks in the cloud. Interviewers can then generate an approved, competency-based interview script for a specific job at any time.

Take a sneak peek at how to easily create quality interview guides!
  1. Evaluate both “soft” and hard skills

While the competition for hard skills is heating up, the importance of soft skills in virtually every industry and role is steadily increasing. But many interviewers find it challenging to probe a candidate’s soft skills.

How do you evaluate skills such as empathy, integrity, and initiative? Asking an interviewee to tell you about a time when they “demonstrated empathy” is unnecessarily vague and intimidating, and it’s unlikely to yield quality input. Yet those capabilities need to be quantified in order to build a complete picture of the candidate’s potential.

How competencies help: While technical competencies define specialized workplace skills, general competencies cover the several dozen soft skills that are increasingly essential in the workplace—skills such as teamwork, adaptability, decision-making, and work ethics.

More importantly, competencies translate each of these soft skills into observable, on-the-job behaviors, so that interviewers can formulate questions that are specific and produce more quantifiable, less ambiguous responses.

For example, if successful performance requires empathy at a level-two proficiency, the interviewer can use the behavioral indicator to formulate a specific question: “Can you tell me about a time when you coordinated efforts among others to help team members facing challenges?”

This is a much easier question to answer, and the response will provide more meaningful feedback.


Additional interview tips:

  • In addition to the initial question, prepare structured follow-up questions to elicit deeper responses and force candidates to go beyond the answers they may have rehearsed for the interview.
  • Involve at least two other colleagues in the decision-making process: one who holds a similar role in the company, and one whose role is different, but requires interaction with the role to be filled.
  • While the scoring mechanism should be the same for every question (a 1-5 sliding scale, for example), the weights allocated to those scores should be higher for competencies that are most essential.
  • Keep social and small talk to a minimum. While being friendly can help to put the candidate at ease, unscripted chat can easily reveal something personal that could trigger a bias.
  • Avoid discussing the candidates with other evaluators until all the interviews are completed and scored. This ensures that each interviewer can form an uninfluenced opinion of each candidate.


Want to see how you can improve your hiring processes with a competency-based approach?

Click the button below to access our Complete Guide to Running Competency-based Interviews PDF (no information required). 

View the Guide →


Post last updated: June 25, 2020.